Niebuhr Study Guide: Section II

Niebuhr Study Guide: Section II

Introduction | Section I | Section II | Section III | Section IV | Section V | Section VI

Section II: The Detroit Years: Niebuhr as Pastor and Prophet

Related Web Elements

Radio Program
Listen to the online version of the radio broadcast and read the complete transcript of the show.

"Detroit"
Niebuhr's unpublished biographical chapter on the years he spent in Detroit as the pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church.

Letter to June Bingham
In a 1958 letter to his biographer, Niebuhr recounts his time spent on Detroit's Interracial Committee and the issue of race in his church.

Interview with Max Stackhouse
Listen to and read the transcript of Stackhouse's description of the Social Gospel movement and Niebuhr's view of Marxism.

A "Mike Wallace Interview" with Reinhold Niebuhr
An edited transcript of a 1958 interview intending to stimulate public discussion of the basic issues of survival and freedom in America during the 1950s and 1960s.

Correspondence with Samuel Press
In this 1915 letter to a former professor, Niebuhr describes his appointment to Bethel and some of his reservations about moving to Detroit.

Correspondence with Henry Sloane Coffin
A letter from the Union Theological Seminary president to Niebuhr about his acceptance of a teaching postion in 1928.

Advertisement for Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic
View a copy of an advertisement in a 1929 edition of The World Tomorrow.

Round Table with Niebuhr and James Baldwin
In the wake of the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, in 1963, Niebuhr and author James Baldwin discuss the tragedy and approach to race relations in America.

Commentary on Reinhold Niebuhr's unpublished essay, "Detroit"

After completing his studies at Yale Divinity School in 1915, Niebuhr accepted a call to be pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church, a small ethnic congregation in Detroit. He came to Detroit at a time when that city, now a poster child for urban dysfunction and failure, was rapidly growing into one of the largest and most economically dynamic cities in the nation. The key, of course, was the auto industry, which Henry Ford and others were virtually inventing out of the whole cloth and thereby creating a national revolution that was at once technological, economic, and social. Niebuhr during these same years "grew" his church from a cluster of German Americans into a good-sized congregation of more assimilated middle-class Detroiters who consistently supported him as he became involved in the city's political and social affairs. In 1929, at the end of this, his only pastorate, Niebuhr published a collection of reflections on his Detroit experience in journal form under the title Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. The previous year he had accepted an appointment to the faculty of Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he remained until his retirement in 1960.

Study Questions
1| In this essay, Niebuhr declares that the industrial transformation taking place in Detroit during the teens and twenties was little short of revolutionary, not only for the city for the nation and, potentially, the world as well. The major technical innovation was Henry Ford's system of mass production, which made it possible to assemble a Model T on one continuous assembly line from beginning to end. As a result the Ford plants, first in Highland Park and then, on an even grander scale, at River Rouge, resembled no factories ever seen before in the organization and scale. What was there about this new kind of manufacturing process that prompted Niebuhr to identify it as revolutionary? What were the human consequences for those who worked on the assembly line?

2| The name of Henry Ford was practically synonymous with the phenomenon of mass production that Ford, even if he was not the first to envisage, was personally responsible for implementing on a grand scale. During Niebuhr's Detroit years Ford became a phenomenon even beyond his career as manufacturer and industrial innovator. He ran, unsuccessfully, for the U.S. Senate; he financed a "peace ship" and sailed on it to Europe to try to intervene, rather quixotically, in the "Great War"; he published a newspaper, the Dearborn Independent, that became notorious for its anti-Semitic obsessions; and he gained considerable acclaim for his innovative "five-dollar day," which seemed like a princely sum to many of his employees when it was first introduced. He was, without a doubt, Detroit's best-known citizen, and one of the most famous men in the world. It is clear enough from his writings that Niebuhr had many reservations about Ford and "Fordism," and at one point was attacked by the company after he had signed his name to a nationally-published criticism of Ford. What was there about Henry Ford that made Niebuhr so critical? How clearly, according to Niebuhr, did Ford perceive the implications of his technological and economic innovations for his workers? How did Ford see himself, and how accurate was this perception?

3| During Niebuhr's Detroit years, the city was not only growing rapidly and changing economically, but it was undergoing a profound social transformation as well. Detroit's transformation was part of a larger one affecting the whole nation as a response both to the personnel needs generated by the "Great War" and to the rise of industry, especially in the cities at the base of the Great Lakes. This change had three major components: immigrants from Europe, especially, in the case of Detroit, from what is now Poland; young people, especially men, from the small towns and farms of the rural Midwest and South; and African Americans fleeing virtual serfdom in the land of Jim Crow laws and share-cropping. As Niebuhr's local reputation grew, he was appointed head of the Detroit Pastors' Union and Industry Committee by the Detroit Council of Churches as well as chairman of the city's Interracial Committee by the mayor. What were the kinds of problems generated by this convergence of new groups of people in to the city? How did they relate to one another? How did Detroit's political and economic structure affect human relations? What was Niebuhr's evolving critique of the city's establishment in the context of these problems?

4| As indicated by his work with the Detroit Council of Churches, Niebuhr was becoming more and more involved during his Detroit years not only in the affairs of his own growing parish but in the ecumenical life of the city as well. As he came to know more about his fellow clergy, especially other Protestants, he became both appreciative and critical of the ways in which he saw them carrying out their professional roles. What were some of his criticisms of the ways in which other Detroit clergy went about their business? Who were Niebuhr's personal role models, and what was it about these persons that he particularly admired?

5| Even though Niebuhr grew controversial as he pursued his prophetic role both in his local preaching and in his activities as a community leader and "public intellectual," he seems remarkably to have avoided any serious confrontations with his parishioners, even as he watched his counterparts elsewhere forced out of their jobs or made to tone down their social and political utterances considerably. How do you account for Niebuhr's success in keeping his congregation's allegiance while striking public postures on issues with which presumably not all agreed?

6| Even though Niebuhr did not begin to publish significantly until the very end of his Detroit years, he was nevertheless reflecting seriously during this time on the broader ethical and theological issues that he would spend the remainder of his career addressing. In this essay, he seems particularly preoccupied with the word "liberal" — still controversial in our own day! What was at stake for him in this particular word? How did Niebuhr's emergent thought relate to the theological heritage of Protestant liberalism and the Social Gospel (listen to Max Stackhouse's description of this movement and its effects) in which he was shaped, especially at Yale?

Talking Points
1| Mass production at once created a revolution in consumption as well as production, since products such as automobiles for individual use were now available at prices affordable by the average person. Although Niebuhr would eventually become a critic of a society based on mass consumption of material goods, he was at the time more alarmed about the dehumanizing effects of the production process on individual workers, who increased in efficiency even as their work was reduced to one simple function carried out over and over again at a high rate of speed with little variety or relief. (Charlie Chaplin's classic film, Modern Times, makes this its central theme.) Although Niebuhr was not deeply read in Marx, he shared Marx's appreciation of the alienation of the worker from his work that this process brought about.

2| Henry Ford created an image of himself not only as a highly successful industrialist but also as a philanthropist and national sage, a "common man," rather like Ben Franklin, who had risen to success through the practice of homely virtues, and now was eager to give advice to others. Niebuhr was specifically critical of Ford for what he perceived as Ford's hypocrisy, as illustrated in the five-dollar day. Where the latter seemed like a princely wage to naïve country boys and new immigrants, it turned out that it was only available when the Ford plants were active. Niebuhr points out that, in a prolonged period of retooling during which the plants were closed, many Ford workers found themselves unemployed and consequently defaulted on their mortgagees and lost their homes. At another level, Niebuhr notes that Ford was the victim of his own illusions. He was unable to perceive and rectify his own hypocrisy and therefore committed many acts of injustice under the pretense of benevolence. This is a good example of the central Niebuhrian category of irony, that is, an unexpected outcome of actions resulting from an incomplete understanding of the mixed motives that lay behind those ostensibly well-intended actions.

3| Detroit was, from the beginning of the mass migration of job-seekers into the city, a deeply divided place. Class lines, even among whites, were evident in patterns of residence and even within organized labor, where the skilled workers represented by the American Federation of Labor (AFL) were unwilling or unable to understand the needs of the unskilled or semi-skilled laborers who played a growing role in plants where little skill was required to perform one's function on the assembly line. Ethnic lines also appeared, as newer immigrant groups formed their own ethnic enclaves. Most acute in Detroit, however, was the "color line" that became accentuated as large numbers of black Southerners came north seeking employment and freedom from virtual serfdom. The clash between black and white newcomers from the South was especially acute. As Niebuhr became involved in the city's civic culture, he became more and more aware not only of racist attitudes but also of the economic, social, and political structures that resulted in a rigid system of segregation in housing and discrimination in employment.

4| Niebuhr was sharply critical of his fellow clergy and organizations such as the Detroit Council of Churches for their unwillingness to confront issues of social justice directly, especially on matters involving vested interests such as the auto industry. Instead, according to Niebuhr, they resorted to moralistic abstractions that focused more on matters of individual conduct than on systemic issues implicating the structures of the social, political, and economic orders. He admired especially the Episcopal bishop who promoted the interests of organized labor as crucial to the solution of these problems, and the rather secular but pragmatic and engaged Jewish layman with whom he worked on racial issues.

5| This is an open-ended question, and further reading in Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic might be helpful in obtaining a broader picture of Niebuhr's pastoral strategies. The main clue he provides here is his advice that, for a pastor to "get away with" a prophetic stance from the pulpit, he should take care to provide opportunities for the laity to become involved in the discussion of those issues. For this he instituted a forum where such dialogue could take place. He was also probably lucky in having a congregation that was willing to support him on such controversial issues.

6| As Niebuhr points out, "liberal" was, then as now, a highly ambiguous word that could mean any number of things. For Niebuhr, a viable liberalism was expressed in an attitude free from moral posturing and from idealism untempered by realism. Niebuhr was highly critical of intellectuals who thought and spoke in abstractions, which for him had little positive applicability to the messiness of "real life" situations. The latter were likely to be morally ambiguous and not easily resolved. Niebuhr instead called for the continual use of a pragmatic criterion in which moral success could be measured not by the complete and final resolution of a moral problem, but rather by the making of incremental, "proximate" gains towards that resolution. Niebuhr was also skeptical of the strain of theology known as "liberal Protestantism," including the "Social Gospel," with which he had been imbued at Yale, on the grounds that it exaggerated the possibilities of human nature in carrying out God's will unaided by divine grace. For Niebuhr, human nature was fallen, and humans continually subject to ironic delusions that interfered with their ability to act righteously. Only understanding and acceptance of human finitude could lead to the (always "proximate," or limited) successful living of the moral life.

Further Reading
Wheels for the World:
Henry Ford, His Company, and a Century of Progress 1903-2003

by Douglas Brinkley
Viking, 2003
*Historical background for understanding Ford and Detroit during the Niebuhr years there.

Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography
by Richard Wightman Fox
Pantheon, 1985
*Gives an authoritative biographical narrative for Niebuhr in general and these years in particular.

"Reinhold Niebuhr" from A Handbook of Christian Theologians
by Hans Hofmann and edited by Martin E. Marty and Dean G. Peerman
Meridian/World, 1965, pages 355-372
*Provides a brief, helpful overview of RN's thought and its development.

Henry Ford: An Interpretation
by Samuel S. Marquis
Little Brown, 1923
*Critical reflections on Ford by an Episcopal clergyman who headed Ford's "sociological department" for several years and alluded to by Niebuhr.

Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic
by Reinhold Niebuhr
Harper's Ministers Paperback Library, 1980. (Originally published 1929.)
*Niebuhr's journal of his Detroit years in which his thought on being both a pastor and a prophet develop.

The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit
by Thomas J. Sugrue
Princeton University Press, 1996
*Although the focus here is on the post-WWII era, Sugrue provides a powerful narrative and analysis of the results of the social tensions that began to develop during Niebuhr's Detroit years.


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Voices on the Radio

Paul Elie

is senior editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux and author of The Life You Save May Be Your Own: An American Pilgrimage.

Jean Bethke Elshtain

is an author and Laura Spelman Rockefeller Professor of Social and Political Ethics at the University of Chicago Divinity School.

Robin Lovin

is Cary M. Maguire University Professor of Ethics at the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, and the author of Reinhold Niebuhr and Christian Realism.