Raised in the social gospel tradition of his father’s church, Martin Luther King encountered Reinhold Niebuhr’s less hopeful philosophy, Christian realism, as a student at Crozer Theological Seminary in 1949. King later evaluated Niebuhr’s contribution to theology as a rebuttal of “the false optimism characteristic of a great segment of Protestant liberalism” (King, 99).
Niebuhr was born in Wright City, Missouri, the son of a Lutheran minister, Gustave Niebuhr, and his wife Lydia. He attended Yale Divinity School (BD, 1914; MA, 1915) before assuming the pastorate of Bethel Evangelical Church of Detroit in 1915. In 1928 Niebuhr accepted a position at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he taught philosophy of religion and applied Christianity for the remainder of his life. As a founder of the journal Christianity and Crisis, and the political group Americans for Democratic Action, he exercised considerable influence in American religious and political thought.
Once an advocate of pacifism, Niebuhr served as chairman of the Fellowship of Reconciliation from 1931 until 1932. He broke from the movement in 1933 with the publication of his book Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932). Niebuhr embraced a new approach to theology and ethics called Christian realism. He argued that a chief reliance on the power of reason through education and moral suasion was naive and misplaced. Citing U.S. racial problems as an example, he declared, “However large the number of individual white men who do and who will identify themselves completely with the Negro cause, the white race in America will not admit the Negro to equal rights if he is not forced to do so” (Niebuhr, 253).
Prior to his initial introduction to the ideas of Niebuhr, King “was absolutely convinced of the natural goodness of man and the natural power of human reason” (Papers 5:419). Niebuhr, however, challenged the usefulness of moral idealism in struggles for social justice. In line with this thinking, King also appreciated Niebuhr’s interpretation of original sin, writing: “His theology is a persistent reminder of the reality of sin on every level of man’s existence” (King, 99). King wrote several papers on Niebuhr in the course of his doctoral studies at Boston University and determined that Niebuhr’s thought was “the necessary corrective of a kind of liberalism that too easily capitulated to modern culture” (Papers 2:278).
King wrote to Niebuhr in preparation for his doctoral dissertation comparing Paul Tillich’s and Henry Nelson Wieman’s concepts of God, asking for assistance with his topic. As he rose to national prominence, King continued to draw on Niebuhr’s philosophy as a theological basis for nonviolent civil rights protest. He linked Niebuhr’s Christian realism to his own ideas of Gandhian nonviolence, calling it “a Niebuhrian stratagem of power” (Branch, 87). King inscribed a copy of his 1958 account of the Montgomery bus boycott, Stride Toward Freedom, to Niebuhr, praising him as a theologian of “great prophetic vision,” with “unswerving devotion to the ideals of freedom and justice” (King, November 1958).
King invited Niebuhr to participate in the Selma to Montgomery March in 1965, and Niebuhr responded by telegram: “Only a severe stroke prevents me from accepting … I hope there will be a massive demonstration of all the citizens with conscience in favor of the elemental human rights of voting and freedom of assembly” (Niebuhr, 19 March 1965). Two years later, Niebuhr defended King’s decision to speak out against the Vietnam War, calling him “one of the greatest religious leaders of our time.” Niebuhr asserted: “Dr. King has the right and a duty, as both a religious and a civil rights leader, to express his concern in these days about such a major human problem as the Vietnam War” (Ansbro, 261). Of his country’s intervention in Vietnam, Niebuhr admitted: “For the first time I fear I am ashamed of our beloved nation” (Fox, 285).
Ansbro, Martin Luther King, Jr., 2000.
Branch, Parting the Waters, 1988.
Fox, Reinhold Niebuhr, 1985.
King, Inscription to Reinhold Niebuhr, November 1958, CNP.
King, “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” 13 April 1960, in Papers 5:419–425.
King, Stride Toward Freedom, 1958.
King, “The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr,” April 1953–June 1954, in Papers 2:269–279.
King to Niebuhr, 1 December 1953, in Papers 2:222–223.
Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, 1932.
Niebuhr to King, 19 March 1965, MCMLK-RWWL.