Quotations by Niebuhr, Reinhold


[T]here are historic situations in which refusal to defend the inheritance of a civilization, however imperfect, against tyranny and aggression may result in consequences even worse than war.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) American theologian and clergyman
“Christian Faith and the World Crisis,” Christianity and Crisis (10 Feb 1941)
Added on 12-Jun-17 | Last updated 12-Jun-17
Link to this post | No comments
Topics: , , , , , , ,
More quotes by Niebuhr, Reinhold

From the perspective of society the highest moral ideal is justice. From the perspective of the individual the highest ideal is unselfishness. Society must strive for justice even if it is forced to use means, such as self-assertion, resistance, coercion and perhaps resentment, which cannot gain the moral sanction of the most sensitive moral spirit.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) American theologian and clergyman
“Pacifism Against the Wall,” The American Scholar (Spring 1936)

Full text.
Added on 11-May-11 | Last updated 11-May-11
Link to this post | No comments
More quotes by Niebuhr, Reinhold

God, give us the grace to accept with serenity the things which cannot be changed, courage to change the things which should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the one from the other.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) American theologian and clergyman
“The Serenity Prayer” (1934)

Niebuhr at one point claimed authorship (and took copyright fees from Hallmark Cards), but later on denied he had written it. It was later adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous. Discussion of the actual authorship here.
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 14-Nov-15
Link to this post | No comments
Topics: , , , , , ,
More quotes by Niebuhr, Reinhold

Fanatic orthodoxy is never rooted in faith but in doubt. It is when we are not sure that we are doubly sure.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) American theologian and clergyman
(Attributed)
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 1-Feb-04
Link to this post | No comments
More quotes by Niebuhr, Reinhold

Change is the essence of life: be willing to surrender who you are for what you could become.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) American theologian and clergyman
(Attributed)

Sometimes elided to: "Change is the essence of life: surrender who you are for what you could become."
Added on 13-Jul-17 | Last updated 13-Jul-17
Link to this post | No comments
Topics: , , , , , , ,
More quotes by Niebuhr, Reinhold

There is no social evil, no form of injustice, whether of the feudal or capitalist order, which has not been sanctified in some way or another by religious sentiment and thereby rendered more impervious to change.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) American theologian and clergyman
Christian Realism and Political Problems (1953)
Added on 20-Mar-14 | Last updated 20-Mar-14
Link to this post | No comments
Topics: ,
More quotes by Niebuhr, Reinhold

The real problem of our existence lies in the fact that we ought to love one another, but do not.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) American theologian and clergyman
Christian Realism and Political Problems, ch. 8 (1953)
Added on 20-Apr-15 | Last updated 20-Apr-15
Link to this post | No comments
Topics: , , , , ,
More quotes by Niebuhr, Reinhold

Love must be regarded as the final flower and fruit of justice. When it is substituted for justice it degenerates into sentimentality and may become the accomplice of tyranny. Looking at the tragic contemporary scene within this frame of reference, we feel that American Christianity is all too prone to disavow its responsibilities for the preservation of our civilization against the perils of totalitarian aggression. We are well aware of the sins of all the nations, including our own, which have contributed to the chaos of our era. […] Yet we believe the task of defending the rich inheritance of our civilization to be an imperative one, however much we might desire that our social system were more worthy of defense. We believe that the possibility of correcting its faults and extending its gains may be annulled for centuries if this external peril is not resolutely faced.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) American theologian and clergyman
Christianity and Crisis (10 February 1941)
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 1-Feb-04
Link to this post | No comments
More quotes by Niebuhr, Reinhold

Humor is the prelude to faith, and laughter is the beginning of prayer.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) American theologian and clergyman
Discerning the Signs of the Times
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 1-Feb-04
Link to this post | No comments
More quotes by Niebuhr, Reinhold

The worst human conflicts are conflicts between righteous men who are too self-righteous to know how evil they are. They are conflicts between nations and cultures who do not recognize how partial and relative is every value of human devotion. It is the human effort to make our partial values absolute which is always the final sin in human life; and it always results in the most bloody of human conflicts.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) American theologian and clergyman
Doom and Dawn [with George S. Eddy] (1936)
Added on 21-Aug-08 | Last updated 21-Aug-08
Link to this post | No comments
More quotes by Niebuhr, Reinhold

Human conflicts are so terrible precisely because human beings are always engaged in the pretension of being like God, that is, fighting for some absolute and final good.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) American theologian and clergyman
Doom and Dawn [with George S. Eddy] (1936)
Added on 22-Oct-08 | Last updated 22-Oct-08
Link to this post | No comments
More quotes by Niebuhr, Reinhold

The weaknesses of the spirit of love in solving larger and more complex problems become increasingly apparent as one proceeds from ordinary relations between individuals to the life of social groups. If nations and other social groups find it difficult to approximate the principles of justice, as we have previously noted, they are naturally even less capable of achieving the principle of love, which demands more than justice. The demand of religious moralists that nations subject themselves to “the law of Christ” is an unrealistic demand, and the hope that they will do so is a sentimental one.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) American theologian and clergyman
Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932)
Added on 27-May-11 | Last updated 27-May-11
Link to this post | No comments
More quotes by Niebuhr, Reinhold

Since inequalities of privilege are greater than could possibly be defended rationally, the intelligence of privileged groups is usually applied to the task of inventing specious proofs for the theory that universal values spring from, and that general interests are served by, the special privileges which they hold.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) American theologian and clergyman
Moral Man and Immoral Society, ch. 5 “The Ethical Attitudes of Privileged Classes” (1932)

Full text.

Added on 25-Mar-10 | Last updated 25-Mar-10
Link to this post | No comments
More quotes by Niebuhr, Reinhold

Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible, but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) American theologian and clergyman
The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, foreward (1944)
Added on 1-Feb-04 | Last updated 10-Aug-09
Link to this post | No comments
More quotes by Niebuhr, Reinhold

Democracy means, not “I am as good as you are,” but, “You are as good as I am.”

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) American theologian and clergyman
The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness, foreward (1944)

This quote was difficult to track down. It's quoted everywhere -- but often attributed to Theodore Parker (as I previously did) or James Russell Lowell. I couldn't find, however, any specific citation from either gentleman.

Rev. John Murray Atwood, in his essay "Universalism and Educational Ideas" in 1770-1920 - From Good Luck to Gloucester, ed. Rev. Frederick A Bisbee (1920), writes:

But he who not only feels that he himself has unknown, divine possibilities, but so has his fellow, that democracy means, not I am as good as you are, but you are as good as I am, who seeks as the expression of his own true nature the larger liberty and life for others, is the kind of man essential to construct a new world.


The book is a history of Universalism, which may tie into Theodore Parker's Unitarian career. At any rate, the wording does seem to precede Niebuhr, but lacking a solid citation, I'll leave it with him.
Added on 19-Sep-07 | Last updated 13-Jul-17
Link to this post | No comments
Topics: , , , ,
More quotes by Niebuhr, Reinhold

Nothing worth doing is completed in our lifetime; therefore, we are saved by hope. Nothing true or beautiful or good makes complete sense in any immediate context of history;
 therefore, we are saved by faith.
 Nothing we do, however virtuous, can be accomplished alone; therefore, we are saved by love.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) American theologian and clergyman
The Irony of American History (1952)
Added on 8-Apr-10 | Last updated 8-Apr-10
Link to this post | No comments
More quotes by Niebuhr, Reinhold

We find it almost as difficult as the communists to believe that anyone could think ill of us, since we are as persuaded as the communists that our society is so essentially virtuous that only malice could prompt criticism of any of our actions.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) American theologian and clergyman
The Irony of American History (1962)
Added on 4-Dec-13 | Last updated 4-Dec-13
Link to this post | No comments
Topics: , , , ,
More quotes by Niebuhr, Reinhold

The separation of church and state is necessary partly because if religion is good then the state shouldn’t interfere with the religious vision or with the religious prophet. There must be a realm of truth beyond political competence, that’s why there must be a separation of churches. But if religion is bad, and a bad religion is one that gives an ultimate sanctity to some particular cause, then religion mustn’t interfere with the state. So one of the basic democratic principles as we know it in America is the separation of church and state.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) American theologian and clergyman
Interview with Mike Wallace (27 Apr 1958)

Full text.
Added on 2-May-12 | Last updated 2-May-12
Link to this post | No comments
More quotes by Niebuhr, Reinhold