Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971)

Reinhold Niebuhr, perhaps the best known American Protestant theologian of the 20th century, was the author of a famous prayer that has, for its simplicity and truth, influenced millions of people: “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” He himself, by force of intellect and faith, offered atheists and Christians alike a sense of realism about the meaning of belief. His was an intellectual approach to matters of faith, one which sought to reveal both its complexity and its moral relevance to the secular world, on which he had a great impact. Niebuhr did not believe in utopias; he advocated a head-on facing of the facts of existence. He called it Christian realism.

This was a pragmatic—some might say hard-boiled—approach to the human condition, which took as a first premise the concept of original sin. Niebuhr argued that sin is intrinsic to the human condition. Humankind is basically corrupt and sinful, he said, and selfishness and pride are the origin of evil. The remedy and the redemption are in Christ and in taking a moral stance against the inevitable immoralities of society. Niebuhr translated his views into the secular political arena where he took a similarly pragmatic approach to human affairs and became a friend and adviser to powerful people in government like historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr., diplomat George Kennan, Supreme Court justice Felix Frankfurter, former secretary of state Dean Acheson, and journalist James Reston. Latter-day politicians, including presidents Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, and Senator John McCain, have also acknowledged his influence. Niebuhr’s intellect and lack of pretension, coupled with his unflinching view of human frailty, won him admiration and credibility among the most secular of leaders.

A graduate of Yale Divinity School where he earned an MA, Niebuhr spent the better part of his career, from 1928 to 1960, as a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. There he was renowned for his lecture style and passionate, rapid-fire delivery even in discussing the most scholarly of matters, using his arms like an orchestra conductor. His students—one of whom was the German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer—loved it, packing his lecture halls. But it was in his writings that Niebuhr exerted the most influence and captivated statesmen. He wrote more than 17 books and contributed a steady stream of articles to journals and magazines, including editorials and essays to the Christian Century, an influential voice of liberal Protestantism. In 1941, he became the editor of the rival journal, Christianity and Crisis, which he edited for the next 25 years.

Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr advocated Christian realism and played a role in politics advising secular leaders.

Protestant theologian Reinhold Niebuhr advocated Christian realism and played a role in politics advising secular leaders. (Library of Congress)

Niebuhr began as an advocate of the Social Gospel, a progressive movement within American Protestantism applying Christian principles to social problems. He was a member of the Socialist party for a time, later even running on the Socialist ticket—unsuccessfully—for the state senate from his Manhattan district. But he became disenchanted with socialism and with what he saw as its naive liberal optimism. During his first and only service as a pastor, at Bethel Evangelical Church (a denomination that became the United Church of Christ) in Detroit, Michigan, Niebuhr got a firsthand look at Henry Ford and the automobile industry and did not like what he saw. His brand of Christian socialism did not encompass what he thought were the demoralizing effects of the assembly line and factory conditions on the workers, and his denunciation of Ford and of American consumerism in articles for the Christian Century received national attention. Niebuhr also found fault with the ideas of philosopher John Dewey, whom he called “platitudinous” and criticized for his secular approach to social problems.

As his thinking evolved, Niebuhr moved on from socialism and a brief flirtation with Marx to a Protestant philosophy called Neo-orthodoxy, a post-liberal theology that sought to reclaim historical doctrines of original sin and redemption through Christ. He was strongly influenced by the ideas of the Christian existentialist philosopher Paul Tillich, with whom he became friends when Tillich, fleeing Nazi Germany, joined the faculty (with Niebuhr’s help) at Union Theological Seminary in 1933 and taught there for 22 years. Tillich’s theology posited God as the Ground of Being, proposing that our fear of nonbeing can be conquered only by a “courage to be.” His idea that “being religious means asking passionately the question of our existence” appealed to Niebuhr who would echo Tillich in his book, An Interpretation of Christian Ethics: “The life of every person is religious... it is impossible to live at all without presupposing a meaningful existence.”

Niebuhr’s own theology solidified as what he called Christian realism, a pragmatic approach that rejected utopia, progress, and human perfectibility in recognition of mankind’s fundamental sinful nature. He viewed the Bible as the human record of divine revelation, not the literal word of God. His theology and rejection of what he saw as the easy, simplistic ways of evangelism put him at complete odds with another influential American preacher, Billy Graham. In an article for Life magazine, Niebuhr vigorously denounced Graham for oversimplifying and presenting Jesus as the all-sufficient answer for man’s ills. He was critical of Graham’s emphasis on amassing numbers of conversions rather than on the quality of belief. Niebuhr did not think that religious conversion could cure things like racial prejudice or economic injustice. “Perhaps because these solutions are rather too simple in any age, but particularly so in a nuclear one with its great moral perplexities, such a message is not very convincing to anyone—Christian or not—who is aware of the continuing possibilities of good and evil in every advance of civilization, every discipline of culture, and every religious convention,” Niebuhr wrote. “Graham offers Christian evangelism even less complicated answers than it has ever before provided.” Despite repeated requests by Graham, Niebuhr refused to meet with him.

It was in the realm of politics that Niebuhr actually had the most influence, some commentators accusing him of using his religion as a cover for his political interests. Men in power were attracted to both his spirituality and his practical approach to human affairs. Niebuhr was, as Alden Whitman wrote in his New York Times obituary, “a theologian who preached in the marketplace, a philosopher of ethics who applied his belief to everyday moral predicaments, and a political liberal who subscribed to a hard-boiled pragmatism.” In one of his first books, Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932), Niebuhr made clear his view that humanity tends to corrupt the good in all its efforts, from government, business, and political systems to churches, and that original sin is a better approach than the idea of human perfectibility for changing society. Through pride and self-centeredness—the root of all evil according to Niebuhr—people think they are a law unto themselves instead of realizing their sinfulness and dependence on God. Christian realism recognizes that nations as well as people can be selfish. As Martin Luther King wrote in “A Letter from Birmingham Jail,” he was much influenced by Niebuhr’s view that “groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.” Niebuhr’s major work, the two-volume The Nature and Destiny of Man, published in the early 1940s, sets forth his principal ideas and theology, collecting the Gifford lectures he gave at Edinburgh University in Scotland in 1939.

The son of German immigrant parents, Niebuhr was alarmed at Hitler’s rise during the 1930s in Germany and called for American intervention. He supported the Allies during World War II, unlike many clergy who declared themselves pacifists, and said that a victory by Germany and Japan would endanger Christianity. Despite his early socialist leanings, Niebuhr was also strongly anticommunist and advocated a containment policy with the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

Politicians, especially, have acknowledged Niebuhr as an influence. President Barack Obama called Niebuhr “one of my favorite philosophers.” Obama’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009 was called a “faithful reflection” of Niebuhr’s attempt “to reconcile the principles of Christianity with the imperatives of national defense” by Fred Kaplan in Slate. Kaplan noted that Niebuhr, in his 1952 book, The Irony of American History, had warned that “American idealism must come to terms ‘with the limits of all human striving, the fragmentariness of all human wisdom, the precariousness of all historical configurations of power, and the mixture of good and evil in all human virtue.’ ”

Senator John McCain, Obama’s opponent in the 2008 presidential election, said in his 2008 book, Hard Call, that he admired Niebuhr’s ability, in opposing the Vietnam War, to “express the moral ambiguity that is inescapable for the soldier who must kill to defend his country.” President Lyndon B. Johnson awarded Niebuhr the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1964, and the site of Union Theological Seminary on West 120th Street in New York City has been named Reinhold Niebuhr Place.

Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr was the son of German immigrant Gustav Niebuhr, a pastor in the American branch of the Prussian Church, and his wife Lydia, the daughter of an Evangelical pastor. He was born in Wright City, Missouri, on June 21, 1892, the second son and third child of four, three of whom became active in theology and the church. He graduated from Elmhurst College in Illinois and studied at Eden Theological Seminary in Webster Groves, Missouri, before entering Yale Divinity School, where he graduated with an MA in 1915. Though Niebuhr said he regretted not going on for his doctorate, he was to receive 18 honorary doctorates in his lifetime, including those from Oxford, Yale, and Harvard.

He was ordained and became a pastor at Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit, Michigan, in 1915 where he served for 13 years and was credited for building the congregation from 20 parishioners to more than 650. German-Americans at the time of the United States’ conflict with Germany during World War I were regarded with suspicion, but Niebuhr asked his congregation to be patriotic and insisted on loyalty to the United States.

In 1928, Niebuhr left Detroit to take a position as a professor of theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he would remain until retirement in 1960. He met Ursula Keppel-Compton at Union and married her in 1931. She later became chairwoman of the religion department at Barnard College. They had two children, Elizabeth and Christopher, and made their home in Manhattan. After his retirement, the Niebuhrs moved to Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where he died at the age of 78 on June 1, 1971.

Though Niebuhr’s authorship of the Serenity Prayer has been questioned, it has long been incorporated, in a revised version, into the program of Alcoholics Anonymous and was circulated to American armed forces in the 1940s. He himself said the prayer was a tagline to one of his sermons, and his daughter Elizabeth Niebuhr Sifton in her 2003 book, The Serenity Prayer: Faith and Politics in Times of Peace and War, asserts that her father wrote it in 1943. Fred R. Shapiro, editor of The Yale Book of Quotations, observes in the book’s Niebuhr entry that the authorship of the prayer is “surrounded with misinformation.” But he was quoted in the New York Times in 2009 as conceding there was a “likelihood” that Niebuhr wrote it. Bartlett’s Quotations attributes it to him without question. The version Niebuhr is said to have written:

God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change the things that should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

As Shapiro said in his “You Can Quote Them” column in the Yale Alumni Magazine, “At least in the English- and German-speaking worlds, this is undoubtedly the most famous prayer originated in modern times, probably the only prayer ever to rival the Lord’s Prayer in popularity.”

—Mary Cross


Bingham, June . Courage to Change: An Introduction to the Life and Thought of Reinhold Niebuhr. Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1993.

Fox, Richard Wightman. Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985.

Kaplan, Fred. “Obama’s War and Peace.” Slate, December 10, 2009.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. “The Fight for Germany.” Life, October 21, 1946. Quoted in Charles Calvin Brown, Niebuhr and His Age: Reinhold Niebuhr’s Prophetic Role and Legacy. New York: Continuum Publishing Group, 2002, 127.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Interpretation of Christian Ethics. New York: Seabury Press, 1979.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Irony of American History. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2008.

Niebuhr, Reinhold. The Nature and Destiny of Man. 2 vols. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 1941–43.

Niebuhr, Reinhold, and Robert McAfee Brown. The Essential Reinhold Niebuhr. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1987.

Shapiro, Fred R., ed. “Reinhold Niebuhr.” In The Yale Book of Quotations. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2006.

Shapiro, Fred R. “You Can Quote Them.” Yale Alumni Magazine, July/August 2008. .

Whitman, Alden. “Reinhold Niebuhr Is Dead; Protestant Theologian, 78.” The New York Times, June 2, 1971. .