Reinhold Niebuhr Timeline: Publishes "The Failure of German-Americanism"

Reinhold Niebuhr Timeline: Publishes "The Failure of German-Americanism"

Correspondence with Professor Samuel Press

Detroit, Mich. Nov. 3, 1915.

Dear Professor Press:
It has been some time since you have heard from me and since I have heard from you. In the meanwhile I went through quite a scrap with the Mission board. I was very sorry that I had to begin my work in this way. I was sent here under false pretenses but forced them to make good the promises they made to me. I was very sorry that thereby I was placed in the position of demanding something that has never been given to a young unmarried man before. But even for a man just graduating from Eden $600 per year is too little for a metropolis where over half has to go for board. Perhaps it is a good thing therefore that I forced them to break this rule. They are now giving me $800 and the district board $100.

In the meanwhile something happened that almost made me wish that they had refused every demand of mine and given me an excuse to get out of this nest of reaction. I know you will think me an incorrigible calamity howler for saying this but I would like to tell you just how I feel regarding my work.

I have never attended a ministers meeting here that I did not leave boiling mad. One time they discussed the advisability of giving up our missions in India because India belongs to the English. Another time they decided to refuse support to the Sunday school board because that board went to the expense of hiring a secretary. Again they decided not to take part in the Layman Missionary movement, which met here two weeks ago, the most splendid religious movement in American life. Yesterday they ridiculed the Elmhurst summer school and quoted Praeses Niefer with satisfaction as having said that he thanked God that none of his young people had been there, that the close of the school was a wild orgy and that it had taught the young people nothing but to be dissatisfied with their pastor if he did not have all this modern "Krimakrams" in his congregation. I am very sorry for the feelings which I have to my brother pastors here because they have treated me with real courtesy. But I know of no set of men with whom I have less in common and with whom I could disagree more heartily on every question of policy or doctrine. Yesterday they also decided to discontinue the Detroit Jugen bund meetings for the very good reason that most of the churches haven't any young peoples work to speak of. They say it only teaches the young people to stay away from church.

All these laughable medieval theories make me both angry and despondent. They continually awake the suspicion in me that the forces of reaction in our church are much stronger than the progressives, so strong that no great hope for betterment is in sight. To be very candid with you I do not feel at all at home in our church. I do not know whether Yale is the cause of this. I hope that I would have had enough sense without Yale influence to resent the imbecile standpattism of some sections of our church.

The war question is also making me feel uneasy. The German propaganda is so hysterical among many of our ministers that largely by reaction I am getting to be a violent American patriot. I have heard no "Festrede" here that was not at least half or generally more a violent defense of the German cause combined with calumny of her enemies that violated the simplest and primary rules of Christianity. Among the ministers here at least and among many that I know of in other parts there is no real interest in the welfare of this country and no genuine American patriotism. At the union anniversary prayer here the man who offered the principle prayer prayed that God might save his handful of faithful from the "Amerikanischen Geist." Every aspect of German life and culture is glorified and practically every aspect of American life is ridiculed. I have myself the greatest admiration for Germany but I am beginning to feel that our church is trying to perpetuate a little Germany here rather than educate its people to real American patriotism. I can well understand the feelings of those born in the other country and I am sure that if my father were living I would differ somewhat with him on the war. But I am sorry that our church has nowhere expressed a sentiment that would be acceptable to Germans of the second generation. For I think that it would be wrong for them to hold the same views that their fathers hold. Their interest ought to be here primarily and over there only secondarily while we may expect that a man who was born on German soil will in spite of all new oaths of allegiance think of Germany as his father land. But for my part I am unwilling that my admiration for that unmatched patriotism of another country should be the very influence to make a more worthy patriotism impossible here.

In the meanwhile I am getting a little pleasure out of my congregation which consists of a very progressive set of people. 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 much more German than most of the Eden graduates get and have to throw all my ambitions of perfecting myself in English to the winds. But the congregation is growing nicely. The Sunday-school has increased from an average attendance of 23 to an average of 50. Other departments show equally slight gains. So I am trying to find a little happiness in that. But every once in a while I get despondent and write a letter such as this one. Please pardon that I chose you as a victim. And if you haven't the time to read it throw it in the basket.

Yours very sincerely,
R. Niebuhr

Reinhold Niebuhr Papers: Library of Congress, Manuscript Reading Room

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.