Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr (June 21, 1892- June 1, 1971) was a Protestant theologian best known for his study of the task of relating the Christian faith to the reality of modern politics and diplomacy. He is a crucial contributor to modern just war thinking and a proponent of Karl Barth's neo-orthodoxy.

Niebuhr was born in Wright City, Missouri, USA, the son of a liberally minded German-American pastor, Gustav, and the brother of Helmut Richard Niebuhr. Niebuhr decided to follow in his father's footsteps and enter the ministry. He attended Elmhurst College, Illinois, graduating in 1910 and then going on to Eden Seminary St. Louis, Missouri. Finally he attended Yale University where he received his Bachelor of Divinity Degree in 1914. In 1915 he was ordained a pastor and spent the next thirteen years serving the Evangelical Church in Detroit.

During the outbreak of World War II, the pacifist leanings of his liberal roots were brought under challenge and he began to distance himself from the pacifism of his more liberal colleagues, becoming a staunch advocate for the war.

The writings of Niebuhr are placed squarely in the middle of a very painful time in the history of the world and of America. Having suffered one World War and a Great Depression, Niebuhr wrote about the injustice of humanity and the need for people to tear down the systems that increased the injustice in the world. In particular Niebuhr saw the rise of totalitarian fascism and the horrors of World War II Europe. But his struggle was not solely against a supposed axis of evil rather he wrote concerning the need for a form of democracy that empowered people and rid the world of the human sin of lording power over others. In the beginnings of his work as a vocal social justice proponent he was a strong democratic socialist. Railing against Franklin Delano Roosevelts New Deal as being unattainable, after the war he saw his writing as too idealistic and began to fall into line with the New Deal and the Vital Center of the democratic party in America.

His, along with many others, writings had a huge impact on how America saw itself in the post war world. Niebuhr unintentionally developed in the American psyche a sort of mythological worker of justice in the world. Niebuhr did not actually subscribe to this notion of America and always warned against this type of ideology. Niebuhr was optimistic of America, though, in the sense that he saw a move in the right direction despite the failure of racial concerns in American to build up justice or the failure of Americas foreign policy in Vietnam.

So, the writings and work of Niebuhr are part of the building back up of the world after the devastation of the two world wars and the depressions that occurred during this time. It was a move to understand humanity's sinfulness and an attempt to find a way to curb the growth of injustice that Niebuhr saw was inherent in any social ordering. Or as Niebuhr himself puts it reflecting on the work of America to attain this goal, We have attained a certain equilibrium in economic society by setting organized power against organized power. In as much, Niebuhrs work was a great voice within the rising tide of welfare capitalism.


  • Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study of Ethics and Politics (1932) ISBN 0664224741
  • Beyond Tragedy: Essays on the Christian Interpretation of Tragedy (1937) ASIN 0684718537
  • The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation (1941) ISBN 0664257097 Volume one: Human Nature, Volume two: Human Destiny; from the Gifford Lectures.
  • Faith and History (1949) ASIN 0684153181
  • The Irony of American History (1952) ASIN 0684151227
  • Christian Realism and Political Problems (1953) ASIN 0678027579
  • Pious and Secular America (1958) ASIN 0678027560
  • The Structure of Nations and Empires (1959) ISBN 0678027552
  • The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1974) ASIN 0023875305
  • The Self and the Dramas of History ASIN B00005WST3

Niebuhr is often credited with authorship of the Serenity Prayer used by Alcoholics Anonymous. On this he said: "Of course, it may have been spooking around for years, even centuries, but I don't think so. I honestly do believe that I wrote it myself."

While teaching theology at Union Theological Seminary Niebuhr influenced Dietrich Bonhoeffer of the anti-Nazi Confessing Church.

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