Finding God, Intellectual Stimulation at the Divinity School


Richard R. Niebuhr '47, Hollis professor of divinity, has a love for teaching and learning.

Niebuhr, an accomplished scholar and researcher, has relished his academic career.

"Since our 50th reunion is coming up, I've started to think about the fact that 50 years have passed," Niebuhr says. "I don't mean to sound smug, but I don't think that I could have chanced into a better life than teaching here.... It is continual intellectual stimulation."

Neibuhr's "chance" began when he was in the Navy. He had applied and been accepted to Harvard as a civilian, but enlisted in the Navy when he turned 18. Ironically, his officers' training unit was stationed at Harvard, where he lived in Eliot House. Two of Niebuhr's peers in the officers training program, Steven M. Shafroth '47 and Raymond F. Sullivan '47, will also be returning to Harvard for the reunion.

Along with classes in naval engineering, Niebuhr was allowed to take one elective. Thus began his study of philosophy.

"It became clear to me that when I returned to Harvard as a civilian...I Wanted to concentrate in philosophy," Niebuhr says. "I found it fascinating."

During his years as an undergraduate Niebuhr felt pressured to "keep his head in the books." He says she felt he needed to "make up for lost time" because of his years in the service.

Niebuhr narrowed his focus to religious philosophy and decided to enter Union Seminary in New York City after his graduation from the College. After several years as the pastor of a small church in Cornwall, Conn., Niebuhr says he "felt the pull to come back and enter a Ph.D. program." He received his doctorate in theology from Yale in 1955.

After he taught for several years at Vassar College, Harvard invited Niebuhr to join the Divinity School faculty. Niebuhr's appointment was part of an effort to rebuild the school.

"Initially President Conant had initiated a study to see whether the divinity School should be abolished or pumped with money," Niebuhr says, referring to James B. Conant '14, the University's leader at the time. 'they started to rebuild it in 1954."

Niebuhr, who started at the Divinity School in 1956, said that the revitalization effort drew "many, many more students" to the Divinity School. Since the school is nondenominational, it attracted young people who wanted to study particular aspects of religion, according to Niebuhr.

Niebuhr's daughter, Sarah L. Niebuhr, says that her father "talks with fondness" about the relationships he forms with students.

"He enjoys teaching as well as advising," says Sarah Niebuhr. "I think it's neat that he has maintained that focus. I think I was always looking for that at college."

The Divinity School grew in the late-1950s until it became "one of the major doctoral programs in religious studies in America," Niebuhr says.

"It drew students from all over the world and all corners of religion, a heterogeneous students body," Niebuhr says.

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