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Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr (June 21, 1892June 1, 1971) was an Americanmarker theologian. A Protestant, he is best known for his study of the task of relating the Christian faith to the realities of modern politics and diplomacy. He was an important contributor to modern "just war" thinking.

Personal history

Niebuhr was born in Wright City, Missourimarker, USAmarker, son of German Evangelical pastor Gustav Niebuhr and his wife. Reinhold had a younger brother Helmut Richard Niebuhr. Both sons decided to follow in their father's footsteps and enter the ministry. Reinhold Niebuhr attended Elmhurst College in Illinoismarker and graduated in 1910. He then studied at Eden Theological Seminarymarker in Webster Groves, Missourimarker. Finally, Niebuhr attended Yale Universitymarker, where he earned his Bachelor of Divinity Degree in 1914 and was a member of Alpha Sigma Phi Fraternity. In 1915, Niebuhr was ordained a pastor.

The German Evangelical mission board sent Niebuhr to serve in Detroit, Michiganmarker. The congregation numbered sixty-five on his arrival and grew to nearly 700 by the time he left in 1928. The increase reflected the tremendous growth of population attracted to jobs in the booming automobile industry.

During his pastorate, Niebuhr was troubled by the demoralizing effects of industrialism on workers. He became an outspoken critic of Henry Ford and allowed union organizers to use his pulpit to expound their message of workers' rights. Niebuhr documented inhumane conditions created by the assembly lines and erratic employment practices.

Niebuhr also spoke out against the Ku Klux Klan, which had been revived in 1915 and reached the peak of its influence during the 1920s in several major Midwestern and Western cities. Half of Michigan's 70,000 Klan members lived in Detroit at the height of the group's power, and a Klan candidate nearly won the race for mayor in 1924. Niebuhr said the Klan was "one of the worst specific social phenomena which the religious pride of peoples has ever developed."

In 1923, Niebuhr visited Europe to meet with intellectuals and theologians. The conditions he saw in Germany under the French occupation dismayed Niebuhr and reinforced the pacifist views he had adopted after World War I.

In 1928, Niebuhr left Detroit to become Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminarymarker in New York. He spent most of the rest of his career there, until 1960. While teaching theology at Union Theological Seminary, Niebuhr influenced many generations of students, including German minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer of the anti-Nazi Confessing Church.

Before arriving at the seminary, Niebuhr captured his personal experiences at his Detroit church in his book Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. He continued to write and publish throughout his career, and also served as editor of the magazine Christianity and Crisis from 1941 through 1966.

Niebuhr was among the group of 51 prominent U.S. citizens that formed the International Relief Association (IRA) what is today known as the International Rescue Committee (IRC). Some others included philosopher John Dewey and writer John Dos Passos.The committee mission, as the The New York Times reports July 24, 1933, was to "assist Germans suffering from the policies of the Hitler regime."

Political efforts

During the 1930s, Niebuhr was a prominent leader of the militant faction of the Socialist Party of America. He promoted adoption of the United front agenda of the Communist Party USA, a position in sharp contrast to ideas later in his career. According to the autobiography of his factional opponent Louis Waldman , Niebuhr even led military drill exercises among the young members.

During the outbreak of World War II, the pacifist leanings of his liberal roots were challenged. Niebuhr began to distance himself from the pacifism of his more liberal colleagues and became a staunch advocate for the war. Niebuhr soon left the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a peace-oriented group of theologians and ministers, and became one of their harshest critics. This departure from his peers evolved into a movement known as Christian Realism. Niebuhr is widely considered to have been its primary advocate. Christian Realism provided a more tough-minded approach to politics than did the idealism of many of Niebuhr's contemporaries. Within the framework of Christian Realism, Niebuhr became a supporter of U.S. action in World War II, anti-communism, and the development of nuclear weapons. However, his approach was not dogmatic, and he opposed the Vietnam War.

Niebuhr and Judaism

Over the course of both his pastoral and academic careers, Niebuhr made several bold assertions regarding Judaism. As a pastor in Detroit (at 30 years of age), he favored conversion of Jews to Christianity. He scolded evangelical Christians who then mostly ignored those of Jewish faith. He did so by speaking out against "the unchristlike attitude of Christians" and what he then saw as his fellow Christian's "Jewish bigotry."

Becoming alarmed about the situation of Jews in Germany, Niebuhr wrote several articles regarding the pre- and post-World War II plight of European Jews: "It Might Have Been" (Evangelical Herald, March 29, 1923, page 202); "The Rapprochement Between Jews and Christians" (Christian Century, January 7, 1926, pages 9–11); "Germany Must Be Told" (Christian Century, August 9, 1933, pages 1014-1015, and a Letter to the Editor related to this article, same journal May 27, 1936, p. 771). His 1933 article in the Christian Century was an attempt to sound the alarm within the Christian community over Hitler's "cultural annihilation of the Jews." In "Jews After the War" (in 2 parts, Nation February 21 and February 28, 1942, pages 214-216 and 253-255), Niebuhr tried to anticipate what the post-war environment would be like. Eventually Niebuhr's theology evolved to the point where "He [became] perhaps the first Christian theologian with ecumenical influence who developed a view of the relations between Christianity and Judaism that made it inappropriate for Christians to seek to convert Jews to their faith."

Philosophical writings

In 1952, Niebuhr published The Irony of American History, in which he shared the various struggles (political, ideological, moral and religious) in which he participated. His writings reflect a penetrating criticism of the social gospel liberalism of his youth and his search for alternatives. For a while he tried to integrate various elements of Marxism and Christianity. Both his political experience and his deepening Christian values, however, caused him to abandon the work in favor of an ideology he called Christian Realism. Its views combined elements of the Augustinianism of the Reformation with his own hard-won political wisdom. His concepts were crystallized in the Gifford Lectures of Edinburgh University in 1940 as The Nature and Destiny of Man, which is his magnum opus. In it he comes near a systematic presentation of his theology.

Niebuhr worked in the middle of a painful time in the history of the world and of the United States. Having suffered one World War and the 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 the rise of fascism and the horrors of World War II in Europe, Niebuhr saw an evil that demanded opposition by force, even by Christians. Taking this lesson further, he wrote concerning the need for a form of democracy that would empower 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, Niebuhr was a strong democratic socialist. Having once railed against Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal as being unattainable, after the war Niebuhr became more pragmatic. He began to support the New Deal and the vital center of the Democratic Party. Niebuhr’s work contributed to concepts that supported a role for government in protecting and supporting people.

Serenity Prayer

The earliest known version of the prayer, from 1937, has been found in a Christian student newsletter ("The Intercollegian and Far Horizons"), which claimed to reprint the prayer from an earlier edition of the newsletter, and attributes the prayer to Niebuhr in this form:

"Father, give us courage to change what must be altered, serenity to accept what cannot be helped, and the insight to know the one from the other."

The most popular version, whose authorship is unknown, reads:

"God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,Courage to change the things I can change,And wisdom to know the difference."

The longest version has these additional lines:

"Living one day at a time;Enjoying one moment at a time;Accepting hardships as the pathway to peace;Taking, as He did, this sinful world as it is, not as I would have it;Trusting that He will make all things right if I surrender to His Will;That I may be reasonably happy in this life and supremely happy with Him Forever in the next. Amen."

The prayer is frequently used by Alcoholics Anonymous, which uses it in a slightly different form. An Alcoholics Anonymous website reports: "What is undisputed is the claim of authorship by the theologian Dr. Rheinhold [sic] Niebuhr, who recounted to interviewers on several occasions that he had written the prayer as a 'tag line' to a sermon he had delivered on Practical Christianity. Yet even Dr. Niebuhr added at least a touch of doubt to his claim when he told one interviewer, '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.'"

His claim to authorship was supported in detail by his daughter, Elisabeth Sifton, in The Serenity Prayer (2003), where she said that her father first wrote it in 1943. In 2008, Yale Book of Quotations editor Fred R. Shapiro cast doubt on Niebuhr's claim of authorship. He demonstrated the prayer was in circulation by 1936 but not attributed to Niebuhr until 1942. However, he acknowledged the possibility that Niebuhr introduced the prayer by the mid-1930s in an unpublished or private setting. Sifton, in a response published with Shapiro's article, argues that the prayer must have come from one of the tradition's most gifted practitioners, which she believes could only be her father. In 2009, Duke University librarian Stephen Goranson unearthed the copy of the prayer from 1937 (above). In response to this finding, Shapiro conceded that "The new evidence does not prove that Reinhold Niebuhr wrote [the [prayer], but it does significantly improve the likelihood that he was the originator."

Influence and honors

Niebuhr exerted a significant influence upon mainline Protestant clergy in the years immediately following World War II, much of it in concord with the neo-orthodox and the related biblical theology movements. However, that influence began to wane and then precipitously drop toward the end of his life, when American liberals began to embrace pacifism again in light of the Vietnam War and adopted a more optimistic attitude toward human capabilities, a return of sorts to what Niebuhr would have termed Pelagian Enlightenment sensibilities. By the time of his death, the liberation theology of Latin America, diametrically opposed ethically to Niebuhr's realistic thought, began to make its influence felt in American seminaries, as did other activist causes such as feminism and gay rights.

Historian Arthur Schlesinger described the legacy of Niebuhr as being contested between American liberals and conservatives, who both wanted to claim him. Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave credit to Niebuhr's influence. Foreign-policy conservatives point to Niebuhr's support of the containment doctrine during the Cold War as an instance of moral realism; progressives cite his later opposition to the Vietnam War.

His legacy continues to be important to contemporary thought. Both major-party candidates in the 2008 presidential election cited Niebuhr as an influence: Senator John McCain, in his work Hard Call, "celebrated Niebuhr as a paragon of clarity about the costs of a good war." President Barack Obama called Niebuhr his "favorite philosopher" and "favorite theologian".

Kenneth Waltz's seminal work on international relations theory, Man, the State, and War, includes many references to Niebuhr's thought. Waltz emphasizes Niebuhr's contributions to political realism, especially "the impossibility of human perfection."

Andrew Bacevich's book The Limits of Power: The End of American Exceptionalism refers to Niebuhr 13 times. Bacevich emphasises Niebuhr's humility and his belief that Americans were in danger of becoming enamored of US power.


  • Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, Richard R. Smith pub, (1930), Westminster John Knox Press 1991 reissue: ISBN 0-664-25164-1, diary of a young minister's trials
  • Moral Man and Immoral Society: A Study of Ethics and Politics, Charles Scribner's Sons (1932), Westminster John Knox Press 2002: ISBN 0-664-22474-1
  • Interpretation of Christian Ethics, Harper & Brothers (1935)
  • Beyond Tragedy: Essays on the Christian Interpretation of Tragedy, Charles Scribner's Sons (1937), ISBN 0-684-71853-7
  • The Nature and Destiny of Man: A Christian Interpretation, from the Gifford Lectures, (1941), Volume one: Human Nature, Volume two: Human Destiny, 1980 Prentice Hall vol. 1: ISBN 0-02-387510-0, Westminster John Knox Press 1996 set of 2 vols: ISBN 0-664-25709-7
  • The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, Charles Scribner's Sons (1944), Prentice Hall 1974 edition: ISBN 0-02-387530-5, Macmillan 1985 edition: ISBN 0-684-15027-1
  • Faith and History (1949) ISBN 0-684-15318-1
  • The Irony of American History, Charles Scribner’s Sons (1952), 1985 reprint: ISBN 0-684-71855-3, Simon and Schuster: ISBN 0-684-15122-7, 2008 reprint from The University of Chicago Press, with a new introduction by Andrew J. Bacevich: ISBN 978-0-226-58398-3, read an excerpt
  • Christian Realism and Political Problems (1953) ISBN 0-678-02757-9
  • The Self and the Dramas of History, Charles Scribner’s Sons (1955), University Press of America, 1988 edition: ISBN 0-8191-6690-1
  • Love and Justice: Selections from the Shorter Writings of Reinhold Niebuhr, ed. D. B. Robertson (1957), Westminster John Knox Press 1992 reprint, ISBN 0-664-25322-9
  • Pious and Secular America (1958) ISBN 0-678-02756-0
  • A Nation So Conceived: Reflections on the History of America From Its Early Visions to its Present Power with Alan Heimert, Charles Scribner’s Sons (1963)
  • The Structure of Nations and Empires (1959) ISBN 0-678-02755-2
  • The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr: Selected Essays and Addresses, (1987), Yale University Press, ISBN 0-300-04001-6
  • Remembering Reinhold Niebuhr. Letters of Reinhold & Ursula M. Niebuhr, ed. by Ursula Niebuhr (1991) Harper, 0060662344
  • Obama's Theologian, EJ Dionne & David Brooks debate on Speaking of Faith, American Public Media


  1. Elmhurst College has erected a statue in his honor.
  2. Willis F. Dunbar, George S. May, Michigan: A History of the Wolverine State (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing, 1995; ISBN 0802870554), page 475.
  3. Kenneth T. Jackson, The Ku Klux Klan in the City, 1915-1930. Oxford University Press, 1967; reprint, Chicago: Elephant Paperback, 1992, pp.129,134-138, 142.
  4. Matthew Berke, "The Disputed Legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr", First Things (November 1992).
  5. Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography, Richard Wightman Fox, Pantheon Books, 1985, ISBN 0394516591, ISBN 9780394516592, 340 pages
  6. 1998 Encyclopedia Britannica, Volume 8, "Reinhold Niebuhr", pages 694-695
  8. ; Goodstein, Laurie. "Serenity Prayer faces challenge on authorship," New York Times. July 11, 2008.
  9. Fred R. Shapiro, Who Wrote the Serenity Prayer, Yale Alumni Magazine (July/Aug. 2008).
  10. Elisabeth Sifton, "It Takes a Master To Make a Masterpiece", Yale Alumni Magazine (July/Aug. 2008).
  11. Laurie Goodstein, "Serenity Prayer Skeptic Now Credits Niebuhr", New York Times (November 27, 2009).
  12. Matthew Berke, "The Disputed Legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr", First Things (November 1992).
  13. Ibid.
  14. Elie, Paul. "A Man for All Reasons." The Atlantic, November 2007.
  15. Paul Allen, "The Obama Niebuhr connection", The Toronto Star (14 June 2008).
  16. "Obama's Favorite Theologian? A Short Course on Reinhold Niebuhr", "Pew Research" (26 June 2009).
  17. Kenneth Waltz, Man, the State, and War, p. 33}}
  18. Bacevich Andrew, The Limits of Power : The End of American Exceptionalism p202 (index Niebuhr)

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