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Uncredited: Was Ursula Niebuhr Reinhold's Coauthor?

By Miles, Rebekah | The Christian Century, January 25, 2012 | Go to article overview

Uncredited: Was Ursula Niebuhr Reinhold's Coauthor?

Miles, Rebekah, The Christian Century

IN EARLY AUGUST 1969, an elderly Reinhold Niebuhr found himself in one last intellectual dogfight. In an article for Christianity and Crisis, "The King's Chapel and the King's Court," he blasted President Richard Nixon for holding Sunday morning worship services in the White House, services that were led by Billy Graham and other clergy loyal to the Nixon administration.

Niebuhr described Graham as "a domesticated and tailored leftover from the wild and woolly frontier evangelistic campaigns" and accused Nixon of circumventing the disestablishment clause of the Bill of Rights and, in its place, establishing "a conforming religion by semiofficially inviting representatives of all the disestablished religions." The presiding clergy were pandering to Nixon instead of challenging him, Niebuhr chided. "It is wonderful what a simple White House invitation will do to dull the critical faculties."

Instead of playing the role of the prophet Amos, who criticized the powers of his day, the principals in the East Room of the White House embraced the role of Amos's nemesis, Amaziah, the priest of Bethel, who flatters the king and warns Amos against prophesying in Bethel, "the king's chapel and the king's court." Niebuhr quoted one of his favorite texts from Amos, a verse that Martin Luther King Jr. had also loved--"But let justice roll down like water and righteousness like an ever flowing stream"--and wondered whether King, had he not been murdered the year before, would have been invited to the White House. Not likely, he decided. King was Amos to the White House's Amaziahs.

The last lines of Niebuhr's article sizzled with contempt: "Perhaps the FBI, which spied on [King], had the same opinion of him as Amaziah had of Amos. Established religion, with or without legal sanction, is always chary of criticism.... Thus J. Edgar Hoover and Amaziah are seen as quaintly different versions of the same vocation--high priests in the cult of complacency and self-sufficiency. Perhaps those who accept invitations to preach in the White House should reflect on this, for they stand in danger of joining the same company."

On August 7, the New York Times carried a story about Niebuhr's broadside, and the Times piece was picked up by papers around the country. A stream of letters to the editor prolonged the controversy. Niebuhr's complaint caught the attention not only of the public but also of the White House. J. Edgar Hoover, at the request of Nixon's counsel John Ehrlichman, gave the White House a memo summarizing Niebuhr's FBI file.

Because of the ruckus, this critique of the Nixon administration became one of Niebuhr's best-known articles. Indeed, in a survey of secondary literature, I found only one article written by him that is cited more frequently.

But this famous article was not written by Reinhold Niebuhr alone. My research on Niebuhr indicates that his wife, Ursula, was in this case--and probably others--not only a major influence but a virtual coauthor.

Ursula Keppel-Compton and Reinhold Niebuhr were married in December 1931 at England's Winchester Cathedral, near her home in Southampton. He was a professor of Christian ethics at Union Theological Seminary, where she had recently completed a master's degree after completing a degree in theology and history at Oxford.

After Reinhold's death in 1971, Ursula tended his legacy. Because of her own academic training and experience as a professor in Barnard College's religion department (which she helped to found), she was well prepared for this work. She edited two important collections--one of his prayers and sermons (Justice and Mercy) and another of their letters (Remembering Reinhold Niebuhr). She assisted Niebuhr scholars, and she gathered the materials that were to be placed in the Niebuhr Collection at the Library of Congress.

Among the last files she deposited there were her own professional papers, carefully organized after her long academic career: syllabi and lecture notes from 25 years at Barnard; her published articles along with manuscripts of sermons and speeches; and correspondence with friends--Abraham Heschel, W.

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