The Niebuhr Legacy

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The Niebuhrs at Elmhurst

The brothers’ commitment to scholarship, service and social justice continues to inform the mission of the College.

Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr, brothers from downstate Illinois, studied at Elmhurst College in the early twentieth century.

While remarkably bright, the Niebuhrs in most respects were archetypal Elmhurst students of the day. Products of a farm town, the sons of an immigrant pastor and his wife, they aspired to careers in teaching and the ministry. Reinhold arrived at Elmhurst first, taking the train from Lincoln, Illinois, on September 2, 1907; Richard followed a year later. It is not too much to say that over the next two decades, the Niebuhrs—first Reinhold, then Richard—shaped the history of the College.

The Niebuhr brothers were instrumental in transforming Elmhurst from a German-language secondary school into a liberal arts college with high academic standards. Their impact on Elmhurst began during their student years. Reinhold led a successful effort to upgrade the faculty. Richard served as an editor of The Keryx, a literary journal dedicated to the creation of “a real college at Elmhurst.”

As an alumnus in the early 1920s, Reinhold led a fund-raising effort to build the College’s first free-standing library, a structure that still serves the institution today as Memorial Hall.

In 1924, Richard Niebuhr became the College’s sixth president. He undertook a dramatic reform of the entire academic enterprise. He built laboratories, hired a talented and progressive faculty, strengthened course offerings across the disciplines and expanded library holdings at an astonishing pace.

The Niebuhr brothers both went on to build careers as original, influential and socially engaged American theologians. For the rest of their lives, each returned from time to time to visit the campus on which they had left a valuable mark.

Today it would be difficult to spend much time at Elmhurst without encountering the legacy of Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr. The brothers’ commitment to scholarship, service and social justice continues to inform the institution’s mission. The College’s most prestigious award is named for the brothers, as is the Niebuhr Center, a service-oriented academic program for faith-motivated students.

Photo: Elmhurst College graduates at Eden Theological Seminary, 1914. Reinhold Niebuhr, far left; H. Richard Niebuhr, far right.

Additional Resources

Elmhurst College History
Elmhurst has been preparing students for purposeful lives since 1871. Read more about the College's story.

The Niebuhr Center
The Niebuhr Center at Elmhurst encourages social engagment among faith-motivated students through an integrated set of programs and activities.

Niebuhr Forum on Religion in Public Life
Elmhurst College marked the graduation centennial of the Niebuhrs with a forum for scholars to address issues pertaining to the role and impact of religion and religious discourse.

The Niebuhr Lecture
In honor of the Niebuhrs, Elmhurst's annual theological lecture investigates faith in public life.

The Niebuhr Medal
Elmhurst College's highest honor recognizes "extraordinary service to humanity."

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