Original Sin and Everyday Protestants

Original Sin and Everyday Protestants: The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Paul Tillich in an Age of Anxiety

Andrew S. Finstuen
Copyright Date: 2009
Pages: 272
https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.5149/9780807898536_finstuen
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  • Book Info
    Original Sin and Everyday Protestants
    Book Description:

    In the years following World War II, American Protestantism experienced tremendous growth, but conventional wisdom holds that midcentury Protestants practiced an optimistic, progressive, complacent, and materialist faith. InOriginal Sin and Everyday Protestants, historian Andrew Finstuen argues against this prevailing view, showing that theological issues in general--and the ancient Christian doctrine of original sin in particular--became newly important to both the culture at large and to a generation of American Protestants during a postwar "age of anxiety" as the Cold War took root.Finstuen focuses on three giants of Protestant thought--Billy Graham, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich--men who were among the era's best known public figures. He argues that each thinker's strong commitment to the doctrine of original sin was a powerful element of the broad public influence that they enjoyed. Drawing on extensive correspondence from everyday Protestants, the book captures the voices of the people in the pews, revealing that the ordinary, rank-and-file Protestants were indeed thinking about Christian doctrine and especially about "good" and "evil" in human nature. Finstuen concludes that the theological concerns of ordinary American Christians were generally more complicated and serious than is commonly assumed, correcting the view that postwar American culture was becoming more and more secular from the late 1940s through the 1950s.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0457-2
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. INTRODUCTION
    (pp. 1-10)

    The appearances of Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Paul Tillich on the cover ofTimemagazine after World War II publicized their religious thought; and although the images were somewhat like caricatures, they captured the distinctiveness of each figure’s Christian ministry. With foreboding skies and a distant cross in the background of his 1948 cover, Niebuhr’s station as America’s prophet was communicated clearly by his stern visage and by the accompanying caption—doubtlessly inspired by his vivid sense of original sin—which read: “Man’s story is not a success story.” Six years later, a Garden of Eden scene, complete with...

  5. PART ONE

    • CHAPTER 1 Protestantism in an Age of Anxiety The Captive and Theological Revivals of Midcentury
      (pp. 13-46)

      From 1945 to 1965, Americans experienced a time of immense promise and equally immense peril, one that inspired W. H. Auden’s 1947 poem “The Age of Anxiety.” Social and cultural commentators quickly adopted Auden’s phrase to describe the postwar mood, making “anxiety” the buzzword of the era.¹ Leonard Bernstein, for example, read Auden’s poem in the summer of 1947 and composed a symphony to capture the feelings of anxiety pulsing through the culture. At the heart of the composition, Bernstein wrote, was “the record of our difficult and problematic search for faith.”²

      Contrary to the self-satisfied, placid image of the...

    • CHAPTER 2 A Curious Trinity The Prophet, the Evangelist, and the Theologian
      (pp. 47-68)

      Despite their shared leadership of postwar Protestantism, Niebuhr, Graham, and Tillich had little in common on a personal or intellectual level. Separated by age, geography, and theological disposition, these men came from and operated in quite different worlds. Niebuhr, the prophet, led the American neo-orthodox movement; Graham, the evangelist, stood at the helm of neo-evangelicalism; and Tillich, the theologian, reinvigorated American Christian thought with his Continental theology. Consequently, they spoke in different accents to very different constituencies of Protestants.¹

      In spite of these disparities, Niebuhr, Graham, and Tillich shared a common theological principle: behind every sinful act was the indisputable,...

    • CHAPTER 3 Original Sin “The Only Empirically Verifiable Doctrine of the Christian Faith”
      (pp. 69-90)

      Toward the end of his life, Reinhold Niebuhr took up his pen once more in an effort to summarize his immense body of work, a task that eventuated in the publication ofMan’s Nature and His Communitiesin 1965. He undertook the project in part to discuss how his opinion had changed after a lifetime of considering man¹ and community. His opinion, however, had not changed much with regard to original sin; he approvingly quoted the following from the LondonTimes Literary Supplement: “The doctrine of original sin is the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.’’² Graham and...

  6. PART TWO

    • CHAPTER 4 Reinhold Niebuhr, America’s Prophet-Pastor
      (pp. 93-122)

      In March 1961, the valedictorian of Andalusia High School in Andalusia, Alabama, wrote Reinhold Niebuhr for advice on her upcoming commencement speech. With his customary generosity and humility, Niebuhr replied that he was honored by her request for help with her speech. He demurred, writing, “I doubt if one can give any guidance which has not been given by now.” But he continued and suggested a topic: “I can only say we live in an era which has great promise and great peril.”¹

      That a young girl from a small town in Alabama appealed to Niebuhr for guidance demonstrates the...

    • CHAPTER 5 Billy Graham, America’s Evangelist
      (pp. 123-154)

      In the summer of 1950, Billy Graham received a wedding band in the mail. A man who identified himself only as a veteran of World War II had enclosed the ring as a “symbol of my broken marriage.” In his letter, this former soldier explained that he had attended Graham’s crusade in Boston earlier that year and had responded to the evangelist’s call to accept Christ into his life. He had done so, he reported, in “an effort to save my marriage of 5 years,” confessing he was “deep in sin.” He asked Graham to hold the ring in trust...

    • CHAPTER 6 Paul Tillich, Seelsorger in America
      (pp. 155-188)

      In 1964, Paul Tillich received an exceptionally moving letter from a World War II veteran who had recently read “You Are Accepted,” Tillich’s most famous sermon.¹ In his two-page typewritten letter, this former airman reported that just a few days before reading the sermon, he had crumpled under the “weight of guilt and shame and embarrassment” that arose from his memory of “the forgotten graves of the past.” The graves, he revealed, were those of the victims of the saturation firebombings of Japan in 1945. For twenty years, this veteran had carried the burden of his participation in those air...

  7. CONCLUSION
    (pp. 189-196)

    In the mid-twentieth century, the historic doctrine of original sin acquired new relevance in American culture. The doctrine’s resurgence was attributable to a number of factors, including the advent of the Age of Anxiety and the personal popularity of its chief expositors, Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Paul Tillich. In few other periods in American history had average citizens experienced losses and gains as extreme as those encountered by the midcentury generations. In the span of three decades, they had stood in breadlines, fought in two major hot wars, and threaded their way nervously through a cold one. Yet by...

  8. NOTES
    (pp. 197-234)
  9. BIBLIOGRAPHY
    (pp. 235-250)
  10. INDEX
    (pp. 251-256)