Reinhold Niebuhr Biography

Reinhold Niebuhr, a renowned American theologian and intellectual, was highly esteemed and admired by the masses. With a background in ministry and a long-standing association with New York’s Union Theological Seminary, Niebuhr made significant contributions to the field of Christian ethics. His philosophical approach focused on applying contemporary Christian models to politics and society, emphasizing the importance of love and peace in a world plagued by conflicts. As a prolific writer and captivating lecturer, Niebuhr gained national celebrity status and influenced influential figures such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and policymakers in the Kennedy administration.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Karl Paul Reinhold Niebuhr
  • Died At Age: 78
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Ursula Niebuhr
    • Father: Gustav Niebuhr
    • Mother: Lydia
    • Siblings: H. Richard Niebuhr, Hulda Niebuhr
    • Children: Christopher Niebuhr, Elisabeth Sifton Niebuhr
  • Theologians
  • Died on: June 1, 1971
  • Place of death: Stockbridge, Massachusetts, United States
  • Notable Alumni: Elmhurst College, Eden Theological Seminary
  • U.S. State: Missouri
  • More Facts
  • Education: Yale University, Eden Theological Seminary, Elmhurst College

Childhood & Early Life

Reinhold Niebuhr was born on June 21, 1892, in Wright City, Missouri, to German immigrants Gustav Niebuhr and Lydia. His father, a German Evangelical pastor, influenced him and his siblings in the field of theology. His brother H. Richard Niebuhr was a theological ethicist and his sister Hulda Niebuhr was a professor of divinity in Chicago. After moving to Illinois, Niebuhr served as an interim minister at St. John’s Church in 1913 after his father’s death. He graduated from Elmhurst College in 1910 and later studied at Eden Theological Seminary. In 1914, he received a Bachelor degree in Divinity from Yale Divinity School, followed by a Master of Arts degree in 1915.


After being ordained as a pastor in 1915, Niebuhr was sent to Detroit by the German Evangelical mission board. He was able to connect with people outside the German-American community, and the congregation grew significantly during his time there. During World War I in 1917, Niebuhr inspired German Americans to be patriotic to America, and his appeals were often published in national magazines, which gained him popularity. He served as Executive Secretary of the War Welfare Commission during the war while maintaining his position as a pastor in Detroit. He criticized Henry Ford and the automobile industry for the poor plight of automobile workers. In 1928, he moved to New York and became dedicated to Marxism. He became a Professor of Practical Theology at Union Theological Seminary, where he stayed for the rest of his career until his retirement in 1960. He also became an important leader of the militant section of the Socialist Party of America and co-founded the Union for Democratic Action in 1941. He served as its president for six years before it transformed into the Americans for Democratic Action in 1947. Throughout his career, Niebuhr published several books and was the editor of the magazine “Christianity and Crisis” from 1941 to 1966.

Major Works

Niebuhr’s books “Moral Man and Immoral Society” and “The Nature and Destiny of Man” are his most prominent works, which continue to influence and inspire politicians and leaders worldwide. He is also the author of the famous Serenity Prayer, which is adopted by the Alcoholics Anonymous and other twelve-step programs.

Personal Life & Legacy

In 1931, Niebuhr married Ursula Keppel-Compton, a Church member who studied theology and history at Oxford University. They had two children, a son named Christopher and a daughter named Elisabeth. Niebuhr passed away on June 1, 1971, in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, at the age of 78. In honor of his teaching years at the Union Theological Seminary, the West 120th Street in New York was named Reinhold Niebuhr Place.

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