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Christian History Home > 1991 > Issue 32 > Friends He Met in America

Friends He Met in America
Three colleagues from Union Theological Seminary who deeply influenced Bonhoeffer
Dr. F. Burton Nelson is professor of theology and ethics at North Park Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois, and co-author of A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (HarperCollins, 1990). | posted 10/01/1991 12:00AM

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Reinhold Niebuhr (1892–1971)

When Reinhold Niebuhr died, Time eulogized him as “pre-eminent in his field, the greatest Protestant theologian in America since Jonathan Edwards.”  

After a thirteen-year pastorate at the Bethel Evangelical Church in Detroit, Niebuhr arrived at Union Theological Seminary in New York where he taught for more than thirty years as professor of applied Christianity. His Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, Interpretation of Christian Ethics,Moral Man and Immoral Society, Nature and Destiny of Man, and other writings made an indelible impact on the church. 

As a “German fellow,” Dietrich Bonhoeffer sat in Niebuhr’s classroom. They mutually respected and criticized each other’s perspectives, and they corresponded frequently during the 1930s. Niebuhr was influential in obtaining an invitation for Bonhoeffer to come to the U.S. for teaching and lecturing in 1939. Bonhoeffer, however, made a decision to return after only a few weeks. His letter of explanation has become a model for following conscience: “I have come to the conclusion that I have made a mistake in coming to America. I must live through this difficult period of our national history with the Christian people of Germany. I will have no right to participate in the reconstruction of Christian life in Germany after the war if I do not share the trials of this time with my people.”

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