Niebuhr on “Harmless Parish Priests”


I am not surprised that most prophets are itin- erants. Critics of the church think we preachers are afraid to tell the truth because we are eco- nomically dependent upon the people of our church, There is something in that, but it does not quite get to the root of the matter. I cer- tainly could easily enough get more money than I am securing now, and yet I catch myself weighing my words and gauging their possible effect upon this and that person. I think the real clue to the tameness of a preacher is the diffi- culty one finds in telling unpleasant truths to people whom one has learned to love. To speak the truth in love is a difficult, and sometimes an almost impossible, achievement. If you speak the truth unqualifiedly, that is usu- ally because your ire has been aroused or be- cause you have no personal attachment to the object of your strictures. Once personal contact is established you are very prone to temper your wind to the shorn sheep. It is certainly difficult to be human and honest at the same time. I'm not surprised that most budding prophets are tamed in time to become harmless parish priests.

-Reinhold Niebuhr, 1924, Leaves From the Notebook of a Tamed Cynic

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