Niebuhr’s Notebook

During my time as an intern pastor, I’ve been reading memoirs written by other pastors, in an effort to learn about what has changed in the pastoral ministry and what hasn’t. The first that I’ve read comes form the pen of Reinhold Niebuhr.


In 1929, shortly after moving away from Detroit, Reinhold Niebuhr published Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic, excerpts from his journal during his time as a pastor in Detroit. As a piece of history, Niebuhr’s writings are well worth the time, though as a reflection of Niebuhr’s views of the ministry, they are more depressing than anything else.

As a history of Christianity in the 1920’s, Niebuhr’s journal deserves to be read by all pastors. For one, reading Leaves will lead the observant pastor to a Ecclesiastes 1:9 moment. If not for his constant references to “industrialists and Henry Ford,” Niebuhr could have written his book within the last ten years. The concerns of Niebuhr for the working poor and societal inequity have not gone away. His criticisms of fundamentalists and the social gospel are repeated by pastors all the time. On a personal level, the concerns that he voices over pastoral visitation, preaching, and his relation to his parishioners continue to resonate with the pastoral life today. A reading of his book should serve as necessary medicine to both the pastor who longs for the “good ol’ days” and the pastor who thinks that they’ve arrived at something revolutionary.

But, today’s echoes of Niebuhr’s concerns also point to the depressing side of his book. Within the pages of his journal, one can trace the beginnings of the slow decline of mainline Protestantism. Niebuhr’s book points to the fact that mainline Protestantism (and its children, the Social Gospel and the Emerging Church) have been beating the same drum for almost one hundred years now. Thoughts of the intrinsic goodness of humanity, societal reform and the “ethics” of Jesus dominate Niebuhr’s writings. His main concern is to change his parishioners into instruments for social change and to give them a greater social consciousness. Niebuhr’s concerns are repeated over and over in pulpits today; the problem is that Niebuhr had demographics on his side. But even as his church grew, in his moments of clarity, when he describes his conversations with Jewish and socialist leaders, Niebuhr wrestles with the realization that his preaching may render his brand of Christianity superfluous.

Almost a century later, pastors should continue to read Leaves from the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic. As a snapshot of mainline Christianity in the 1920’s, it is informative. As a book of pastoral theology, it’s tired, and ought to be put to bed.