Niebuhr Examines American Christian Roots, Part 2

niebuhr_review_11072016H. Richard Niebuhr. 1937. The Kingdom of God in America. New York: Harper Torchbooks. (Goto Part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

Skeptical postmoderns might wonder how Richard Niebuhr could see the doctrine of the kingdom of God explaining the history of the American church. But this skepticism rests in the habitus of a secular worldview, which permeates even the church today and is predominately ahistorical. Writing in 1937, Niebuhr observes:

“Any attempt to trace the pattern of the Christian movement in America must begin with the Protestant reformation” (17)


“was characterized above all by its fresh insistence on the present sovereignty and initiative of God.” (17).

In some sense, Niebuhr sees Protestants differing from Catholics in three primary doctrines, summarized in the distinction between two Latin phrases: visio dei (God’s vision) and regnum dei (God’s rule; 20). Niebuhr explains:

“The principle of vision suggests that the perfection of the object seen is loved above all else; the principle of the kingdom indicates that the reality and power of the being commanding obedience are primarily regarded.” (20)

Niebuhr sees three outcomes from this distinction: (1) the rule is direct, not delegated to a hierarchy of priests and bishops; (2) God’s sovereignty immediately negates all human sovereignty—God’s freedom, not human freedom, is in view; and (3) the idea of a kingdom implies immediacy—God is sovereign now as well as the future; for the Protestant, the kingdom of God was truly at hand (20-25).

The unique thing about kingdom of God in America was that the “New World” was free of the institutions that plagued the “Old World” in Europe. In the Old World, Protestantism was a reform movement against these old institutions; in the New World, Protestantism needed to build institutions of its own—it was not enough simply to protest the old forms. Niebuhr describes this new challenge as the problem of “Constructive Protestantism.” (36). He writes: “Here Protestantism could turn from protest and conflict to construction.”[1] (43)

Niebuhr argues his case for Constructive Protestantism in terms of:

“the three notes of faith in the sovereign [confession of loyalty to the sovereignty of God], the experience of the love of Christ [experience the reign of Christ] and hope of ultimate redemption [the hope of the coming kingdom].” (127)

He organizes his chapters around these three notes of faith and sees them marked out in history writing:

“The expectation of the coming kingdom upon earth which the Quakers had brought with them and the Great Awakening had made vivid was nurtured by the continuing revival until it became the dominant idea in American Christianity. If the seventeenth was the century of the sovereignty and the eighteenth the time of the kingdom of Christ, the nineteenth may be called the period of the coming kingdom.” (150)

Niebuhr traces these beliefs through the writings of many evangelists who participated in this dynamic movement of Protestantism in American history and likens it to the movements in a symphony which actually played out as a pattern in different times and places (164-165).

But what happens when the movement is played out and all that remains of a dynamic movement crystalizes into static institutions and creeds passed on to new generations? Niebuhr writes:

“With the loss of the sense of common task in proclaiming the kingdom of Christ, sectional, racial, and cultural differences assuming increasing importance. The more attention was concentrated upon the church the greater became the tendency toward schism.” (178)

In some sense, Niebuhr sees the current conflicts among protestant groups, dating back into the late nineteenth century, as conflicts between different strains of this greater protestant movement, some more crystalized than others, but all having reached the point of a spent force. In this context, the Pentecostal movement could be sense as an entirely new grand narrative which is replacing the older, mainline protestant movement that remains a vital force only in remnants.

Richard Niebuhr’s The Kingdom of God in America provides important insights into the current dilemmas facing Protestant churches in the United States. One gem stood out for me:

“Edwards sought to convince the mind rather than to stir the emotions and was genuinely surprised at the display of ‘religious affections’ which followed some of his stuffy logical preaching.” (106)

This statement suggests that in the absence of good teaching, revival becomes less likely.[2] Such gems make reading Niebuhr a real delight.


Elliott, Matthew A. 2006.  Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament.  Grand Rapids: Kregel Academic and Professional. (Review: Part 1 ( and Part 2 (

[1] In some sense, Protestants then faced the same dilemma that deconstructionists face today. Having deconstructed every authority and institution in sight, what replaces them?

[2] This is an example consistent with what was later referred to as the cognitive theory of emotions (we get mad about things we think are important).


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