The Niebuhr Legacy

Elmhurst alumni Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr had a profound impact on the College and on the world.

The brothers were among the pre-eminent American theologians of the 20th century. Their scholarly work helped shape the political and religious thinking of their time and beyond.

  • Reinhold Niebuhr 1910, author of the prayer that became known as the Serenity Prayer, was a national figure from the 1930s to the 1970s. His work continues to inform social and political debates today.
  • H. Richard Niebuhr 1912, who served as president of Elmhurst College in the 1920s, ranks “alongside Jonathan Edwards as one of the truly creative American theologians,” according to The Encyclopedia of Religion and Social Science.

The Niebuhrs at Elmhurst

From their student years on, both Niebuhrs had a significant impact on the history of their alma mater. Reinhold led a successful effort to upgrade the faculty, and Richard served as an editor of The Keryx, a literary journal dedicated to the creation of “a real college at Elmhurst.”

As an alumnus in the early 1920s, Reinhold led a fundraising effort to build the College’s first freestanding library, a structure that still serves the institution today as Memorial Hall.

In 1924, Richard Niebuhr became the College’s sixth president and undertook a dramatic reform of the entire academic enterprise. He built laboratories, hired a talented and progressive faculty, strengthened course offerings across the disciplines, and expanded library holdings.

Today, the brothers’ commitment to scholarship, service and social justice continues to inform the College’s mission. Elmhurst’s most prestigious award is named for the brothers, as is the Niebuhr Center for Engagement and Reflection, a service-oriented academic program for students motivated by faith and values.

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