American Jeremiah

Reinhold Niebuhr: A Biography

by Richard Wightman Fox
Pantheon, 340 pp., $19.95

Reinhold Niebuhr
Reinhold Niebuhr; drawing by David Levine

Reinhold Niebuhr, who died only fifteen years ago, is little known among the rising generation of young intellectuals. Despite the renewed interest in religion at American colleges and universities, it is difficult today to imagine a charismatic Protestant preacher electrifying students and faculty on all the major campuses, influencing statesmen and reformers, and commanding respect, even among agnostics and non-Christians, as one of the leading intellects and social critics of the century. At a time when American culture is ominously divided between fundamentalists and secular humanists, it is difficult to recapture Niebuhr’s remarkable presence from the 1930s to the 1960s, decades that were supposedly dominated by science and secularization. How can one explain Niebuhr’s close ties with such figures as Felix Frankfurter, W.H. Auden, Lewis Mumford, Lionel Trilling, Perry Miller, Hubert Humphrey, and Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.? Did Niebuhr, who could admire the antics of an evangelist like Billy Sunday and yet disavow supernaturalism and any belief in personal immortality, leave us clues for narrowing the cultural rift in our country as we hurtle on to the twenty-first century?

Niebuhr’s father was a German immigrant, a minister of the German Evangelical Synod in Illinois. Like his father, Niebuhr prepared for the ministry at Eden Theological Seminary, but then went on to study at Yale Divinity School, where he struggled to free himself from his provincial German-American heritage. In 1915, when he was twenty-three, he became pastor of a congregation in suburban Detroit. There he acquired increasing prominence as a dynamic preacher and social critic, attacking the moral complacency of the 1920s, the labor policies of the Ford Motor Company, and the racism of the Ku Klux Klan. Niebuhr first became involved in politics when the mayor of Detroit appointed him chairman of an interracial committee to study the living conditions of the city’s black population. By 1928, when Niebuhr accepted an associate professorship at Union Theological Seminary, in New York, he was already a socialist and a leading spokesman for left-wing Protestants. As Niebuhr continued to search for an effective Christian approach to the national and international crises of the 1930s, he confirmed his position as a brilliant expounder and interpreter of the American jeremiad.

The American jeremiad, as Sacvan Bercovitch has defined it, is “a mode of public exhortation…designed to join social criticism to spiritual renewal.”1 This kind of preaching, largely derived from the Old Testament prophets, originated in Europe but was transformed by the New England Puritans to meet the ideological needs of a people commissioned by God to build a new Jerusalem in the wilderness. As Bercovitch demonstrates, the jeremiad sermon became a vehicle for denouncing the sins of the day while reaffirming America’s historical mission. The abominations of a backsliding generation, which deserved God’s severest chastisement, provided the occasion for lamentation, repentance, and renewal of purpose. The worse the crisis, the greater the assurance that Americans could…

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