An American Conscience (Jeremy Sabella) -- A Review

AN AMERICAN CONSCIENCE:The Reinhold Niebuhr Story. By Jeremy L. Sabella. Foreword by Robin W. Lovin. Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2017. Xvi + 153 pages.

Edgar DeWitt Jones was Reinhold Niebuhr's colleague from 1920 to 1928, as Niebuhr served as pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church. During their eight years serving in the same city, Jones got to know Niebuhr first hand. Jones founded the church I now serve as pastor and wrote a book about American preachers of his day, among whom he numbered Niebuhr. He notes that "Niebuhr claims to be a 'tamed cynic,' but he is neither cynical nor tame. He is one of the few shining intellectuals among the preachers of America who are both radical and deeply religious" [American Preachers of Today: Intimate Portrayals of Thirty-Two Leaders, (Bobbs-Merrill, Co., 1933), p. 249]. Niebuhr came to Detroit as a young man, fresh out of seminary, called to serve a small German Evangelical Church, which exploded under his leadership, even though he took on the powers of Detroit, including Henry Ford himself. From Detroit, Niebuhr went on to become one of America's great intellectual figures, as well as a major leader within the religious community. Jones' description is apt, for he was both radical (at least in the earliest phase of his ministry) and deeply religious. There were few religious leaders that were his equal.

This book, written by historian Jeremy Sabella serves as a companion to the excellent PBS documentary of the same title (Martin Doblmeier was the director of that film). Sabella tells in rather brief form the story of Niebuhr's life and of his influence on the world in which he lived. Sabella makes use of written resources, both those of Niebuhr and those of his interpreters and biographers. He also taps into the interviews that formed the documentary. Thus, we hear from persons ranging from Cornel West to Jimmy Carter. 


Sabella begins the story by setting Niebuhr in his familial context, as the son of a preacher and as part of a family that was deeply religious and intellectually inclined. The book really gets underway when Niebuhr arrives in Detroit, where he would serve as pastor of Bethel Evangelical Church from 1915-1928. These were the early days of the auto boom that would make Detroit the Motor City, and no one was more powerful in the city than Henry Ford. Sensitized to the plight of the laboring class, it did not take long for Niebuhr to tangle with Ford. He sought to undermine Ford’s image as the benevolent owner who did well by his workers. During this period Niebuhr became actively involved with supporting unions and then in support of civil rights for Detroit's burgeoning African American population. It was during this period that he began to make a name for himself as a writer and spell-binding speaker. 

His tenure in Detroit led to his call by Union Theological Seminary to teach ethics, even though he lacked the requisite academic credentials. The call came due to the belief on the part of the seminary's president, Henry Sloane Coffin, that Niebuhr could help the seminary bridge the divide between the academic culture and real-world issues, and in time the seminary embraced him as one of their own. As he had as a preacher in Detroit, as a teacher at Union he brought a dynamic force of personality to the seminary. It was early in his tenure at Union that Niebuhr met a young English student, with whom he found common cause. In due time Reinhold and Ursula were married, forming a powerful team, for Ursula was his intellectual equal.

It was after the move to Union, but rooted in his Detroit experience, that Niebuhr wrote his first major book, a book that might be his greatest contribution—Moral Man and Immoral Society. That book, which appeared in 1932 still resonates to this day. In this book we see Niebuhr engage with the realities of the social situation of his day, taking note of the immorality of the culture that entraps human beings. It was a book the reflected the reality of the Great Depression that gripped the nation and much of the world. It was during this period that Niebuhr joined the Socialist Party and entered the political fray. In other words, this was not merely a theoretical work. It was rooted in his own sense of engagement with his context.

After the appearance of Moral Man and Immoral Society, he began to hear critiques that his book lacked theological depth. Among these critics was his brother H. Richard, who was teaching ethics at Yale. As a result of conversations with Helmut and others, including the recently arrived Paul Tillich, he began to sharpen his theological voice. Speaking of Tillich, we learn that Niebuhr was a major force in bringing the German theologian to Union, even persuading his colleagues to take a pay cut during the Depression so that Tillich could immigrate. Because of this engagement, Niebuhr wrote his next book, Reflections on an End of an Era (1934). This book, which Sabella says was Niebuhr's most radical work, is also the only book not to be reprinted. In it, he sought to provide theological grounding for interpreting what he believed was the world's impending collapse. I didn't know of this work before reading this biography, but Sabella’s discussion of it helps us understand Niebuhr's desire to understand theologically the world in which he lived and served. It was here in the 1930s that Niebuhr forged his theological vocabulary and engaged the world outside the seminary walls, developing a reputation as an important religious voice, but also a political one.

His next book, The Nature and Destiny of Man (one I’ve yet to read), brought to the public Niebuhr's 1939 Gifford Lectures (he was only the fourth American to give these prestigious lectures at the University of Edinburgh). Although it shouldn't surprise me, Niebuhr, who was pushing for American support of the allied war effort in the face of American isolationism, delivered the lectures as German bombs fell nearby. As the book progresses we find Niebuhr being consulted by the government as it sought to push back the Nazi scourge. We also find him serving as a strong voice for recognizing the plight of the Jews, and later as a strong advocate for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine. It was during the period of engagement during the war and immediately afterward that Niebuhr began to forge his Christian Realism, a recognition that even at our best we are sin-affected beings. He challenged American self-assurance with a measure of religious realism. 

The radical Niebuhr of the 1920s and 1930s found himself pulled into the establishment, for this he was criticized by some former allies. However, it seems from Sabella's portrayal that he was not a creature of the establishment. He served there, but kept his own counsel, which led to the FBI keeping a detailed file on him. 

In 1952 Niebuhr was stricken by a stroke that forced him to slow down his frenetic pace. He became more and more dependent on others, including his wife Ursula who gave up her academic post to assist Niebuhr in his efforts. Though never again as active as he was before the stroke, he would remain a force in both the religious and non-religious world. As his life wound down, Niebuhr became a close friend of Rabbi Abraham Heschel. The two men lived near each other, and spent considerable time together. As they took regular talks in each other’s company, sharing their thoughts on the world and on religion. This led to an agreement that the other would deliver the eulogy for whoever died first. Thus, Heschel, the Jewish Rabbi gave the eulogy at the funeral of America's greatest theological figure. What a fitting tribute to a man who recognized the social dimensions of the faith. He had his blind spots, of course, but he sought to engage the world in transformative ways, which is likely why we continue to remember him to this day.

Having thoroughly enjoyed the documentary, which strangely did not get shown in Detroit, I found the book to be an excellent companion. Sabella introduces us to the important influences on Niebuhr's life, including his brother Helmut, with whom he didn't always agree, his wife Ursula, and Tillich. We explore his legacy, and the questions as to why the radicalism of his early life gave way to a more traditional liberalism in later years. Through the interviews with admirers and critics, we see his continuing legacy to this very day. Perhaps now is a time when the realism of Niebuhr, the recognition of the effect of sin on power, is sorely needed. Niebuhr would make clear that for America to be great, it should not pursue America first policies. 

I thoroughly enjoyed the book, though one nagging element stood out. Sabella suggests that Niebuhr earned a Master of Divinity degree at Eden Seminary. The M.Div. did not come into being until long after Niebuhr went to seminary. He in fact earned the Bachelor of Divinity, which would become the Master of Divinity degree, but that is not what the degree was called. Had Sabella noted this fact, I would have been satisfied. Nonetheless, with or without a master's degree, Niebuhr was a theological giant, who continues to speak to America's conscience, raising the question of justice in the land, whether you agree with him or not!

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