Serenity, Courage, and Wisdom: The Continuing Legacy of Reinhold Niebuhr

By Patricia Anders, Editorial Director, Hendrickson Publishers

“O God, give us serenity to accept what cannot be changed, courage to change what should be changed, and wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.”
—Reinhold Niebuhr

This famous prayer, known as the Serenity Prayer, was jotted down on a piece of paper in 1934 by Reinhold Niebuhr for a sermon he gave at a small church in Massachusetts. Present at this service was his next-door neighbor, Howard Chandler Robbins, dean of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York City. When Robbins asked for a copy, Niebuhr handed him the paper and said, “Here, take the prayer. I have no further use for it.” This prayer would go on to impact the lives of countless millions, including military chaplains on the battlefield during World War II and members of the international organization Alcoholics Anonymous, who still use this prayer today.

I remember years ago owning a bookmark with those words embroidered on it (apparently there has been a plethora of gift items inscribed with this prayer, some of which were sent to Niebuhr as get-well gifts later in his life). I wish I still had that bookmark as this prayer is something that continues to comfort and challenge me. Especially in our crazy world today, these words ring louder and truer than ever. We desperately need God to give us peace—serenity—to accept what cannot be changed. We need God to give us courage to change what should be changed (of which there seems to be an overwhelming amount). And, most importantly, we need God to grant us the wisdom to know the difference between these two!

It is this wisdom—this discernment—that we see in the life of Reinhold Niebuhr, who was considered a “public theologian” and even “America’s conscience” during the turmoil of the twentieth century. Forty-six years after his death, however, Niebuhr and his theology remain as relevant as ever. This is evidenced by the re-release of Bob Reinhold Niebuhr: Makers of the Modern Theological Mind SeriesPatterson’s book, Reinhold Niebuhr, in Hendrickson’s Makers of the Modern Theological Mind series. Also recently released is a new book by theologian Jeremy L. Sabella, An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story, to accompany the documentary of the same name by Martin Doblmeier, which is being broadcast nationally on PBS during the month of April (see below for more details on this excellent film). These works all complement each other and together provide an engaging overview of Niebuhr’s life, work, and enduring legacy.

One question that has certainly arisen in this recent resurgence of interest in Niebuhr is: “Where are the public theologians in our society today?” Taking a brief look at him may give us some insight as to why this question is being asked—and perhaps how we can answer it.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971)

“Intent on intensifying responsibility, he was impatient of excuse, contemptuous of pretense and self-pity. . . . Niebuhr’s life was a song in the form of deeds, a song that will go on forever.”
—Abraham Joshua Heschel, “Eulogy for Reinhold Niebuhr”

Born in Wright City, Missouri, on June 21, 1892, Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr was raised in a Lutheran German immigrant family. After earning a master of divinity from Yale Divinity School, in 1915 Niebuhr began pastoring Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit, Michigan. In 1928, he began serving as a professor in ethics at Union Theological Seminary, where he spent the rest of his career, retiring in 1960. He died on May 31, 1971, at age of eighty-seven in his home in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

While there is not space here to discuss Niebuhr’s huge influence on important figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Jimmy Carter (along with many others), or his theological works, I would like to focus on a story that seems to be the making of him as a “public theologian”—and which still speaks to us today.

There is always the issue of how much the church should be involved with worldly matters. Some say that it should focus only on being the church (that is, administering the sacraments, preaching the gospel, and so on). Then there are others who argue that being the church means being concerned with what matters around us outside church our walls and doing whatever we need to do to help others (that is, social justice issues and so on). This is where the role of the “public theologian” comes into play. While Niebuhr was concerned with ecclesiological matters at Bethel, he also felt strongly about being active in society—especially in the rapidly growing industrial city of Detroit. His involvement with the Social Gospel movement in the early part of the twentieth century is evidence of this, as seen in his writing campaign against one of the most powerful industrialists of the time.

The Feud with Ford

“Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”
—Reinhold Niebuhr, The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness

Bethel Baptist Church

During the time Niebuhr served as pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit (1915–1928), the American auto industry grew exponentially—thanks to Henry Ford and the unveiling of his affordable Model T in 1908. Naturally, many of those in Niebuhr’s congregation worked for the Ford Corporation, which meant that Pastor Niebuhr was well aware of working conditions inside the plant. He would soon take on Henry Ford through a series of articles Niebuhr would write for the Christian Century magazine. As he put it: “I cut my eyeteeth fighting Ford.”

Henry Ford with 1921 Model T

Although Henry Ford (1863–1947) was praised for his generosity at paying his workers the unprecedented amount of five dollars a day, ten years later Ford had not increased these wages although the cost of living had doubled. When he changed the work week from six to five days, he was hailed as a true humanitarian. But it turned out that while this seemingly munificent creation of the two-day weekend increased company profits, it hurt his workers who needed six days of wages in order to survive. Another supposedly wonderful deed exposed by Niebuhr had to do with Ford’s firing older workers to bring in young “delinquent” men, which Ford said would help reduce crime—but which succeeded in depriving older workers of vital paid labor, leaving them destitute.

In “How Philanthropic Is Henry Ford?” Niebuhr writes:

Mr. Ford is celebrated throughout the nation as the most benevolent of employers, while human material is used with a ruthlessness and disregard for ultimate effects.

An assembly line in one of Ford’s factories

In Reinhold Niebuhr, Bob Patterson says, “Ford, appealing to humanitarian motives to justify his economic policies, came to represent for Niebuhr the capitalistic system.” While Ford was indeed prosperous (and to his credit, he was the first to hire women, African Americans, and handicapped workers), Niebuhr saw that Ford’s workers had become part of the “impersonal assembly line.” Patterson continues:

[Niebuhr’s] Detroit experience posed for him the problems with which he would struggle throughout his career—racial strife, economic injustice, international disorder, and an adequate theology. Detroit was to see the beginning of Niebuhr’s pragmatism, that ability to break away from the givens that his biographer June Bingham calls “the courage to change.” Detroit was the learning laboratory for him as he moved from parish ministry to public protester.

Unfortunately, Niebuhr was unsuccessful in effecting the needed changes at the Ford plant. This was mainly due to the fact that other ministers in the area refused to support him in his cause. Some years later, in 1953, he would write in Christian Realism and Political Problems:

There is no social evil, no form of injustice whether of the feudal or the capitalist order which has not been sanctified in some way or other by religious sentiment and thereby rendered more impervious to change.

To be fair, Niebuhr was not convinced that Henry Ford did any of this out of malice (although Ford soon demonstrated his “humanitarianism” with his series of anti-Semitic articles, which were published in 1920 by a member of the German Reichstag as The International Jew, the World’s Foremost Problem; Heinrich Himmler described Ford as “one of our most valuable, important, and witty fighters”; Hitler mentioned him in Mein Kampf; and the Nazi government awarded him the Grand Cross of the German Eagle).

This defeat in Niebuhr’s campaign for reform, however, set him off on a new direction: he now understood that the Social Gospel movement was too narrow in thinking that humanity was essentially good and that the kingdom of God could be ushered in if only everyone did their part. This would lead to his first major book, Moral Man and Immoral Society, published in 1932, four years after he left Detroit to teach at Union Theological Seminary. As Patterson puts it, Niebuhr had begun to understand the “moral significance of power.”

Truth and Power in Christ

“The situation is that I have come gradually to realize that it is possible to look at the human situation without illusion and without despair only from the standpoint of the Christ-revelation. It has come to be more and more the ultimate truth.”
—Reinhold Niebuhr, “Reply to Interpretation and Criticism”

After the lost battle with Ford, Patterson writes that Niebuhr’s “theology underwent a significant change. He entered his parish with the moralistic assumptions of optimistic liberalism, the goodness of man, and the inevitability of human progress, but he soon saw that corrupting self-interest is inextricably involved in the human situation.” Niebuhr was shocked at corporate greed and even more shocked at the church’s lack of response to do anything about it (he was also stunned that right after he left Bethel, the church voted to ban African Americans from becoming members, thus totally dismantling Niebuhr’s fervent efforts at racial equality).

Turning to the doctrine of original sin, which had been downplayed for many years at this point, Niebuhr saw humanity’s dire need for God’s grace and that the only truth and power were in Christ. “The transcendent Christ and the empowering Christ were linked together,” Patterson writes. “The problem [for Niebuhr] came to be how to show that the cross expressed the transcendent reality of Christ and his transforming power in human nature.” Niebuhr tackles this in Faith and History (1949) and The Nature and Destiny of Man (1953), in which he writes,

The God whom Christians worship reveals his majesty and holiness not in eternal disinterestedness but in suffering love.

As Patterson summarizes, we should seek “a harmony of love which relates itself to others and to God”—basically, adhering to the two most important commandments of loving God and our neighbor.

Where Are the Public Theologians Today?

There is much more that can be said here of Reinhold Niebuhr, but since Bob Patterson did such an excellent job in his book in Hendrickson’s Makers of the Modern Theological Mind series, I will highly recommend it here. Although it was first published forty years ago, only a few years after Niebuhr’s death, it remains a good and insightful overview of Niebuhr’s major thought and works.

In going back to the question posed earlier in this article—where are the public theologians in our society today?—I hope the answer has become clearer after looking (however briefly) at Reinhold Niebuhr and what it means to do theology publicly. In November 2016, I was able to attend the debut of Martin Doblmeier’s documentary on Niebuhr at the annual meeting of the American Academy of Religion. Present were many of the participants of the film afterward for a panel discussion and a time for questions.

No doubt most of these participants could be considered “public theologians.” Luther, however, said that all Christians are theologians and that we should all seek to love God and our neighbor. So perhaps the task of the “public theologian” falls in some degree to every one of us. Although we Christian “realists” (as Niebuhr referred to himself) know that we humans cannot usher in the kingdom of God, we can still be witnesses to it in our words and in our actions, striving to do what God has clearly called us to do—with serenity, courage, and wisdom:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
(Micah 6:8)


Patricia Anders is editorial director at Hendrickson Publishers. She also serves as the managing editor of Modern Reformation magazine, teaches Aesthetic Aspects in Literature at Gordon College in Massachusetts, and is the author of A Winter’s Blooming (HNN Press, 2012).

An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr StoryDuring the month of April, An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story (www.journeyfilms.com), which has just won the 2017 Gabriel Award for documentary films, will be broadcast nationwide on PBS. Check your local PBS station for showings or watch this short film (available for a limited time) on their website. This hour-long documentary features interviews with former president Jimmy Carter, Civil Rights leader Andrew Young, New York Times writer David Brooks, and theologians Stanley Hauerwas and Cornel West, along with many others.

Reinhold Niebuhr: Makers of the Modern Theological Mind SeriesFor more information on Reinhold Niebuhr, from the Makers of the Modern Theological Mind series, visit our website!

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