Reinhold Niebuhr Timeline (Text version)

Reinhold Niebuhr Timeline (Text version)


June 21, 1892: Reinhold is born in Wright City, Missouri
Born to Gustav, a German immigrant and pastor, and Lydia, Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr is the fourth of five children: Walter, Hulda, Herbert (died at six weeks), and Helmut Richard. His father, a pastor of the German Evangelical Synod, is a liberal and evangelical — liberal in his belief that the Gospel is social as well as individual and evangelical in his belief that Jesus was divine and that spiritual inspiration can be found in the Bible and prayer.


1907-1910: Attends Elmhurst Pre-Seminary


1912-1913: Attends Eden Theological Seminary
Since German is his native language, Niebuhr finds an instructor, Samuel Press, who teaches all his classes in English in order to improve his English fluency.

April 21, 1913: Father Gustav dies
The day before his father dies, Niebuhr leads his father's congregation at St. John's for Sunday services. In eulogizing his father, he writes in a regional newspaper, "Der Herr hat's gegeben, der Herr hat's genommen, der Name des Herrn sei gelobet. (The Lord has given, the Lord has taken away, Blessed be the name of the Lord.)"

April 27, 1913: Becomes pastor of his father's church
The synod leaders excuse Niebuhr from the remainder of his classes at Eden Seminary and the church council appoints him interim pastor of his father's church, St. John's, in Lincoln, Illinois. Preaching to his first ecumenical audience later that summer, Niebuhr tells them: "There was a time when I did not believe in the divinity of Christ, the two natures of Christ, the trinity of God, and the communion of the spirit and I do not understand them now. Maybe you don't either. But the moral and social program of Christ can be understood."

June 29, 1913: Becomes ordained minister
As a young man, Niebuhr displays a faithful certainty about God and belief. He recounts his approach to doubt in a letter to biographer June Bingham. [Read letter]

1914: Receives Bachelor of Divinity degree from Yale
Niebuhr's thesis "The Validity and Certainty of Religious Knowledge" sets out to demonstrate that a belief in a personal God is rationally justified. It's starting point is belief rather than doubt. The quality of his English is improving but remains phonetic in some respects, misspelling words such as "ruffly" for "roughly."

May 1915: Submits "The Paradox of Patriotism" for contest
As a student at Yale, Niebuhr wins third place and $200 in the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace student essay contest. Two years prior to U.S. involvement in World War I, he writes that it's possible to achieve peace and avoid war but states: "As a collective undertaking war is primarily selfish and immoral without excuse. But for the individual it often means the highest expression of his nobler passions."

June 1915: Receives Master of Arts degree from Yale
During the second half of his graduate schooling, Niebuhr preaches at a congregation ten miles outside of New Haven to make ends meet. "The Contribution of Christianity to the Doctrine of Immortality" impresses his thesis advisors and, even without a B.A. degree, he is granted a Master's degree from Yale Graduate School. Niebuhr's paper reaffirms the idea that Christianity is "the religion of a person rather than the religion of a book." [Read letter]

August 1915-1928: Pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church
John Baltzer, President-General of the German Evangelical Synod, assigns Niebuhr to Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit with an annual salary of $900. He voices his displeasure about the general age and German-speaking character of the church members to his professor from Eden, Samuel Press: "Contrary to what I had been led to expect, the congregation is three-fourths German so that after spending two extra years in English study I am forced to take a church more German than most of the Eden graduates get and have to throw all my ambitions of perfecting myself in English to the winds." [Read unpublished chapter]

1916: Supports Prohibition

July 1916: Publishes "The Failure of German-Americanism"
Before and during the First World War, many German-Americans, the largest immigrant population in the United States at the time, consider themselves to be Americans in political terms and Germans from a cultural perspective. As a result, many of them lobby for a foreign policy of non-confrontation with Germany. A backlash ensues and many Americans question their loyalty and patriotism. Niebuhr, himself of German heritage, is among them. In his article in the Atlantic Monthly, he argues that German-Americans were responsible for this "lack of [public] esteem." [Read letter]

October 14, 1916: Publishes article on Billy Sunday
Niebuhr writes "Billy Sunday — His Preachments and His Methods," an article for the Detroit Saturday Night profiling the former major league baseball player and preacher Billy Sunday's revival that attracted 40,000 people in September. He neither condemns nor endorses Sunday's approach to ministry: "He maintains that fundamental paradox of Christian faith that God is both righteous and merciful and he preaches both judgment and forgiveness with force. Perhaps he emphasizes judgment more strongly than the modern church is wont to, but this emphasis is a wholesome antidote against the 'tendermindedness' of modern Christianity." [Read article]

1917: Serves as Executive Secretary of War Welfare Commission for German Evangelical Synod


1922-1940: Writes editorials and articles for the Christian Century
Editor of the Christian Century Charles Clayton Morrison — impressed with Niebuhr's abilities as a speaker, writer, and thinker — publishes Niebuhr's first article, "Romanticism and Realism in the Pulpit." Morrison pays Niebuhr ten dollars to publish it as an unsigned editorial.

June 1923: Attends first "American Seminar" series in Europe
Niebuhr travels to Europe as part of Sherwood Eddy's 10-week "American Seminar" series. While there, he meets his life-long friend William Scarlett, and accomplished thinkers Ramsay MacDonald, Bernard Shaw, and H.G. Wells. After seeing a war-torn Europe, he wrote: "We have no virtue above Europe but we have good fortune, and if we were to exploit it morally we could save Europe."

1924: Attends second "American Seminar" series in Europe

1926: Appointed chair of Detroit's Interracial Committee

Niebuhr takes over a committee that had floundered under two previous chairs. In March 1927, the committee publishes The Negro in Detroit. Because of the seriousness of the racial problem, the report leaves him "with a feeling akin to despair." [Read letters]

1926: Publicly opposes Ford's work policies
As a result of his work on Detroit's Interracial Committee, Niebuhr learns that auto workers' real wages have declined due to the rising costs of housing, the shortened work week, and the fevered pace of the automation line. He writes a series of three scathing critiques of Henry Ford (see "Ford's Five-Day Week Shrinks" and "How Philanthropic Is Henry Ford?") for the Christian Century, in which he attracts national attention for his stance in support of organized labor.

1926: Publicly opposes Ford's work policies
As a result of his work on Detroit's Interracial Committee, Niebuhr learns that auto workers' real wages have declined due to the rising costs of housing, the shortened work week, and the fevered pace of the automation line. He writes a series of three scathing critiques of Henry Ford (see "Ford's Five-Day Week Shrinks" and "How Philanthropic Is Henry Ford?") for the Christian Century, in which he attracts national attention for his stance in support of organized labor.

1927: Publishes "Race Prejudice in the North"
In the Christian Century, Niebuhr writes his only article on race relations in the 1920s. Unsigned, it summarizes the findings of the committee report The Negro in Detroit. In it, he describes many of the problems African Americans face and cites the housing shortage as the "crux of the race problem in every city." [Read letter]

1927: Publishes Does Civilization Need Religion?
"Modern religion is, in short, not sufficiently modern. In it eighteenth-century sentimentality and nineteenth-century individualism are still claiming victory over the ethical and religious prejudices of the Middle Ages. Meanwhile life has moved on and the practical needs of modern society demand an ethic which is not individualistic and a religion which is not unqualifiedly optimistic."

1928-1932: Columnist for the Detroit Times

1928: Begins writing editorials for World Tomorrow

1928: Begins teaching at Union Theological Seminary
Kirby Page, editor of World Tomorrow, and Henry Sloane Coffin, president of Union Theological Seminary in New York, offer Niebuhr a package in which he would serve as associate editor at the magazine and associate professor of Christian ethics at Union. Niebuhr is thrilled. After delivering a rousing sermon and interviewing with the faculty members, some of the older, more conservative professors voice reservations. The faculty approves Niebuhr's appointment by one vote. [Read letter]

1928: Endorses Catholic Gov. Al Smith
Although in favor of Prohibition, Niebuhr endorses the "hopelessly wet" Governor Al Smith over Herbert Hoover in the presidential election. Niebuhr argues that his social idealism must give way to the greater liberal agenda of labor rights and anti-imperialistic policy in Latin America. He calls on liberal churchmen to shed their "anachronistic puritanism which sees the sins of individuals but never the sins of society."

1929: Publishes "Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic"
At the urging of Christian Century editor Charles Clayton Morrison, Niebuhr agrees to publish selected entries from the diary he kept during his days in Detroit. [Read advertisement]

1929: Joins Socialist Party

August 1929: Attends European Seminar series
With his brother H. Richard, Niebuhr attends Sherwood Eddy's seminar series, traveling from Berlin to the Soviet Union, visiting Leningrad and Moscow. Niebuhr, impressed by the effort and dedication of the people, notes in the New Leader, "I doubt whether any generation in the history of the world has ever sacrificed itself (or is being sacrificed) so completely for the welfare of future generations as these Russians." [Read letter]

November 1929: Runs for New York State Senate
Campaigning on the Socialist Party ticket, Niebuhr assures Union Theological Seminary president Henry Sloane Coffin that he won't win. His prediction proves accurate: he receives only 1,480 votes.

1929: Declines position at Yale
After Dean Luther Weigle hears Niebuhr preach an inspired and witty sermon at Yale's Battell Chapel in November, he offers him a fully endowed chair in Christian Ethics. After he rejects the offer, Yale President James Rowland Angell persists by extending the Yale College chaplaincy, which Niebuhr also declines. [Read letter]


1930: Becomes Chair of Applied Christianity
In the hope of retaining Niebuhr, president Henry Sloane Coffin of Union Theological Seminary awards him the prestigious Dodge Professorship of Applied Christianity.

1930-31: Meets three influential people at Union
Niebuhr meets three people who deeply impact his life: Scottish theologian John Baillie, German fellow Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and English fellow Ursula Keppel-Compton. Baillie eventually lobbies for Niebuhr to present the Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh in 1939.

Bonhoeffer, a post-doctoral fellow, initially judges Niebuhr's theology to be "virtually nil." Niebuhr finds Bonhoeffer's idea of transcendent grace to be "purely formal" and lacking ethical content. As biographer Richard Wightman Fox notes, "Bonhoeffer was one more force that pressured him [Niebuhr] to take theology more seriously, if only to defend himself more convincingly against his detractors." Learn more about this legendary figure who attempted to assassinate Hitler in the Speaking of Faith program "The Legacy of Dietrich Bonhoeffer." [Read letter]
Keppel-Compton, a theological graduate from Oxford, captures the confirmed bachelor's attention. He tells theological student Myles Horton that he "likes the way her mind works." They begin dating that spring.

1930: Receives honorary doctorate from Eden Seminary

1931: Founds the Fellowship of Socialist Christians (FSC)
Joined by Sherwood Eddy and Kirby Page, the FSC voluntarily taxes its members. Niebuhr writes in the fall of 1930 that anyone having a steady wage was "better off in times of depression than in time of prosperity." He warns these steady wage earners to contribute to the unemployed and less-fortunate workers.

August 1931: Sails to England
Niebuhr tries to gain access to interview Mahatma Gandhi for an article, but is unsuccessful.

December 22, 1931: Marries Ursula Keppel-Compton
After a brief courtship, Niebuhr marries his former student at Winchester Cathedral according to the rites of the Church of England.

1932: Receives honorary doctorate from Grinnell College

1932: Exchanges words in public articles with brother H. Richard
Through journals, Niebuhr and his brother H. Richard hold one of their few public battle of ideas over the Japanese invasion of Manchuria. [Read letters]

December 1932: Publishes "Moral Man and Immoral Society"

April 1933: Delivers lectures at Yale University

September 11, 1934: Son Christopher born

1934: Publishes "Reflections on the End of an Era"

April 1935: Meets Stafford Cripps
Sir Stafford Cripps, a respected lawyer and politician, travels to the United States and visits with prominent New Deal politicians and Niebuhr. Founder of the left-wing Socialist League, to Niebuhr, Cripps embodies the ideals of Christian responsibility and world vision. They become life-long friends.

In a 1941 letter from Felix Frankfurter, the Supreme Court Justice refers to Cripps' visit and goes on to affirm his enthusiasm for Niebuhr and his theology. [Read letter]

Fall 1935: Founds the journal Radical Religion,/
An outlet for the organization the Fellowship of Socialist Christians, the journal provides a forum for Niebuhr to exercise his pen and ideas. In each 50-page issue, Niebuhr uses ten for editorials and the rest for signed articles.

March 1936: Helps establish Delta Farm Cooperative
Niebuhr helps Sherwood Eddy purchase a 2,000 acre farm in Hillside, Mississippi. The cooperative members, made up of 19 black families and 12 white families, take part in a radical experiment that envisions social justice through collective ownership with Christian ethics as its basis.

June 5, 1936: Travels to England
At the point of nervous exhaustion, Niebuhr shelves the summer issue of Radical Religion and leaves for Surrey to be with Ursula.

1937: Addresses Oxford Conference
The Oxford Conference on Church, Community, and State gathers over 400 Protestant delegates from 40 countries to contemplate the historical crisis brought about by the rise of fascism, and to plan a path for Christian unity. Niebuhr's essay "The Christian Faith and the Common Life" and his speech at the Sheldonian Theatre do not focus on world crises or the injustice of capitalism, but rather on sin as an inevitable outcome of man's freedom.

1937: Publishes "Beyond Tragedy"
Niebuhr composes a collection of 15 essays on the Christian interpretation of history. In it, he weaves the thread of mankind's sinfulness throughout by retelling common parables and stories: "Man is mortal. That is his fate. Man pretends not to be mortal. That is his sin." The book is met with mixed reviews. [Read letter]

January 13, 1939: Daughter Elisabeth born
In a December 2004 interview with Speaking of Faith host Krista Tippett, Elisabeth (Niebuhr) Sifton discusses her father's thought and religious outlook in politics and the world. [Read transcript and listen to interview]

1939: Delivers Gifford Lectures in Edinburgh
With the help of his good friend and prominent Scottish theologian John Baillie, Niebuhr becomes only the fifth American — the others include William James, Josiah Royce, John Dewey, and William Ernest Hocking — to deliver the prestigious lectures at the University of Edinburgh.

On April 24, he delivers the first of ten lectures on "Human Nature" to an audience of several hundred people in Rainy Hall at the University of Edinburgh. They are not used to Niebuhr's dynamic, extemporaneous style of speaking and fill the auditorium for the entire set. On October 11, Niebuhr delivers the second set of lectures on "Human Destiny" while German planes are bombing the city of Edinburgh. [View the program]


1940: Changes Stance on WWII
Niebuhr publishes Christianity and Power Politics, a collection of polemical essays marking his complete turn from Socialist pacifism toward an interventionist approach to Hitler and World War II. In the book, he lambastes liberal Protestantism for being naive and "vapid." Backlash from liberal Christian friends is extreme.

1940: Resigns from Socialist Party
Niebuhr calls for "all aid to the Allies short of war" — a starkly contrasting stance to the neutralist position taken by the Socialist Party. The executive secretary of the party calls for Niebuhr's conformance to the party line. Niebuhr immediately responds writing that he has "no intention of conforming to the discipline of the Party on the question of American responsibility in Europe."
Niebuhr publishes "An End to Illusions" in the Nation, in which he voices his growing impatience with pacifist doctrine: "The Socialists have a dogma that this war is a clash of rival imperialisms. Of course they are right. So is a clash between myself and a stranger."

1940: Wife Ursula begins teaching at Barnard College
An honors graduate of Oxford University who studied under the great theologian C.H. Dodd, Ursula begins teaching courses on the Bible and theology.

1940: Meets poet W.H. Auden
Reviewing Christianity and Power Politics for the Nation, the famous poet W.H. Auden critiques Niebuhr — not for his attack on pacifism but for his air of spiritual superiority: "A brother once came to one of the desert fathers saying, 'My mind is intent on God.' The old man replied: 'It is no great matter that thy mind should be with God; but if thou didst see thyself less than any of His creatures, that were something.' I am sure Dr. Niebuhr knows this: I am not sure, though, that he is sufficiently ashamed." Not long after, Niebuhr and his wife form a lifelong friendship with Auden. [Read letter]

1940: Suffers bout of nervous exhaustion
An February 2, 1942 FBI report profiles Niebuhr as "patriotic, loyal, energetic, ambitious, industrious" and as being "on verge of nervous breakdown." [Read FBI report]

1941-1966: Founds and edits journal Christianity and Crisis
Niebuhr starts the journal as a forum for liberal Christian interventionists from all political strains. Contributors include great minds such as John Bennett, Sherwood Eddy, Henry Sloane Coffin, and Margaret Mead. [Read letter]

1941: Publishes first volume of "The Nature and Destiny of Man"
The first volume of The Nature and Destiny of Man: Human Nature is formulated from the Gifford Lectures that Niebuhr presented in 1939. Time magazine calls it the "religious book-of-the-year" that "puts sin right back in the spotlight." [View corrected galleys]

1941: Founds and chairs Union for Democratic Action (UDA)
The UDA aims to unite the pro-labor activities of intellectuals and labor leaders. Political conservatives and Communists are barred from membership. Niebuhr had witnessed the ineffectiveness of Communist organizations in the United States, and their allegiance to Russia. "I have myself worked in dozens of organizations with Communists, but their present orientation is so completely under the control of Russian policy that I will not again knowingly have anything to do with any organization in which they function." [Read letter]

1942: Receives honorary doctorate from Yale University

February 1943: Declines offer from Harvard
Nine months after Harvard President James Conant offers to appoint Niebuhr to a chair external to any department or hiring committee, Ursula and his brother Richard encourage him to accept the position to "get more new ideas" and develop his thought on new and different subjects. Niebuhr rejects the offer. Biographer Richard Wightman Fox attributes Niebuhr's decision to his need for familiarity and the feeling of being too old and set in his ways to be adventurous. [Read letter]

1943: Receives honorary doctorate from Oxford University

1943: Publishes second volume of "The Nature and Destiny of Man"

1944: Publishes "The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness"
After the second volume of The Nature and Destiny of Man: Human Destiny is published, offers abound for prestigious lectureships. Niebuhr delivers Stanford University's West lectures in January 1944, which are published in book form. In this work the oft-quoted Niebuhr axiom, "Man's capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man's inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary" appears.

1944: Receives honorary doctorate from Harvard University
Niebuhr receives an honorary Doctor of Divinity at the Harvard University commencement exercises held on June 29, 1944.

1944: Joins Liberal Party
Niebuhr intensifies his political activities and joins the Liberal Party in New York. He is elected vice-chairman.

1946: Nominated for Council of Foreign Relations
Allen Dulles nominates Niebuhr for membership in the elite group of foreign policy experts.

1946: Tours Germany with State Department
A group of 15 people are sent to war-torn Germany to evaluate the state of the educational systems in the American-occupied zones. Niebuhr complains about the cultural ignorance of American officers and the cultural elitism of German scholars: "We tried unsuccessfully to democratize the German universities and to persuade the German educational authorities to make less rigorous distinctions as early as the twelfth year of a child's life between those who would prepare for the university in a Gymnasium and those who were fated to be the hewers of wood and the drawers of water. The labor groups were as insistent on this distinction as the middle classes." [Read letter]

1946: Brother Walter dies
While in Stuttgart, Germany with the State Department, Niebuhr learns his eldest brother had died of a heart attack. To his sister-in-law Beulah, he writes, "Walter was not likely to improve greatly in mental or physical health and might have become an almost impossible burden to those who loved him. It was well that he could go while you can still have pleasant memories of his loyalty. We can leave him safely to the Father of mercies who will know how to complete our own sorry and incomplete lives."

October 21, 1946: Publishes "The Fight for Germany"
Upon his return from Germany, Niebuhr publishes this article in Life magazine. In it he maintains that the Soviets are trying to frighten the United States and its Western allies into a series of post-war concessions.

1946: Receives honorary doctorate from Princeton University

1946: Signs statement opposing bombing of Japan
The Federal Council of Churches, of which Niebuhr was a commission member, issues statement opposing nuclear bombings. When James Conant challenges Niebuhr on the signing of the document, he restates his position. He says the FCC statement didn't "make sufficiently clear what was the conviction for most of us—that the eventual use of the bomb for the shortening of the war would have been justified. I myself consistently took the position that failing in achieving a Japanese surrender, the bomb would have had to be used to save the lives of thousands of American soldiers who would other wise have perished." [Read letter]

January-March 1947: Delivers lectures in Europe
Niebuhr delivers lectures in Europe — the Warwick Lectures at the University of Aberdeen and the University of Glasgow, and the Olaf Petri Lectures at the University of Uppsala in Sweden.

March 1947: Calls on Swiss theologian Karl Barth
While in Basel, Switzerland, Niebuhr meets his long-time theological sparring partner Karl Barth. Though neither spoke at length about the meeting, Barth would later remark that it was a "good conversation."

1947: Chairs founding committee of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA)
Along with prominent figures such as Eleanor Roosevelt, labor leader Walter Reuther, economist John Kenneth Galbraith, historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Hubert Humphrey, Niebuhr creates the progressive organization Americans for Democratic Action (ADA). Its charter is based on two presuppositions of liberalism: that it must be realistic in foreign policy, and that it must be "intent on perfecting the balances of a democratic society whereby justice is achieved." On the tenth anniversary of the ADA's founding, attorney and civil rights activist Joseph Rauh commemorates Niebuhr's contribution to the organization and calls him "the spiritual father of ADA." [Read letter]

1947: Receives honorary doctorate from University of Glasgow

1947: Endorses Marshall Plan
Prior to Secretary of State George Marshall's commencement address at Harvard, Niebuhr argues that the United States should "prevent France and Germany from becoming Communist" and recommends that interest-free loans be made to western European countries "to insure our own economic health."

March 8, 1948: Time magazine features Niebuhr on cover
Time magazine features Niebuhr's image on the cover of its 25th anniversary issue with the caption: "Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr: Man's story is not a success story." As a result, weekly sales of The Nature and Destiny of Man double. Since WWII had ended, Time and Life magazines feature him repeatedly.

Summer 1948: Attends World Council of Churches commission in Amsterdam
Niebuhr delivers the main conference address in which he goes toe to toe with Swiss theologian Karl Barth, who says that the church's role is repentance and not social reconstruction. Niebuhr states, "It is true … repentance is always required even as evil always flourishes. But it is wrong to preach this Gospel sub specie aeternitatis as if there were no history with its time and seasons." [Listen to Niebuhr's address]

September 1948: Reprimands candidate Henry Wallace
Fearful that Wallace's Progressive Party would siphon votes from Harry Truman, the ADA issues "An Appeal to American Liberals and Progressives." In it, Niebuhr asserts that Communists are the only ones backing Wallace's candidacy. [Read letter]

1949: Publishes Faith and History
Read a letter from W.H. Auden commenting on Niebuhr's book.

September 1949: Delegate to UNESCO Conference in Paris
Niebuhr delivers a speech at the Fourth Conference asking the organization to stick to issues of culture rather than conflict resolution.

1949: ACCL accuses FCC of being "red"
The American Council of Christian Laymen publishes "How Red Is the Federal Council of Churches?" — a brochure claiming that John Bennett, Kirby Page, Will Scarlett, Henry Van Dusen, Harry Ward, and Harry Emerson Fosdick, along with Niebuhr, were affiliated with "God-hating, un-American organizations." [View brochure]


1951: FBI conducts loyalty investigation of Niebuhr
In 1950, the State Department invites Niebuhr to become a consultant. Part of the Truman security policy includes a "loyalty investigation" by the FBI. One informant claims that Niebuhr "was never known to them to be a member of the CP. He went on to say that [Niebuhr] was associated with numerous CP fronts and that [the informant] knew of no other person who had associated with this many fronts who was not a member of the Party." Niebuhr leaves government service before the investigation can be concluded. [Read FBI report]

1951: Publishes Serenity Prayer
The Serenity Prayer, in a 1951 version, is published in a column. It reads:

God, give us the serenity to accept what cannot be changed;
Give us the courage to change what should be changed;
Give us the wisdom to distinguish one from another.

The prayer is adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous in slightly altered form and becomes among the most widely used prayers in the world. [Read letter]

April 1951: Resigns as editor of the Nation

1952: Publishes "The Irony of American History"
The original manuscript entitled This Nation Under God is renamed when he discovers that Harpers has a book under contract with the same title. As the theme of "the ironic tendency of virtues to turn into vices when too complacently relied upon" develops, Niebuhr suggests Ironic Elements in American History. His editor William Savage proposes the given title and Niebuhr assents but fears that it is too pretentious.

February 15, 1952: Suffers first stroke
While sitting in his office in Brown Tower at Union Theological Seminary, Niebuhr experiences spasms and rushes to the hospital thinking it's a heart attack. Exploratory surgery reveals no problems, and by mid-March he appears to be making a full recovery. Later that spring, another series of spasms occurs leaving him partially paralyzed with his speech impaired.

Writing to his good friend Bishop William Scarlett, he admits his lack of preparedness for dealing with the debilitating attacks, "I am ashamed that my convalescence proves to be spiritually so hard because it reveals a certain lack in me, a reliance upon jobs and pressures rather than inner calm." [Read selected letters]

October 23, 1952: Signs ADA statement opposing McCarthyism
Otto Spaeth from Americans for Democratic Action asks Niebuhr to sign a statement opposing McCarthyism and calling it "an invidious threat to the freedoms of all Americans." Niebuhr agrees. [Read letter]

1953: Attacks Communist sympathizers
Niebuhr, who had previously been named as a communist sympathizer in a pamphlet entitled "How Red Is the Federal Council of Churches?," becomes a staunch anti-Communist. He supports most activities designed to locate and discredit members of the Communist Party in America. He writes in the March 12th issue of the Christian Century that he considered the Rosenbergs "fiercely loyal communists." Later that year, Niebuhr praises communist hunter J.B. Matthews in Look magazine. Matthews' devastating 1950 book Red Channels compiled the alleged communist affiliations of 151 actors, directors, and others in Hollywood. In the article, Niebuhr names Guy Emery Shipler, editor of a periodical called The Churchman, as a communist sympathizer. Shipler responds indignantly to Niebuhr, "Frankly it is a shocking experience to see you helping to whip up the witch hunt … by employing the very technique which has been used against you." A year later, Niebuhr apologizes, and a retraction is published in Look.

1954: Stops cooperating with early biographer June Bingham
Niebuhr allows June Bingham, wife of Congressman Jonathan Bingham, to begin work on his biography despite reservations. Several years later Niebuhr's wife, Ursula, tells him that she was hoping to be his biographer. Respecting his wife's wishes, Niebuhr apologizes to Bingham and tells her he will no longer cooperate with her project. Bingham is angry. [Read selected letters]

August 1954: Publishes "The Self and the Dramas of History"
Niebuhr adopts this title after objections from his American publisher, his British publisher — T.S. Eliot at Faber & Faber — and Ursula. [Read letter]

1955: Undergoes psychotherapeutic treatment
He tells biographer June Bingham that he realized he'd been depressed since his stroke in 1952. Dr. Robert Coles asserts that friends such as W.H. Auden and Felix Frankfurter proved more effective at putting Niebuhr in better spirits than any psychiatrist.

1957: Schlesinger dedicates book to Niebuhr
A year prior to its publication, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. asks permission to dedicate the first volume of his classic trilogy, The Age of Roosevelt: The Crisis of the Order to Niebuhr. [Read letter]

1957: Critiques Billy Graham's evangelical fundamentalism
Niebuhr defends the "Social Gospel," a prominent Protestant movement in the late 19th and early 20th century that attempted to apply Christian principles to social problems, and writes several articles eschewing the "blandness" and "pietistic individualism" of Graham's evangelism. Niebuhr suggests that Graham should "incorporate the demand of love transcending racial boundaries" and "a whole-souled effort to give the Negro neighbor his full due as a man and brother." When later asked about Niebuhr's criticism, Graham reflected, "I thought about it a great deal. He influenced me and I began to take a stronger stand." [Read transcript]

1957: Publishes "Pious and Secular America"

1958: Accepts position at Princeton
Robert Oppenheimer invites Niebuhr to Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study as a visiting scholar. During this time, Niebuhr endeavors to write The Structure of Nations and Empires. [Read Niebuhr's letter about his time there.]

May 1958: Elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters

1959: Publishes "The Structures of Nations and Empires"


1960: Mother Lydia dies

May 1960: Retires from Union Theological Seminary
In honor of Niebuhr's long career, UTS President Henry Van Dusen announces the endowment of the Reinhold Niebuhr Professorship of Social Ethics, which is first occupied by his friend John Bennett.

1960: Supports Kennedy presidential campaign
Niebuhr introduces John F. Kennedy at the Liberal Party nomination dinner. Despite misgivings about the "thinness" of Kennedy's religion and about his personal morality. With coaxing from Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. and after the Republican nomination of Richard Nixon, Niebuhr tips his hand: "I shall probably hold my nose and vote for Kennedy." [Read letter]

Summer 1960: Accepts position in California
Robert Hutchins invites Niebuhr to spend the summer at the Fund for the Republic's Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions in Santa Barbara. He accepts the offer in part to help defray medical expenses, in light of his nominal pension income. [Read letter]

1961-1962: Lecturer at Harvard

1961: Bingham publishes first biography of Niebuhr
After being turned down by several publishers, June Bingham approaches Niebuhr's editor at Scribners, William Savage, about printing her biography of Niebuhr. With Niebuhr's assent, Savage agrees and Courage to Change is released. Although he enjoys the defense of his life's work, he writes to his friend Bishop William Scarlett: "I should have been allowed to end my days without anyone trying to make a 'prophet' out of me." [Read letter]

1962-1963: Fulfills last teaching appointments

July 7, 1962: Daughter Elisabeth marries

July 5, 1962: Brother H. Richard dies
Two days before the wedding of his daughter, Niebuhr's brother H. Richard dies of a heart attack. The funeral is held on the same day as Elisabeth's wedding. Niebuhr attends Elisabeth's ceremony, but he writes to his friend William Scarlett, "My heart was in turmoil during the past days. It was not only the loss of a dearly beloved brother, who was my guide and counselor, particularly since the days of my illness. It was the fact that I could not express my gratitude for his life publicly by attending his funeral."

1963: Dialogue with James Baldwin
Shortly after the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Birmingham is bombed, Niebuhr appears with author James Baldwin on television. Hosted by Dr. Thomas Kilgore, Jr., the two great thinkers discuss the meaning of the Birmingham tragedy and the steps necessary to achieve racial justice. [Listen to conversation]

1964: Awarded Presidential Medal of Freedom
President Lyndon B. Johnson presents Niebuhr with the highest civilian honor in the United States with the words, "Theologian, teacher, social philosopher, he has invoked the ancient insights of Christianity to illuminate the experience and fortify the will of the modern age." Niebuhr's son, Christopher, accepts the award on his father's behalf.

1964: Supports Martin Luther King
A 1956 Supreme Court ruling bans segregated schools. Niebuhr disagrees with the ruling because it lacks the gradualist approach of the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision. The Southern white opposition turns violent. In response, Martin Luther King, Jr. asks Niebuhr to sign a petition in 1957 for Presidential intervention. Niebuhr refuses, believing it would cause greater harm. He returns to the doctrine of Moral Man and Immoral Society and endorses King's strategy of civil disobedience. In a 1966 letter to one of his students, Niebuhr writes that King is "the most creative Protestant, white or black." For his part, King later confides to his aide Andrew Young that King's nonviolent approach was "much more influenced" by Niebuhr than by Gandhi. [Read letter]

1965: Opposes Vietnam War
Trusted friend and colleague Vice-President Hubert Humphrey speaks at the "Tribute to Reinhold Niebuhr" at Riverside Church in New York. He heaps praise on Niebuhr's realism. Niebuhr is saddened by Humphrey's endorsement of the Vietnam War, writing to William Scarlett, "All to the end of claiming my anti-Nazi stance of the thirties for the present war. [He's] in a tragic position of outdoing the Machiavelli in the White House, meanwhile losing all his friends."
Niebuhr later confesses that he's frightened by his "own lack of patriotism" and fears that he is "ashamed of our beloved nation." [Read letter]

1967: Receives honorary doctorate from Hebrew University

1968: Corresponds with Humphrey about presidential election loss
Niebuhr hesitantly backs Vice President Hubert Humphrey as the Democratic candidate for president in 1968, even though he tells him that "despite our long friendship I could not endorse a candidate who is bound to the present futile policy in Vietnam." After Humphrey's loss to Richard Nixon, Niebuhr sends his condolences. [Read letter]

December 31, 1969: Publishes last major article
Niebuhr calls for Protestants and Catholics to work together in his last major article for the Christian Century, "Toward New Intra-Christian Endeavors."


June 1, 1971: Dies in Stockbridge, Massachusetts
Niebuhr is eulogized at the First Congregational Church, the place where the fiery Jonathan Edwards once preached. Notables such as historian Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., civil rights lawyer Joseph Rauh, author Lionel Trilling, and long-time friend Will Scarlett are in attendance. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, a professor from The Jewish Theological Seminary, gives a moving tribute to his departed friend. [Read eulogy excerpt]

1974: Publishes Justice and Mercy posthumously
Read letters from the mayor of Jerusalem, Teddy Kollek, and former president, Jimmy Carter.

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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.