The Kingdom of God in America
By H. Richard Niebuhr
(Reviewed by Ron Sanders)
“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without the cross.” (193)
This famous phrase by H. Richard Niebuhr represents the progression of Christianity in America from a dynamic constructive experiment grounded in the sovereignty of God in the seventeenth-century to the institutionalized liberalism of the late nineteenth and early twentieth-century. Niebuhr traces this progression in his book, The Kingdom of God in America (KGA).
Niebuhr’s project in KGA is to do a historical analysis of the common threads of Christianity in America in order to understand the current trends of his day and to project the direction of faith in the future. He focuses on history in order to let Christianity speak for itself and not superimpose an ideological structure (like Marxism or Freudianism) over Christianity to understand its influence. The starting point of Niebuhr’s analysis is the Protestant Reformation. America, in its origins, was a distinctly, but loosely Protestant nation, with a tiny Catholic and Jewish influence. Therefore the advances of the Reformation and its consequent tribulations uniquely shaped the American experiment.
Central to the Reformation was the idea of the sovereignty and initiative of God and the resulting fundamental principle of this focus on sovereignty was the idea of the kingdom of God. To escape the authoritarianism of the church, the Reformation brought the concept of the priesthood of all believers to the fore. This set the individual free, but also created a problem: this radical freedom could result in “religious anarchy or wild sectarianism in which every group and every individual could claim to speak for God.” (34) Niebuhr argues that the very principles of the Reformation made it difficult to be constructive in society—how do the Reformers move from protest to constructing a new way of life. He lists three responses in Europe: (1) The Lutherans held society and the church in paradox, (2) The Calvinists, especially in Geneva, Switzerland, tried to transform society and (3) the Anabaptists separated themselves society. Each of these European responses had limited success. However, Niebuhr argues that American, as the land of opportunity, also provided a blank slate of opportunity for Protestant construction—“whatever else then America came to be, it was also an experiment in constructive Protestantism.” (43)
Niebuhr argues that this experiment progressed in three stages. The first stage (the seventeenth century) focused on the sovereignty of God over all of life—the living reality of God’s present rule, not only in human spirits but also in the world of nature and of human history. (54) This sovereignty gets applied in three emphases: (1) A focus on the Scriptures as the authoritative guide to faith and life, (2) A renewed focus on building the church in order to move into the world and (3) a limitation of human power.
Niebuhr’s second stage (eighteenth-century) focused on the Kingdom of Christ—a new relationship to God established by Jesus Christ that resulted in an order of liberty and love. The first Great Awakening marked this second stage and resulted in a renewed emphasis on knowledge of God, emotional response to God and action for God. Thus, this second stage produced emotion, mission and humanitarianism. It was also the seedbed for the anti-slavery movement.
The third stage (nineteenth-century) focused on the coming kingdom. As millennial expectations flourished in the wake of the Great Awakening, those expectations became increasingly anchored in a hope that the Kingdom of God could be realized in society. “As the sovereignty of God was institutionalized in laws, the kingdom of Christ in denominations and means of grace, so the string toward the coming kingdom and the hope of its coming were transformed into a moral sanction or into a belief in progress.” (181,182). Thus, Niebuhr offers the description of his own day in the opening quotation.