Encyclopedia of Religion
and Society

William H. Swatos, Jr. Editor

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(1894-1962) American theologian and ethicist, born in Wright City, Missouri; younger brother of Reinhold Niebuhr.

Richard Niebuhr graduated from Elmhurst College (1912) and Eden Theological Seminary (1915), Washington University (M.A., 1917), and Yale University Divinity School (B.D., 1923; Ph.D., 1924). In the interim, Niebuhr was ordained in the Evangelical and Reformed Church (1916) and for a short time was a pastor in St. Louis. He taught (1919-1922 and 1927-1931) at Eden Theological Seminary and served as President of Elmhurst College (1924-1927). In 1931, he joined the faculty of Yale Divinity School and, in 1954, was named Sterling Professor of Theology and Christian Ethics at Yale, a post he held until his death.

H. Richard Niebuhr was a complex theologian whom his brother described as the more philosophical of the two famous siblings. Whereas Reinhold leaned toward Luther's theological stance, Richard was more inclined toward Augustinian, Calvinistic approaches to the realm of theological and ethical discourse Kierkegaard and Barth as well as MacIntosh and Royce informed his early theological reflections, but he was also deeply influenced by Ernst Troeltsch and the whole liberal German tradition that Troeltsch represented. Niebuhr's first major book, The Social Sources of Denominationalism (Holt 1929), evidenced the fiery indignation of a young man concerned with the unity of the church. Although often considered Niebuhr's most sociological essay because he used, while modifying, the notions of "church" and "sect" derived from Troeltsch, the theoretical infrastructure of his argument was more readily influenced by the American progressive historians, especially Beard and Turner, rather than Troeltsch. Moreover, his argument was mildly Marxist in that it stressed the causative influence of material factors—class, race, region, immigrant status, and so forth—in accounting for divisions in the church. Niebuhr's second book, The Kingdom of God in America (Harper 1937), took the opposite tack and offered an ideational account of the development of American Protestant thought. The tension in the Niebuhrian corpus between material and ideational factors in these volumes written back-to-back was somewhat resolved in Christ and Culture (Harper 1951), wherein a five-part typology was constructed for understanding the options by which faith and secular culture, ideal and material forces, could be interrelated.

A bold new departure in Niebuhr's thinking was introduced in The Meaning of Revelation (Macmillan 1941), when the social theory of George Herbert Mead was appropriated to provide the infrastructure to Niebuhr's theological reflection. Socialization into a faith orientation of a community of selves became for Niebuhr the inner history of belief from which the meaning of revelation derived. Henceforth Niebuhr constructed his theological-ethical reflection around a tripartite structure and "trialectical" process among self-community-God. This pattern is manifested most clearly in The Responsible Self (Harper 1963), although it also appears in somewhat underdeveloped form in Radical Monotheism and Western Culture (Harper 1960) and the posthumous volume Faith on Earth (Yale University Press 1989).

Niebuhr was one of the few theologians who could successfully integrate social theory with theological construction. He ranks alongside Jonathan Edwards as one of the truly creative American theologians.

See also Church-Sect Theory

William R. Garrett


J. W. Fowler, To see the Kingdom (Nashville: Abingdon, 1974)

W. R. Garrett, "The Sociological Theology of H. Richard Niebuhr," in W. H. Swatos, Jr. (ed.), Religious Sociology (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1987): 41-55

P. Ramsay, Faith and Ethics (New York: Harper, 1957).

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