The American theologian Reinhold Niebuhr died in 1971, but his progressive focus on Christian social ethics and its interaction with the political climate remains fairly active in our current social discourse--a prophetic voice not to be ignored. In 2007, he made his way into the news cycle after Obama cited him as one of his favorite philosophers in an interview with David Brooks. Further, he is probably most often referenced for his contribution to our popular culture as the author of the "serenity prayer," the familiar AA refrain: "God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, Courage to change the things I can change, And wisdom to know the difference."
But an important figure, also named Niebuhr, is often overlooked when the work of Reinhold is considered. In fact, a student of theology would most likely assume "the Neibuhrs" is a reference to Reinhold, a professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, and his brother, H. Richard, a professor at Yale Divinity School, who had stricter ideas about how Christians should interact with the contemporary culture. (In short, they should not.) This Yale vs. Union debate is certainly integral to the identity of Reinhold, but a much more intimate relationship in his life deserves its own consideration, and crucial to our understanding and remembrance of American women in the field of theology. This other pair of Niebuhrs is, of course, Reinhold and Ursula--husband and wife.
A 23 year-old Ursula Mary Keppel-Compton came from England to study at Union Theological Seminary in the fall of 1930. When she returned home in the spring of 1931, it was to visit her family and plan her wedding to the 39 year-old, balding professor and bachelor Reinhold Niebuhr, who was living with his mother and finishing work on his book Moral Man and Immoral Society. By December 1931, after their wedding near her family's home at Winchester Cathedral, she would forevermore be Ursula Niebuhr.
Within geek-theology circles, it is not uncommon to glean bits of enticing material about the sex lives of the major theologians, like Karl Barth's longtime affair with his secretary Charlotte von Kirschbaum or Dietrich Bonhoeffer's love letters from prison to Maria von Wedemeyer. Union students are often especially titillated by those who walked the halls and slept in our residences--if only Paul Tillich's old walls could talk! (For the sake of the poor soul living there now, perhaps it is best they do not.) And yet, though she was a fixture on Union's campus from 1930 until Reinhold's retirement in 1960 and the founder of the religion department across the street at Barnard College, until very recently, nobody has said much about Ursula.
This is particularly troubling when arguably the most available reference to Ursula in our modern library is this dedication from Reinhold in his last major work, 1965's Man's Nature and His Communities, in which he exhorts the reader to consider her undeniable influence on his work: "I know she is responsible for much of my present viewpoint and that it would be difficult for either of us to mark any opinion expressed in these pages as the unique outlook of one or the other. ... The joint authorship is not acknowledged except in this confession. I will leave the reader to judge whether male arrogance or complete mutuality is the cause of this solution." Rebekah Miles, a professor at Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University, is now at work on a new edition of this book to be published under both Ursula's and Reinhold's names.
To trace the thread of Ursula's influence on Reinhold is important work, but what of Ursula's own work? There is very little to find apart from her own frustratingly titled memoir "Remembering Reinhold Niebuhr" (which equally includes her own writing and much of their correspondence) and an essay she wrote about her friend W.H. Auden as a tribute after his death. From what is available, it is clear, however, that Ursula, a lifelong Anglican, certainly also influenced the education of many women in Morningside Heights through her work at Barnard teaching religion to secular students and her presence at Union.
The spring before she arrived at Union, Ursula received double First Class Honours in history and theology from St. Hugh's College, Oxford. She had begun in the history department but quickly found her place with the theologians and, with a burgeoning interest in contemporary theology, applied for a traveling fellowship to study at Union. As she remembers it in "Remembering Reinhold ..." Ursula was handily approved by the committee at Oxford, but Union's president at the time, Henry Sloane Coffin, "cabled back, 'No, no woman accepted,' or words to that effect." After some negotiation with her irritated professors, Union finally allowed her entry as the English Fellow. The German Fellow that year was, of course, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.
To the delight of many a conservative, Bonhoeffer famously dismissed Union in a letter home: "The students are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about. … They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level." In remembering this same year at Union, Ursula made a similar observation: "The curriculum at UTS, although it was regarded as a graduate institution, seemed to me to be pregraduate rather than postgraduate in its academic program." But when her advisor, Professor John Bailie, suggested the German Fellow and English Fellow meet, Ursula recalls: "I thought him rather too Teutonic and too Prussian for my taste."
With no immediate ally in her fellow European student, Ursula turned her attention to Reinhold Niebuhr, the relatively new lecturer on faculty whom Professor Bailie said she would love, and whom, after discussing the politics of The New Republic on the stone steps down from faculty offices, she realized she did. This whirlwind academic year which saw Niebuhr's inaugural lecture as Union faculty, Ursula's and Dietrich's arrivals in New York, and the first service at the new Riverside Church, ended in May with Reinie (as Reinhold was called) and Ursula's engagement. Complicating matters, she was required to take a degree (though Bonhoeffer and other male fellows were not) and so was forced to complete an STM thesis by April 1. An original, typed version of the thesis, "Ultimate Moral Sanction as According to the New Testament," lives in the Burke Library at Union, and Reinhold Niebuhr's name is nowhere to be found throughout. (If typos are any indication, one can assume she was, however, a bit preoccupied with something.)
If it is not her written work that has survived (at least, as credited), it seems to be Ursula's calm persistence in pursuing her own interests while sparking her husband's which has remained in the ether of Morningside Heights, unheralded. In her memoir "The Bishop's Daughter," Honor Moore recalls her mother's dependence on her former Barnard professor's counsel as she entered marriage with a clergy person, wondering if she could forgo housewifedom for social work school: "'Find out,' Mrs. Niebuhr replied, 'if your husband wants a cushion or a stimulus and model your life on that.'"
Had Reinie required a cushion, it probably would not have been Ursula. And yet, in Arthur Schlesinger, Jr.'s 2005 essay for The New York Times entitled "Forgetting Reinhold Niebuhr," Ursula is not mentioned once, even though Schlesinger knew her personally and the headline seems to be a knowing nod to her book's title. Though Schlesinger may have been correct at the time to implore the country not to forget Niebuhr's social philosophy, it is our turn to do some remembering--of Ursula Niebuhr and her unrecognized contributions to the shape of out philosophical discourse and our theology.