The Rev. Dr. Richard R. Niebuhr

The Rev. Dr. Richard R. Niebuhr

Passed on Sunday, 26 February 2017
The Rev. Dr. Richard R. Niebuhr died on February 26, 2017 in Middlebury VT.  His wife died nine days after Rev. Niebuhr.  He is survived by his daughter, Sarah Niebuhr (Lynn Coale), of Weybridge;  son, Gustav Niebuhr (Margaret Usdansky), of Skaneateles, N.Y.; and four grandchildren, Katherine Jennings (Lance Jennings), Emily Lisa Coale (Eric Shaeffer), Christopher Niebuhr and Jonathan Niebuhr.

He was born in Chicago, son of the Rev. H. Richard Niebuhr and Florence Mittendorf Niebuhr. His father served as president of Elmhurst, College, but would shortly be hired by Yale Divinity School, where he would become known as one of the leading Christian ethicists of the 20th century. Professor Niebuhr would also be influenced by his uncle, the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who taught at Union Theological Seminary in New York City.

Professor Niebuhr graduated from Harvard University in 1947; as an undergraduate, he participated in the V-12 U.S. Navy Officer Training program. In 1955, he received a doctoral degree in theology from Yale. In the years in between, Professor Niebuhr was ordained as a minister in the Congregationalist Christian Churches (now part of the United Church of Christ). He also served student ministries in two hardscrabble locations — Hell’s Kitchen in Manhattan and the southern Appalachian mountains.

In the early 1950s, Professor Niebuhr served as a pastor in Cornwall, Conn., and taught two years at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. Of considerably more importance, he met Nancy Mullican, a 1947 graduate of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, who had moved to New York City to pursue a singing career. The couple wed in New York on October 14, 1950. After Professor Niebuhr was hired by Harvard Divinity School in 1956, he and his wife moved to Cambridge, and then to Arlington, Mass., where they lived for half a century.

Professor Niebuhr traveled widely to conduct research and lecture in other universities. He spent several months at the University of Cambridge, the United Kingdom; Heidelberg University, Germany; and Doshisha University, Japan. Through teaching summer school in 1964 at Colorado College, in Colorado Springs, Colo., Professor Niebuhr discovered one of his life’s great passions — traveling in the Western states. Ever equipped with camera and film, he took his family exploring canyons, mountain peaks, mesas and ghost towns from Arizona to Wyoming.

He was a Harvard theologian who trained generations of young men and women for the classroom and the clergy, and taught at the Harvard Divinity School for 43 years, until his retirement in 1999. He worked principally with graduate students preparing for academic careers or for roles in the ministry. He also devoted several years in the 1970s to creating Harvard’s first undergraduate program in comparative religions.  Professor Niebuhr pursued a keen interest in 18th and 19th century theologians of transatlantic fame — the German philosopher Friedrich Schleiermacher, the American pastor and theologian Jonathan Edwards, and the Transcendentalists Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau.

The author of many scholarly books, articles and essays, Professor Niebuhr was honored by being named to hold the Hollis Chair of Divinity, the oldest endowed professorship in North America. Established in 1721 by the English merchant Thomas Hollis, the professorship requires its holder to be a person “of solid learning in divinity” and “well gifted to teach.” (The professorship also grants its holder the right to pasture a cow on the Cambridge, Mass., Common; Professor Niebuhr took pleasure in the distinction, but never availed himself of it.)

Professor Niebuhr and his wife moved to Middlebury, Vt., in spring 2006, after he sustained a moderate stroke. Through prodigious exercise and with encouragement from physical therapists, he regained a limited ability to walk with a cane. The couple lived for two years on South Street, then moved to the Residence at Otter Creek.

A Memorial service was held on Saturday, April 22, 2017 at 11:30 a.m. at the Residence at Otter Creek in the Founder Room.
In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to Addison County Home Health and Hospice at P.O. Box 754 Middlebury, VT 05753.

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