Born in 1892 in Wright City, Missouri, Niebuhr was the son of German immigrants. His father was German Evangelical pastor, and Niebuhr soon followed suit, studying at Elmhurst College, Eden Theological Seminary, and Yale Divinity School. Eventually he became ordained and began work as a pastor at the Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit, Michigan. During World War I, he gained recognition in his encouragement for German-Americans to express American loyalty. He also began conversations on patriotism and pacifism.
Niebuhr expressed sympathy for the working class and labor issues. He was a critic of Henry Ford, and called out assembly line workers’ poor conditions. His progressive sentiments gave him more notoriety, leading him to publish books such as Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. Niebuhr would later leave Detroit to begin working as a Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary in New York. He stayed at the school for the rest of his career, retiring in 1960.
Niebuhr became a leader in neo-orthodox theology. He was also part of the leadership for the Socialist Party of America. He supported America during World War II, and was also an advocate for nuclear weapon use and anti-communism. Despite these positions, he was against the Vietnam War. When he still resided in Detoit, he preached against the Klu Klux Klan. His philosophies were mentioned in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”.
Niebuhr was also known for claiming to have written the short Serenity Prayer. While this claim is up for debate, it is believed that he likely was the originator.
This profile was created during the 2023-2024 academic year as part of the Song of America Fellowship Program, a project of the Classic Song Research Initiative between the Hampsong Foundation and the University of Michigan, School of Music, Theatre, and Dance.