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Hulda Clara August Niebuhr

By Elizabeth F. Caldwell


Clara August Hulda Niebuhr (1889-1959). The name of Niebuhr brings to mind theological leaders of the twentieth century. The contribution of Reinhold and H. Richard Niebuhr has been more noted than that of their older sister, Hulda. Her passion for religious education of children and youth is evidenced in the many years she worked as an educator in the church. The last fifteen years of her life in theological education at McCormick Theological Seminary provided the opportunity for her to pass on her mantle of a vision for Christian education in the church to another generation.


Early Life, Education and Teaching

Clara Augusta Hulda Niebuhr was born in 1889 into a family with deep theological roots. Her mother, Lydia Hosto Niebuhr, was the daughter of a pastor in the German Evangelical Church and her father, Gustav Niebuhr, became a pastor in this denomination after his immigration to the United States from Germany. Hulda was the oldest sister of three brothers, Walter, Reinhold and Helmut Richard.

She graduated with honors from Lincoln High School in Lincoln, Illinois in 1906. Gustav Niebuhr believed that higher education for women represented a desire for emancipation that he equated with egoism. Such egoism, he believed, would not make a young woman a desirable prospect as a marriage partner. Thus Hulda was not encouraged or supported to pursue a college education, one that was presupposed for her brothers. She began teaching in her father’s church parochial school and also supported herself by working at the local newspaper. She enrolled in Lincoln College to continue her education in 1912 but her education was interrupted by the death of her father in 1913.

Hulda moved to Detroit with her mother where they worked in religious education at Bethel Evangelical Church where Reinhold was Pastor. In 1918, Hulda enrolled in Boston University and completed her bachelor’s degree as well as the master of arts degree in the School of Religious Education and Social Service. She remained at Boston University working as an instructor in the Elementary Education Division. By 1927, she was one of three female assistant professors on the school’s faculty.

From 1928-1945, Hulda lived in New York City. She began work on a doctorate in the joint program of Union Theological Seminary and Teachers College of Columbia University, completing all work except the dissertation. These years were formative in her vocation in the “practical work in the church” as she called religious education. From 1930-1945, she worked as a religious educator at Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church, a large urban congregation.

This was a productive time for her in writing and publishing as well as in forming her vocation as religious educator. She wrote two books, Greatness passing by: Stories to tell boys and girls (1931) and a collection of plays for elementary age children, Ventures in dramatics: With boys and girls of the Church school (1935). She contributed six articles to the International Journal of Religious Education, all focusing on the religious education with children and families.

From 1938-1946, Hulda Niebuhr served as an adjunct faculty member at New York University, teaching courses in curriculum, teaching the Bible to children, worship in the church school, and supervision of teaching in the church school.

An examination of Hulda’s educational background, her work as religious educator in three congregations (her home church in Lincoln, Bethel Congregational in Detroit and Madison Avenue in NYC), her teaching at New York University and her writing reveal four principles which are foundational to her philosophy of religious education. She believed that teaching and being were inseparable. Archives of the newsletter of Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church reveal the variety of ways that church school teachers were formally trained, valued and supported in the life of the church.

A second important principle emphasized learning that was experiential, reflective, and transformative, assuming responsibility on the part of the learner. In the article, “Candy and the Kingdom, How One Group Found an Interesting Pathway to Heroes of Social Welfare,” (1933) she wrote, “The parable of the good Samaritan may have been learned letter perfect, or it may have been dramatized in a manner that evidences a fine interplay of pupil activity and increase of social aptitude, without having anything happen to make pupils more sensitive and apt in their responsibilities in relation to the race problem in their own community. A school may have a well developed system of budget administration by the pupils without making them conscious of any wider ethical, and may we not say religious, implications of some of their own economic experiences.”

Hulda and her brothers were raised in the German Evangelical church environment and their faith formation was nurtured in an eccelesial tradition which had strong commitments to religious education for all ages, a zealous piety, an ecumenical church consciousness, and a concern and care for and ministry with persons who were ill or who lived with handicapping conditions. A third principle at work in her philosophy of religious education was the belief that the church was a faithful Christian community, a place where people were both nurtured and challenged. Equally important for Hulda Niebuhr was her commitment to the inclusive and ecumenical nature of church. She believed it was a place where all ages and races could feel welcome and included. She was most concerned that this welcome for participation and leadership was extended to children.

In articulating the purpose of Christian education, Hulda expressed it this way: “Christian Education is the believing community at work helping people listen and look in order that by God’s grace they may hear and see and so be helped to know the hope to which they are called by God in Jesus Christ.” (1958) “Communicating the Gospel Through Christian Education”. McCormick Speaking. Knowing the biblical story was important to Hulda Niebuhr. Equally important was enabling people to live their lives in response to the biblical story.

In 1945, Hulda Niebuhr was contacted by the Presbyterian College of Christian Education which was associated with McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, a theological school of the United Presbyterian Church. The position offered to her was instructor in children’s work. She was concerned about the limiting title of the position and negotiated rank and title, joining the faculty of the college at age fifty-six, as associate professor of religious education. When the college was merged into the seminary in 1949, she was made a regular member of the faculty, teaching in the Division of Christian Education and Social Work.

In 1953, Hulda Niebuhr became the first woman inaugurated as a full professor. The question which she believed offered the greatest challenge to the field of religious education was the one which she addressed in her inaugural address, “A Seeming Dilemma in Christian Education”, “Is it possible that a Christian teacher of his religion can do more than merely tell and yet not indoctrinate?” She was honored with an honorary degree from Lindenwood College in St. Charles, Missouri in 1953 and gave their Founders’ Day address on the topic of “Spiritual Progenitors.” She contrasted “spiritual progenitors” with nominal Christians for whom Christianity described their identity but not their practice.

Hulda’s mother, Lydia Niebuhr, lived with her in the faculty row house on the McCormick campus which was located at this time in the Lincoln Park neighborhood on the north side of Chicago. Together their home offered a welcome place for children living on the campus, for students, and for colleagues. The occasion of visits from her brothers were times when students were invited for conversation and refreshments. She shared with her students her interests in art and politics. Her writing during this period was limited to articles and a piece of curriculum for junior highs, The One Story (1948). Her time and energy were focused on her teaching, her leadership within the faculty and the seminary community and her family. Though it can be said that she was influenced in educational theory through her study and work with Walter Athern at Boston University, the greatest influence on the development of her writing and teaching grew out of her formation in her family, and the model of her parents, Lydia and Gustav.

Hulda Niebuhr died on April 17, 1959, one month before she was to retire. The president of McCormick Theological Seminary, Arthur McKay, described her vocation as teacher in this way. “She has been a shining example of the creative and imaginative scholar. Hulda Niebuhr has touched the lives of her students with kindness and generous self-giving.” It is evident that Hulda Niebuhr lived what she believed about learning both within and beyond the walls of theological education.

Contributions to Christian Education

Hulda Niebuhr was hired to teach at McCormick Theological Seminary both because of her knowledge and the practical experience she had gained in her work as a religious educator with congregations. She represents the vocational path of other women in her generation and the generation after her whose path into teaching in theological education was preceded by experience as a local church educator.

Hulda’s journey ensured that her teaching and her scholarship were drawn from experience and reflection on both the theory and practice of religious education in the congregation. It is obvious that her contributions to the field of religious education are more clearly evidenced by the students she taught than in a large collection of writings. Formed in the knowledge and practice of the Christian faith in her family, she sought to form students as “spiritual progenitors” of the children, youth and adults with whom they would be teaching and learning.

Hulda Niebuhr made three important contributions to the field of religious education. She emphasized the importance of intentional Christian nurture, the partnership of the church and the home in raising children in faith. The article she wrote for the International Journal of Religious Education in 1929, “Parental Education in the Church” addressed the problem of parents sending their children to church so they could learn how to be Christian. “Out of the efforts of the school will grow a better home and out of the understanding home a better school when church school workers stop saying to the home: ‘Send us your children and we will make good Christians of them for you” and will substitute: ‘We will help one another to lead them in the Christian way.’ She believed that only in the combined efforts of the church and the home was it possible for the unity of the form and spirit of Christian faith to be nurtured.

A second contribution she made was in her thinking and her demonstration of age appropriate teaching. In her practice and teaching of religious education, she found the use of two particular methods of teaching and learning to be most appropriate to children: drama and storytelling. She modeled this same concern in her teaching of theological students, requiring them to engage in learning outside the classroom by visiting such settings as juvenile court and reflecting on learnings from their field sites. In writing about her teaching, one of her former students, Mary Duckert, said that “she espoused inductive teaching, discovery learning, original teaching plans and materials, and teacher/learner cooperative planning at a time when these ideas were understood and appreciated by a precious few and practiced by even fewer. Films of early research in child development theory were shown in her seminary classes to help students preparing for vocations as educators and pastors and their ministry with children.

Hulda modeled for her students what she was teaching them about the role of the teacher as artist. She sought to engage students not by telling her or him about a topic with long lectures, but rather by making it come alive through discussion, art and reflection on experience. A praxis model of education requiring students to name their own “knowing” and to reflect on that knowledge in light of their knowledge , represented a way of teaching and learning different from the experience of most students at this time (1945-1959). Her former student, Mary Duckert, recalls that “she insisted to the dismay of many, that we operate within an arena of responsible freedom. It was the freedom, not the responsibility, that vexed students accustomed to doing prescribed assignments step by step.”

Perhaps the greatest contribution she made to the field of religious education are the generation of faithful leaders who have served the church as educators, ministers, curriculum writers and editors, judicatory leaders, and seminary professors. Robert Worley, former Dean of McCormick Theological Seminary, was one of her students who accepted her challenge to go to graduate school and return to McCormick to teach religious education. He has reflected on her legacy as an educator and has said that “she gave a vision of what teaching should look like. The teacher as artist illustrates how she saw everything as having potential for learning: nature, art, drama, story, music. The teacher’s role was to put reality together so that students could discover it and make it their own.” Others upon whom she had an influence who have made important contributions to the field of Religious Education are: Oscar Hussel, retired faculty of Columbia Theological Seminary, D. Campbell Wyckoff, retired faculty of Princeton Theological Seminary, and Mary Duckert, author and children’s curriculum editor for the Presbyterian Church, USA.



  • (1931). Greatness passing by: Stories to tell boys and girls. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons
  • (1935). Ventures in dramatics: With boys and girls of the church school. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
  • (1947). With Barbara Keppel-Compton, trans. Fritz Kunkel, What it means to grow up: A guide in understanding the development of character. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
  • (1948). The one story. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.


  • (1928, December). Doers of the Word. International Journal of Religious Education, 9-10.
  • (1929, October). Parental education in the church. International Journal of Religious Education,13-14.
  • (1933, February). Candy and the kingdom. International Journal of Religious Education, 16-17.
  • (1933, November). Thanksgiving for our time. International Journal of Religious Education, 13-14, 40.
  • (1941, February). Teaching the Bible to junior highs through dramatization. International Journal of Religious Education, 9-10.
  • (1944, July-August). Memorial service: Keep them near thee. International Journal of Religious Education, 11-12.
  • (1954, October). Trying on life. International Journal of Religious Education, 12-13, 37.
  • (1950, February). The minister's child. McCormick Speaking, 7-10.
  • (1951, February). Dull teaching is unbiblical. McCormick Speaking, 12-14.
  • (1951, November). Red roses and sin. McCormick Speaking, 7-10.
  • (1953, October). A seeming dilemma in Christian education. McCormick Speaking, 3-7, 15.
  • (1955, January). Are we raising nominal Christians? McCormick Speaking, 10-13.
  • (1955, May). Learning by heart-then and now. McCormick Speaking, 9-11.
  • (1955, November). Singleness of heart. McCormick Speaking, 3-6.
  • (1956, March). A testimony, McCormick Speaking, 11-12, 15.
  • (1957, April). Is Christian Education true to its reformation heritage? McCormick Speaking, 13-15.
  • (1958, March) Communicating the gospel through Christian Education. McCormick Speaking, 13-14.
  • (1959, February). The teacher's authority. McCormick Speaking, 7-12, 22.
  • (1947, April). Know children as persons. Christian Century, 3, 423-24.
  • (1948, October-December). Yes and no. Counsel, 11-12.
  • (1955, June). Spiritual progenitors. The Pulpit, 2-4.
  • (1955). Junior sermon. Twentieth Century Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 620.
  • (1958, June). Red roses and sin. The Pulpit, 12-13.
  • (1958, July ) This is what some of them said. The Lutheran Teacher, 232-233.

Works Cited

  • Niebuhr, Hulda. (1933). Candy and the kingdom. International Journal of Religious Education, 9.6, 16.
  • Niebuhr, Hulda. (1953). A seeming dilemma in Christian Education. McCormick Speaking, 7.1, 6.
  • Niebuhr, Hulda. (1958). Communicating the gospel through Christian Education. McCormick Speaking, 11.6, 13.
  • McKay, Arthur R. (1959). Hulda Niebuhr as teacher. McCormick Speaking. 12.4, 20.
  • Caldwell, Elizabeth F. (1991). Remembering Hulda Niebuhr. Religious Education, 86.1, 52-61.
  • Caldwell, Elizabeth F. (1992). A mysterious mantle, The biography of Hulda Niebuhr, Cleveland: Pilgrim Press.
  • Caldwell, Elizabeth F. (1997). “Hulda Niebuhr, Teacher as Artist” in Barbara Anne Keely, (Ed.), Faith of our foremothers, women changing Religious Education, Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press.

Bibliography of Writings About Hulda Niebuhr

  • McKay, Arthur R. (1959, April). Hulda Niebuhr as teacher. McCormick Speaking, 20.
  • Caldwell, Elizabeth F. (1992). A Mysterious Mantle, The Biography of Hulda Niebuhr, Cleveland: Pilgrim Press.
  • Caldwell, Elizabeth F. (1997). “Hulda Niebuhr, Teacher as Artist” in Barbara Anne Keely, (Ed.), Faith of our foremothers, women changing Religious Education,Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press.

Excerpts from Publications

(1931). Greatness passing by: stories to tell boys and girls. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons. (page xix)

Sometimes a story is ineffective because it is a poor story, not worth the telling. Sometimes it is a good story in the wrong place. Often it is a good story in the right place, gone savorless because the teller is not prepared to tell it…Homiletic habits and lack of respect for children’s intelligence get the best of the teller and he interrupts the action of the story to elucidate meanings.

(1957). Is Christian education true to its reformation heritage? McCormick Speaking, McCormick Theological Seminary. (page 13)

As believer, the teacher is part of a community that lives in response to God’s claim upon it, teaching of God’s grace, probably unconscious of the fact that any teaching is going on.

(1958). Communicating the gospel. McCormick Speaking, McCormick Theological Seminary. (pages 13-14)

It is the task of Christian Education to furnish imaginations with the story of salvation so that it may become a part of each individuals’ own history, absorbed into the context of his own particular life, be he young or older, rich or poor, from east or west.

(1958). Red roses and sin. The Pulpit. (pages 12-13)

We bemoan the fact that our church members do not know the Bible, while at the same time we waste opportunities to make it available to them. Children (not to mention adults) like to hear good stories told and retold. The Bible teems with dramatic material that can be presented to them, in the story form.


(1931). Greatness passing by: stories to tell boys and girls. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.

This is a good example of her theory of storytelling in relation to the Christian faith.

(1948). The one story. Philadelphia: Westminster Press.

This is a piece of curriculum from Christian Faith and Life of the former United Presbyterian Church, written for junior high.

(1929). Parental education in the church, International Journal of Religious Education, 6.1,13-14.

This article gives a clear indication of the role she believed parents shared with the church in raising children in the Christian faith.

(1947, April). Know Children as Persons. Christian Century, 423-24.

Her commitment to theories of child development are illustrated in this article.

(1955). Are we raising nominal Christians? McCormick Speaking, 10-13.

Her beliefs about the role of the Christian faith in life is clearly represented in this article.

(1958, June). Red roses and sin. The Pulpit, 12-13.

Her theory of learning and how children are taught is evident in this article about children’s sermons.

Author Information

Elizabeth F. Caldwell

Elizabeth F. Caldwell is the Harold Blake Walker Professor of Pastoral Theology at McCormick Theological Seminary in Chicago, Illinois where she has been a member of the faculty since 1984. She has a MEd from Vanderbilt University, a PhD from Northwestern University and a DD from Rhodes College. She is the author of The Biography of Hulda Niebuhr, A mysterious mantle, Pilgrim Press, 1992.