Monday, January 04, 2010

Niebuhr the Preacher


My recent interest in Reinhold Niebuhr has intersected with my work on a Wikipedia article on Edgar Dewitt Jones, the founding pastor of my congregation.  Jones was a preacher and a student of preaching, and two of his books focused on the great preachers.  One was written late in his life and focused on the Lyman Beecher Lecturers -- The Royalty of the Pulpit.  The other book was written in 1933, five years after he opened the newly built Central Woodward Christian Church in Detroit.  When he arrived in Detroit in 1920, Niebuhr was serving as pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church, a congregation that the young Niebuhr took from a few families to a thriving and growing congregation. As is so often true of a pastor of such caliber, his presence was so strong that the congregation was not the same once he left, this according to Jones.

I have been interested in the interaction that may have occurred between them.  Although Jones' American Preachers of Today (Bobb's Merrill, 1933), doesn't give any evidence that the two were either close or worked together, and by the time the book was written, Niebuhr had been at Union for half a decade, still it is clear that he had contact with Niebuhr, had heard him preach, and was greatly impressed by him.

Jones opens chapter on Niebuhr by noting that Niebuhr is one of the few who can "exude pessimism and magantism at the same time."  He goes on to say that while Niebuhr claims to be a "tamed cynic," Niebuhr "is neither cynical nor tame."  He is one of the few, according to Jones who is both "radical and deeply religious" (p. 249). 

I find this description of Niebuhr fascinating and maybe illuminating on the man who would consult with Presidents, and continues to influence them to this day:

Niebuhr is tall, slender, and boasts a peaches-and-cream complexion.  His forehead is high, his hair thin and growing thinner.  He would never take a prize in an oratorical contest.  His delivery is careless; he "ahs" and "ers" a deal; and is powerfully fond of the word "naive."  Occasionally he impinges a Germanism upon his English, but what of it?  -- the man's mind is quick as lightning, his ideas are fertile and fertilizing.  He is a student, a scholar and very much a philosopher, often disturbing in public speech and in his writings, yet always stimulating, and to most minds vastly entertaining.  (pp. 250-251).

Jones was very different from Niebuhr.  He was careful in his use of words, giving attention to every turn of phrase.  And yet, there is admiration for one such as this.  Jones' description only intrigues me more!




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