Price: $2000

Scarce First Edition of Niebuhr’s Moral Man and Immoral Society

Reinhold Niebuhr. Moral Man and Immoral Society. New York and London: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1932. Octavo. original cloth, scarce original dust jacket.

First edition, scarce original dust jacket.

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892 – 1971) was an ethicist, theologian, and political philosopher who taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York City from 1928 to 1960. Before that, for thirteen years, he was minister of Detroit’s Bethel Evangelical Church. Moral Man and Immoral Society is Reinhold Niebuhr’s important early study in ethics and politics. Forthright and realistic, it discusses the inevitability of social conflict, the brutal behavior of human collectives of every sort, the inability of rationalists and social scientists to even imagine the realities of collective power, and, ultimately, how individual morality can overcome social immorality.

American theologian and commentator on public affairs, Reinhold Niebuhr was the archetypal American intellectual of the Cold War era. Starting as a leftist minister in the 1920s indebted to theological liberalism, he shifted to the new Neo-Orthodox theology in the 1930s, explaining how the sin of pride created evil in the world. He attacked utopianism as useless for dealing with reality, writing in The Children of Light and the Children of Darkness (1944):

“Man’s capacity for justice makes democracy possible; but man’s inclination to injustice makes democracy necessary.”

His realism deepened after 1945 and led him to support American efforts to confront Soviet communism around the world. A powerful speaker and lucid author, he was the most influential religious leader of the 1940s and 1950s in American public affairs. Niebuhr battled with the religious liberals over what he called their naïve views of sin and the optimism of the Social Gospel, and battled with the religious conservatives over what he viewed as their naïve view of Scripture and their narrow definition of “true religion.”

His long-term impact involves relating the Christian faith to “realism” in foreign affairs, rather than idealism, and his contribution to modern “just war” thinking. Niebuhr’s perspective had a great impact on many liberals, who came to support a “realist” foreign policy. His influence has been acknowledged to extend to Martin Luther King Jr., Jimmy Carter, Barack Obama, Madeleine Albright, Hillary Clinton and John McCain.


Niebuhr was among the group of 51 prominent Americans who formed the International Relief Association (IRA) that is today known as the International Rescue Committee (IRC). The committee mission was to assist Germans suffering from the policies of the Hitler regime. Niebuhr and Dewey. In the 1930s Niebuhr was often seen as an intellectual opponent of John Dewey. Both men were professional polemicists and their ideas often clashed despite the fact that both men held sway over the same realms of liberal intellectual schools of thought. Niebuhr was a strong proponent of the “Jerusalem” religious tradition as a corrective to the secular “Athens” tradition insisted upon by Dewey. In the book Moral Man and Immoral Society (1932) a still intellectually young Niebuhr heavily criticized Dewey’s philosophy. Two years later, in a review of Dewey’s book A Common Faith (1934), Niebuhr was surprisingly calm and respectful towards Dewey’s “religious footnote” on his then large body of educational and pragmatic philosophy.


During the 1930s, Niebuhr was a prominent leader of the militant faction of the Socialist Party of America, although he dismayed die-hard Marxists by calling their beliefs a religion, and a thin one at that. In 1941, he co-founded the Union for Democratic Action, a group with a strongly militarily interventionist, internationalist foreign policy and a pro-union, liberal domestic policy, and was the group’s sole president until its transformation into the Americans for Democratic Action in 1947.

At the outbreak of World War II, the pacifist component of his liberalism was challenged. Niebuhr began to distance himself from the pacifism of his more liberal colleagues and became a staunch advocate for the war. Niebuhr soon left the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a peace-oriented group of theologians and ministers, and became one of their harshest critics. This departure from his peers evolved into a movement known as Christian Realism. Niebuhr is widely considered to have been its primary advocate.

Within the framework of Christian Realism, Niebuhr became a supporter of American action in World War II, anti-communism, and the development of nuclear weapons. However, his approach was not dogmatic, and he opposed the Vietnam War.


Niebuhr’s thought on racial justice developed slowly after he abandoned socialism. Niebuhr attributed the injustices of society to human pride and self love and believed that this innate propensity for evil could not be controlled by humanity. However, he felt that a representative democracy could improve society’s ills. Like Edmund Burke, Niebuhr endorsed natural evolution over imposed change and emphasized experience over theory. Niebuhr’s Burkean ideology, however, often conflicted with his liberal principles, particularly regarding his perspective on racial justice. Though vehemently opposed to racial inequality, Niebuhr adopted an extremely conservative position on segregation. Yet while most liberals endorsed integration after World War II, Niebuhr remained focused on achieving equal opportunity and warned against imposing changes that could result in violence. The violence that followed peaceful demonstrations in the 1960s forced Niebuhr to reverse his position against imposed equality; witnessing the problems of the Northern ghettos later caused him to doubt that equality was attainable.

In the “Letter from Birmingham Jail” Martin Luther King wrote “Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.” King valued Niebuhr’s social and ethical ideals. King attributed his own non-violent posture more to the influence of Niebuhr and Paul Tillich than to the example of Gandhi. On the other hand Niebuhr was friendly to the white South, was never an active supporter of the civil rights movement and refused to sign petitions when asked by King.

During the Detroit mayoral election of 1925, Niebuhr’s sermon “We fair-minded Protestants cannot deny” appeared on the front pages of both the Detroit Times and the Free Press. This sermon urged listeners to vote against mayoral candidate Charles Bowles, a Protestant who was being openly endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan. The other candidate, who won by a narrow thirty thousand votes, was the Catholic incumbent John W. Smith. Niebuhr said the Klan was “one of the worst specific social phenomena which the religious pride of peoples has ever developed.” Niebuhr preached:

“ that it was Protestantism that gave birth to the Ku Klux Klan, one of the worst specific social phenomena which the religious pride and prejudice of peoples has ever developed…. I do not deny that all religions are periodically corrupted by bigotry. But I hit Protestant bigotry the hardest at this time because it happens to be our sin and there is no use repenting for other people’s sins. Let us repent of our own. …. We are admonished in Scripture to judge men by their fruits, not by their roots; and their fruits are their character, their deeds and accomplishments.”


With Scribners A on the copyright page, dust jacket with first printing price. Red cloth cover with minor wear to boards, text and endpages unmarked. Dustjacket with very light soiling, light chipping and edgewear. Nearly fine and scarce.


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