Reinhold Niebuhr Timeline: Declines offer from Harvard

Reinhold Niebuhr Timeline: Declines offer from Harvard

Correspondence with UTS President Henry Sloane Coffin

Union Theological Seminary
Broadway at 120th Street
New York

President's Room
May 26, 1942

Dear Reinie,
It would be fatal for the Seminary to lose you now. You have an assured place in the leadership of the thought of the Churches and that place is now bound up with the influence which Union exerts. Were you to leave us, we should be immeasurably impoverished.

I appreciate both the honor of being asked by Conant to one of these chairs which he is filling with celebrities. I think I can also see a place which you would make for yourself at Harvard; but it would be a task to make it, and it would not at best be anything like the place you have at Union in shaping the thought of the Christian Church. Even if you attracted the divinity students, they are a nondescript lot, and are unlikely to be other in view of the Harvard ecclesiastical or non- ecclesiastical tradition. Graduate students and some undergraduates you would unquestionably have, but they are not the unified body you teach at present bound with loyalties to a calling and to the Gospel.

Frankly I do not think this is your job. You could have no wider ministry than you can exercise from Union, a ministry bounded only by your health and powers. You would be throwing away most valuable associations — the ties with alumni, with the Seminary constituency, with the Church fellowship. You would miss the spiritual inspiration of the Chapel and all for which it stands. You have made a great name with us, and brought fame to the Seminary. You stand in a goodly succession here, and there is every reason to suppose that the next ten or fifteen years will be as fruitful as the past twelve have been. I do not believe you would have the intimacy with students in the much more impersonal life of Harvard which has been one of you most effective methods of moulding minds.

With the James' bequest the Seminary is at present in a favorable financial position. If more assistance is needed in the field of Christian Ethics, it ought to be provided. At the moment we are not venturing new advances, and for that matter Harvard must be even more interrupted and uncertain than Union. But as soon as these calamities are over, and we know how we stand, there should be new developments. It will doubtless be better to have them come under a new administration, but you will be as influential as any member of the faculty in planning them. I should regard it as a major catastrophe were you to withdraw from us now.

I will be down Monday noon, and am at your service thereafter. I will look for you at five it not earlier.

Henry Sloane Coffin

How would you like the intensely personal despotism by which Harvard is run? Granted that the president is a vigorous thinker and an interesting man, is this one-man rule wise in a great university or in any institution?

Reinhold Niebuhr Papers: Library of Congress, Manuscript Reading Room

Share Episode

Shortened URL


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.