Reinhold Niebuhr Timeline: Pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church

Reinhold Niebuhr Timeline: Pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church


Niebuhr reading a prayer at the laying of the cornerstone for the Bethel Church in Detroit (June 5, 1921)
Niebuhr reading a prayer at the laying of the cornerstone for the Bethel Church in Detroit (June 5, 1921)

The Industrial Revolution began in Britain in the dawn of the 19th century. The era of mass production began a century later in America. For me that era began when I assumed the pastorate of a little Church in Detroit in 1915. Detroit was then a city of a half million people and was well started on its career as the automobile capital of America. It grew by more than a million in the next decade and a half.

I do not know whether it is scientifically precise to regard the automobile industry as the first of the Mass production industries. But it is symbolically accurate. Henry Ford was the genius of the "assembly line" which so coordinated the labors of the mechanics that it was possible to turn out the "Tin Lizzy", the modest little Ford car, for about 350 dollars. This put the car in reach of almost everyone and revolutionized the habits of the nation. In 1915, the Ford industrial empire was centered in the "Highland Park" plant and the larger "Dearborn" plant was yet to be built. I do not know whether Ford himself or one of his production engineers was responsible for the assembly line, but it proved to be the cornucopia which poured untold wealth into Ford's coffers and into Detroit.

Meanwhile, Ford achieved a national and international reputation because he initiated first a five dollar day wage and soon raised it to six dollars. Yet the labor costs on the car remained very low and the human costs were very high, as I was soon to learn from my worker parishioners.

The social attitudes in Detroit as in the nation were not far advanced above those which prevailed at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. It was taken for granted that labor did not have the right to organize and that "collective bargaining" would disturb the unity of command and the stability of production in the industry. The power-political realities were obscured by Ford's ostensible generosity. Mr. Ford was in fact a great "idealist" in his own esteem and in the opinion of many of his countrymen. He was quite unconscious of the mixture of motives in the soul of any man and particularly of a man who had great and quickly acquired power, even while he followed
his "ideals". Ford would not contribute to the community chest because he believed in "justice rather than charity". Meanwhile, well over half the case load of the institutions of the chest was taken up by Ford workers. The "peace ship" adventure of Mr. Ford at the beginning of the first World War is too well known to record here. It was a perfect symbol of his naive approach to the complexities of world politics. Incidentally, Ford's personal appearance was quite in accord with his generous self-estimation. He had the appearance of an artist and a saint, if it is possible to roll saint and artist into one; and none of his rather capricious power impulses registered in his saintly countenance.

The swarm of engineers who built the Auto industry were patterned after Mr. Ford in their preoccupation with engineering problems, but they lacked Ford's ideal interests and pretensions. They could become excited over luncheon at the "Detroit Athletic Club" about some new gadget in the production process or some new development in the use of steel, paint or glass in the automobile. But they were all agreed that it was wrong for labor to organize. Indeed, the danger of organization did not seem to be very great because the industry was filled with country boys from all over America, who required an apprenticeship of only several months before they became proficient in their skills on the assembly lines. It was only as they grew older that the speed of the assembly line palled on them; and as they married that they found the wages less than the munificent total which it seemed to be to the uninitiated country boy. The Ford Company usually had a summer month holiday or "layoff" for "retooling". When the market for the old model T suddenly collapsed, most of the workers were laid off for well nigh a year, and many of them failed to meet mortgage payments on their homes and lost them. My own political, religious and moral convictions were formed by the obvious contradiction between the power realities in the industry and the sentimentalities which obscured them. Mr. Ford had his own brand of potent or convincing sentimentality. The Churches of the City seemed to have another brand. The preachers talked endlessly about love and brotherhood but their preachments had little relevance to the problems of justice, which were problems of adjudicating interests and balancing power. When the AFL proposed to hold a convention in the City with a view to organizing the Auto industry, the Detroit Board of Commerce cracked the whip and the invitations to Labor speakers in Detroit Churches, arranged by the Federal Council of Churches, were almost unanimously withdrawn. The Board of Commerce's alarm was, incidentally, premature, because the old craft unions were quite unable to organize a mass production industry. It consisted of a labor force of "aristocrats", of electricians, tool-makers, die-makers, and the mass of semi-skilled workers. Only the new industrial unions of the CIO were equipped to organize the industry, and even then it could not be organized until the depression, the Roosevelt era and the second World War provided the impetus and the social direction of the social revolution which changed the political and moral realities of America. The depth of this social revolution is neatly symbolized in terms of Detroit images by the difference in the social attitudes and policies of Henry Ford and his grandson, Henry Ford II. The latter not only came to terms with a strong auto union and signed long term contracts with them, providing for cost of living increases and bonuses for increased production. He also rescued the Company from its precarious economic condition as well as from its moribund social policy. I do not know the young Mr. Ford. I know he doesn't look as saintly as his Grandfather but that he typifies our nation on the other side of an Industrial Revolution just as his Grandfather typefied the attitudes of America before the social revolution. The admixture of sentimentality with the will-to-power was, of course, not quite typical, but it was sufficiently typical to win wide acclaim. I remember speaking to a minister of Labor in the German government of the Weimar Republic, who regretted that Germany did not have a Ford. The Weimar Republic meanwhile had a much shrewder idealist, Walter Rathenau, who was murdered by a pre-Hitler anti-semite.

"Liberalism" in pre-revolutionary America was almost as confusing a concept as in our era. It meant almost anything one wanted it to mean, but it had a little more consistency than it has currently because it connoted a critical independence of the prevailing mores and a willingness to defy the dominant powers of the community. The person who typefies the critical independence, though not the defiance, more than any of my friends was a Jewish lawyer, who was in many ways the most remarkable man I have ever encountered, either before or since. We were brought together in friendship because the Mayor of the City appointed me chairman, and Fred Butzel vice-chairman of the race commission of the City. The commission had work to do because the first World War had increased the tensions between Negro and White through the heavy influx of both Southern Negroes and "cracker" Whites to the Auto industry. Our commission undertook a survey of housing and employment which I hope encouraged the employment of more Negro policemen, firemen and postal clerks. It also proved that Negro women college graduates could not at that time aspire to higher position than that of elevator operators in our department stores. No doubt this condition has radically changed in a quarter century.

Fred Butzel was a lawyer and philanthropist. He was the moving spirit in every Jewish charity and the guiding genius of the community fund. But Butzel was no ordinary philanthropist. It is true that he had put many poor Jewish high school graduates through college and law school. His firm consisted of himself, his brother Henry Butzel, who was a member of the Supreme Court of Michigan, and junior partners, all of whom, I think, had been put through college by Fred. He loaned every likely lad the money for as much college as he wanted and the loan was repaid as soon as the young lawyer became established. It is true that Butzel's practice consisted chiefly in acting as father confessor to young lads in trouble, in patching up shaky marriages (though Fred was a bachelor) and in advising parents about their delinquent children and in acting as executor and drawing up wills for anyone who asked this service of him. His junior partners seemed to have regarded these services as the contribution of their firm to the community. But all these philanthropists did not exhaust the real nature of the man who could combine an all embracing charity with a shrewd, not to say cynical, view of the human scene. Butzel analyzed for me without emotion, the realities of power in the City and the foibles of the powerful. Sometimes his cynicism, which was absolutely without malice, shocked even his young parsonic friend who had learned so much from him. While we were working together on the race commission, the parsons of the Negro "store front" Churches all approached him for a contribution. He gave each applicant a hundred dollars. I remonstrated with Him and told him that there were some very good Negro Churches, who could make more creative use of his money than these corybantic sects. "I don't know what corybantic means" said Fred "but if you are a specialist in religion I am a specialist in amusements and I know these Churches offer the laundresses the rousements which are the only amusements in their dreary lives".

Butzel resisted the label "liberal" because liberalism meant for him that one was subject to illusions. His Rabbi, he said, was a liberal but was full of illusions. Mr. Ford was a "liberal" and had illusions about himself. He prided himself on having no illusions either about himself or his fellowmen. I observed that this was the secret of the combination of charity and cynicism which made him so attractive. His cynicism was without malice because it was free of self-righteousness. If he had any illusions it was his belief that it was necessary to encourage every religious opinion, while sharing none of them. When he attended an orthodox synagogue he made it a point to dismiss the taxi a few blocks from the house of worship and walk the rest of the way. His "boys" at college would ask for his advice on whether or not to observe the dietary laws. "If you violate them" answered Butzel, "Be sure you can
do so without any qualm of conscience and without being dishonest with your parents or causing them concern". His standards were always rigorously ethical and religious faith was consistently judged in ethical terms. The ethical terms were pragmatic. When I asked him why he was so insistent on sending a Catholic delinquent boy back to the Church, he answered that he had spent hours with the boy and had come to the conclusion that this defiance of the Church had aggravated his difficulties and that a break with the Church would not solve any of them. He was on the best of terms with the Catholic chaplain of the institution for problem children on which he served as a trustee. Butzel's "liberalism" clearly had few political connotations. It was an ethical creed in which charity and integrity were the prime components; and the charity was at once so broad and so free of condescension that he broadened every religious and moral horizon of the young parson who became his friend.

Butzel and I had a common friend, who was a liberal in somewhat different terms. Bishop Charles Williams was the head of the Episcopal diocese. He was one of the best exponents of the "social gospel". But for all of us who admired him and learned from him, it was not so much the sense of justice, which indeed informed his religious leadership, but the integrity which persuaded him to declare that justice could not be achieved in an industrial society without the organization of labor and collective bargaining. This heretical opinion was received in pre-revolutionary Detroit with indignation by the business classes. Some of the wealthy members of a fashionable Church declared a boycott on the diocesan annual budget, hoping to get rid of the Bishop. But, of course, that only served to establish his moral ascendancy in the diocese and in the City. Even his critics came to his defence for no one would want it advertised that the Church had bowed to "big business" pressure. The newspapers said that he was accused of being too "liberal". In this case liberalism meant a combination of the sense of justice and complete integrity in defying dominant power.

The Jewish lawyer and the Episcopal Bishop were my chief mentors in what everyone called "liberalism". But some young men, junior executives in the City's industries and members of my Church board, were as responsible as the Bishop for preserving my faith in the integrity of the Christian Church as an institution of grace in the wilds of a young industrial society. One of them, a teacher of our men's class, had sufficient authority in his concern to alter the rules of the annual "Christmas bonus" so that it would equalize, rather than aggravate, the inequalities of income in the executive department. He proceeded with his project with the utmost tact as well as resolution and taught us all that "liberalism" required prudence as well as integrity. Our official board meetings, with the business done, invariably turned into informal seminars in which the moral and political problems of the community were discussed. We had one millionaire on the board, a retired "parts" manufacturer. He was not as bright as the young men but he was "liberal" in another sense. When the Ford workers were laid off for almost a year, he asked me for a list of our Church members who were in danger of losing their mortgaged homes. He wanted to give them help in saving their mortgages. I know that charity as a substitute for justice in odious. But there is no situation in which personal kindness can not perfect justice or correct injustice; and I regarded such liberality as one of the best expressions of the spirit of community of grace.

The same man revealed a fine degree of loyalty to me when my rather extravagant reactions to the pretensions of the Ford Company involved me in some difficulties. The "Christian Century", an interdenominational journal, had invited me to become a contributing editor. My contributions inevitably reflected my dominant interest. I wrote many editorials on the policies of the growing Auto industry. Finally, both vanity and the inability of preserving editorial anonymity in an account which drew heavily on the experiences of members of my parish, prompted me to request the right to write an article under my own name. Mr. Ford's secretary wrote my parishioner informing him that his pastor had unwittingly fallen prey to "a vicious anti-Ford sheet, the Christian Century". Thus, having accused me of corrupting myself, he asked I be reproved and corrected in my attitudes. My friend showed me the letter and before I could react he pulled a letter out of his pocket and said "I would like to make the reply indicated in this letter, if you approve". The letter simply stated: "I am sorry to learn that my pastor has given offence to the Ford Motor Company. I have consulted with him and he authorizes me to assure you that if there are any inaccuracies in his article, he will be glad to correct them".

That was that. The men on my Church board, discussed the difficulties which were attendant on my political interest, though my only overt political activity was the support of Bob LaFollette in the presidential campaign of 1924. They wisely decided that no one, pastor or member, had a right to commit a religious community to any political position. On the other hand everyone, including the pastor, ought to have the right to engage in political activity. But we faced the problem that if the pastor discussed moral issues with political implications in the pulpit, even if no party position was taken, there was bound to be some uneasiness. But the alternative was an uncreative neutrality on every controversial issue. We solved this problem by scheduling the most controversial issues to the evening "forum" services in which every opinion could be aired. These forum services proved very instructive and they proved incidentally that a great deal of lay opposition to preaching on controversial issues merely stems from impatience with ex Cathedra utterances from the pulpit, which leave the laymen frustrated because he can not even say, "I agree with your thesis on the whole but I would make a reservations on one of your points." We discovered that the laymen must be given a voice in the Church if the Church is not to be relegated to a sterile neutrality on all important moral and social issues.

I learned so much from both the young men of my congregation and from the Bishop and my Jewish friend, and all the lessons pointed to a "liberalism" in which pragmatic wisdom was compounded with integrity, that I must have been very obtuse not to learn the lessons more accurately. For, I must ruefully confess that when I quitted my parish I was, in a confused way, both a socialist and a pacifist. Both doctrinaire positions would have shocked my mentors, who were much too pragmatic to share these doctrines. Neither position was consistently doctrinaire and was abandoned under the impact of subsequent history. Yet I was a socialist and a pacifist. The socialism was a reaction to the concentration of private power in the growing Auto industry. I could conceive of no way of eliminating the caprice and irresponsibility of so much power but by "Socializing" property. I came to this conviction without studying Marx and, incidentally, without anticipating the social history which would balance power with power through the rise of organized labor.

Nor did I anticipate that the inheritance and tax laws would prompt the organization of that vast philanthropic foundation: "The Ford Foundation."

Reminiscences are only precariously honest. For I remember very well that the mentors, the Bishop and the Jewish lawyer were superb guides in the development of a pragmatic type of liberalism in which integrity and freedom from illusion were the primary components. Yet despite their influence I became one of the co-editors of the pacifist and quasi-socialist paper the "World Tomorrow". I disavowed socialism, primarily because it proved itself too pacifistic in the interventionist debate between the two World Wars. This means that I left the Socialist Party because I disavowed pacifism. But I must have remained enough of a socialist to approach the dawn of the Rooseveltian era with supercilious doctrinaire criticisms and with blindness to its real merits. I draw the conclusion from this chapter in my history that "intellectuals" are more given to abstract and utopian convictions than the "common people", workers, for instance. These have always contented themselves with proximate goals of justice, which added to more in the long run than the utopian schemes of the intellectuals. But I had better confine this indictment of the intellectuals to those of my generation. For in my subsequent political activities I came in contact with many academics who had acquired a pragmatic approach to problems of justice, which I did not learn until history refuted all the illusions which I clung to so desperately and incongruously.

Reinhold Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr Papers: Library of Congress, Manuscript Reading Room

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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.