Niebuhr, Reinhold

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Niebuhr, Reinhold

(rīn`hōld nē`bo͝or), 1892–1971, American religious and social thinker, b. Wright City, Mo. A graduate of Yale Divinity School, he served (1915–28) as pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit, where he became deeply interested in social problems. In 1928 he began teaching at Union Theological Seminary, becoming professor of applied Christianity in 1930; he remained in this post until his retirement in 1960. In the early 1930s he shed his liberal Protestant hopes for the church's moral rule of society and became a political activist and a socialist. A prolific writer, he urged—notably in Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), Christianity and Power Politics (1940), and The Nature and Destiny of Man (2 vol., 1941–43)—clerical interest in social reforms as well as the beliefs that men are sinners, that society is ruled by self-interest, and that history is characterized by irony, not progress. After World War II, he dropped much of his social radicalism and preached "conservative realism." In his later works, such as Faith and History (1949), Niebuhr argued for balances of interests and defended Christianity as the world view that best explains the heights and barbarisms of human behavior. In A Nation So Conceived (1963) he analyzed aspects of the American character. He also wrote Man's Nature and his Communities (1965), Faith and Politics (ed. by R. H. Stone 1968), and The Democratic Experience (with P. E. Sigmund, 1969).


See biographies by R. H. Stone (1972) and R. W. Fox (1987, repr. 1995); D. F. Rice, Reinhold Niebuhr and His Circle of Influence (2012); studies by H. P. Odegard (1956, repr. 1972), J. Bingham (1961, repr. 1972), N. A. Scott, Jr., ed. (1975); bibliography by D. B. Robertson (1984).

Niebuhr, Reinhold


Born June 21, 1892, in Wright City, Mo.; died June 1, 1971, in Stockbridge, Mass. American Protestant theologian; representative of dialectical theology.

Niebuhr was a pastor in Detroit from 1915 to 1928; in 1928 he became a professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York. During the economic crisis of 1929–33, when many became disenchanted with liberalism, he led the majority of American Protestant theologians in the transition from modernism to what was called crisis theology. In the book that marked this turn, Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), Niebuhr declared that the hopes that the “social gospel” would bring society into line with the requirements of Christian morality and would overcome evil were illusory and naive.

In his subsequent works, The Nature and Destiny of Man (2 vols., 1941–43), Faith and History (1949), and The Irony of American History (1952), Niebuhr repudiated the entire progressive heritage of bourgeois enlightenment, the defense of which he termed dangerous quixotism. He rejected ideas of social progress and of the perfection of the human personality, contending that all attempts to build a just social order always end up in conflict with the evil and egotistic (“sinful”) nature of man. He viewed all altruism as hypocrisy that conceals the egotism of a personality, a class, or a nation shrewdly passing off its egotistic interests as universal ones. History, the sphere in which the irrational free will of the people conflicts with the will of god, cannot be fully apprehended nor is it subject to man, who, in trying to subordinate it to himself, always obtains results contrary to what he desired. That is the “irony of history.” From this Niebuhr drew the conclusion that man should abandon all attempts at radical social reorganization and limit himself to direct practical activities aimed at mitigating contradictions that are in principle unsolvable.


Mel’vil’, Iu. K., and A. N. Chanyshev. “Ironiia istorii.” Voprosy filosofii, 1954, no. 2.
Harland, G. The Thought of R. Niebuhr. New York, 1960.


Niebuhr, Reinhold

(1892–1971) Protestant theologian; born in Wright City, Mo. The son of a clergyman and brother of theologian Helmut Richard Niebuhr, he was educated at Elmhurst College (Ill.), Eden Theological Seminary (Mo.), and the Yale Divinity School. Initially a theological liberal and an active Socialist, his experience as pastor of working-class Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit (1915–28) gradually turned his thinking in a rightward direction—toward what he called Christian realism. He questioned the adequacy of the Christian "gospel of love" in a world of conflict, criminality, and totalitarianism; given human nature, the stern doctrines of sin and repentance were essential. By the end of World War II he had entirely shed his earlier socialism, and he roundly condemned totalitarian Communism. Professor of Christian ethics (1928–60) and dean (1950–60) at Union Theological Seminary, he wrote Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), Faith and History (1949), Structures of Nations and Empires (1959), and many other books. In his later years he was America's best-known serious theologian, who managed to combine his somber, almost existential philosophy with a concern for contemporary political and social issues.
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