Bonhoeffer's Transformative Encounters with the American Prophetic Tradition

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The 14th Annual Prophetic Voices Lecture

Charles Marsh
University of Virginia

Date: October 8, 2015

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As a young academic, Dietrich Bonhoeffer spent the 1930­–1931 academic year studying at the Union Theological Seminary in New York City. At first dismissive of American attitudes toward religion, he left with a dramatically transformed perspective on social engagement, faith and historical responsibility. He began to put aside his professional ambitions and to look for resources in the Christian (and increasingly in the Jewish) tradition that might inspire and sustain dissent and civil courage. By the end of April 1933, Bonhoeffer made his first public defense of the Jews and condemnation of the Aryan Clause; he explained that the church was compelled not simply to "bandage the victims under the wheel, but to jam the spoke in the wheel itself."

What happened to Bonhoeffer while he was in America? This question gives narrative focus and energy to the story Marsh wishes to tell. In the America of the 1930s, among a nearly forgotten but venerable generation of religious radicals, social gospel reformers, and African American prophets, among the shapers of the labor movement, the heroes of the old reformist Left, and among the women and men who plowed the soil for the civil rights movement to come, Bonhoeffer reexamined every aspect of his vocation as pastor and theologian, and he embarked upon what he would call "the turning from the phraseological to the real." His "journey to reality" is the plot that frames my lecture.

Speaker Bio

Charles Marsh

Charles Marsh is the Commonwealth Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, where he is the director of the Project on Lived Theology. His research focuses on modern Christian thought in its social context, with a special interest in the civil rights movement. His most recent book, Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, details Bonhoeffer’s development into the revolutionary theologian who challenged the Nazification of the German Church and who was ultimately executed for treason against the fascist state. He is also the author of Reclaiming Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Promise of His Theology, a work praised as “a theological sensation” by Eberhard Bethge, a confidant of Bonhoeffer himself. Marsh’s other publications include God’s Long Hot Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights, which won the 1998 Grawemeyer Award in Religion, and The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, From the Civil Rights Movement to Today. He received a B.A. from Gordon College, an M.T.S. from Harvard Divinity School, and an M.A. and Ph.D from the University of Virginia.

Event Photos

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University of Virginia Professor Charles Marsh speaking about Bonhoeffer's experience in America. His lecture came in part from his new biographical narrative of Bonhoeffer, Strange Glory.

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Suzanne Hevelone, Boisi Center Program Coordinator, introducing Professor Marsh. (Photos by MTS photography)

Event Recap

Charles Marsh, Commonwealth Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia, delivered the Boisi Center’s 14th Annual Prophetic Voices Lecture on October 8 to the Boston College community. Marsh is also the director of the Project on Lived Theology, which has the mission to connect theology with lived experience.

Marsh began his lecture with passionate remarks about the relevance of theology in a time of social crisis. Marsh spoke of his own childhood in the segregated South and the thinkers who inspired him to make sense of  theological questions related to his experience. German Lutheran pastor and theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was one such thinker.

Marsh began his discussion of the life of Bonhoeffer by describing a 1944 letter he wrote to his friend Eberhard Bethge from Tegel prison in Germany, where he was imprisoned for his role in a conspiracy to assassinate Hitler. Bonhoeffer wrote that there had been two times in his life when he observed his own personal growth and transformation. The first was under the strong personality of his father. The second was during his first journeys abroad, specifically his time in America. Marsh emphasized that before this trip, Bonhoeffer’s writing was more technical and abstract, while after the trip his writing became much more concrete.

Marsh maintained that when the young Bonhoeffer first arrived in New York in 1930 to serve as a visiting student and post doctoral fellow at Union Theological Seminary, he was not impressed by what he saw as the state of American theology. Marsh noted that Bonhoeffer thought American Christianity was pragmatic and unsophisticated. However, through three prophetic encounters during this year, his preconception of American Christianity was challenged and transformed, as was Bonhoeffer himself.

First, he encountered American social theology in the classroom. Reinhold Niebuhr pushed Bonhoeffer to recognize the need for a concrete ethical component in his abstract theological thinking. Second, he engaged with the African-American church and black culture. Bonhoeffer first experienced a true sense of prophetic religion in the United States while visiting Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem with a young black seminarian named Franklin Fisher. Marsh also noted that Bonhoeffer loved the spirituals he heard at the church. Bonhoeffer took both sheet music and recordings of spirituals with him when he returned to Germany. There he played and sang them with the other members of the Confessing Church. The third and final prophetic encounter was with the American organizing tradition. Marsh said that Bonhoeffer took a class with Charles Webber, a Methodist minister and radical socialist, who took the students out into New York City to work with various social groups. Bonhoeffer also encountered the Women’s Trade Union and the Worker’s Educational Bureau of America.

From these groups he learned about the labor movement, poverty, homelessness, crime and the social missions of the churches. All of these interactions brought Bonhoeffer from “the phraseological to the real,” Marsh argued. It was in America that Bonhoeffer found theology grounded in action. He returned to Germany transformed by this sense of lived theology.

Read More


Adams, Frank T. James A. Dombrowski: An American Heretic, 1897-1983.  (Univ. of Tennessee Press, 1992).

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich.  Barcelona, Berlin, New York: 1928-1931  Vol. 10. (Fortress Press, 2008).

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. A Testament of Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. (HarperOne, 2009).

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison. (Touchstone, 1997).

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Life Together. (HarperOne, 2009).

Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. The Cost of Discipleship. (Simon and Schuster, 1995).

Dombrowski, James A. The Early Days of Christian Socialism in America. (Columbia University Press, 1936).

Davies, Alan. Infected Christianity: A Study of Modern Racism. (McGill-Queen's University Press, 1988).

Duke, David Nelson. In the Trenches with Jesus and Marx: Harry F. Ward and the Struggle for Social Justice(University of Alabama Press, 2003).

Dunbar, Anthony. Against the Grain: Southern Radicals and Prophets, 1929-1959. (University Press of Virginia, 1981).

Horton, Myles. The Long Haul. (Doubleday, 1991).

Jacobs, Dale, ed. The Myles Horton Reader: Education for Social Change. (The University of Tennessee Press, 2003), p. 33.

Kester, Howard. Revolt Among the Sharecroppers. (Covici Friede Publishers, 1936).

K’ Meyer, Tracy Elaine. Interracialism and Christian Community in the Postwar South: The Story of Koinonia Farm(University Press of Virginia, 1997).

Marsh, Charles. Reclaiming Dietrich Bonhoeffer: The Promise of His Theology. (Oxford University Press, 1996).

Marsh, Charles. God’s Long Summer: Stories of Faith and Civil Rights. (Princeton University Press, 2008).

Marsh, Charles. Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. (Knopf, 2014).

Marsh, Charles. The Beloved Community: How Faith Shapes Social Justice, from the Civil Rights Movement to Today. (Basic Books, 2005).

Powell, Sr., Clayton. Upon This Rock. (Abyssinian Baptist Church, 1949).

Rauschenbusch, Walter.  A Theology for the Social Gospel. (MacMillan, 1917).

Rorty, Richard. Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth Century America. (Harvard University Press, 1998).

Urofsky, Melvin I.  Voice That Spoke for Justice: The Life and Times of Stephen S. Wise. (SUNY Series in Modern Jewish History, 1992).


Basic Reference Works.” International Bonhoeffer Society.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer Centre London, 2014.

Martin Luther King, Jr.'s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” April 16th, 1963.

Hans Pfeiffer's article in Dietrich Bonhoeffer Yearbook 3, "Learning Faith and Ethical Commitment in the Context of Spiritual Training Groups. Consequences of Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Postdoctoral Year at New York City, 1930-31.” 

Albert Raboteau's article in Boston Review,  “American Salvation."

Tiffany Stanley's article in Religion and Politics, “The Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer: An Interview with Charles Marsh.”

Strange Glory Reviews,” The Project on Lived Theology, 2014.

The House,” Bonhoeffer-House: Memorial and Place of Encounter, 2014.

John Whitehead's article in Friendly Fire, “The State of Modern Christianity (Featuring Charles Marsh).”

In the News

While many hoped that the election of the first African-American president in President Obama would heal the wounds of the past and inaugur a new era free of racism, many issues of race persist. One of the more prominent issues is the mass incarceration of African-Americans, which contributes greatly to the socio-economic plight of so many African-American families. In his upcoming talk, Charles Marsh will address how the racial tensions Bonhoeffer witnessed during his brief time in the United States reshaped the theologian's understanding of his own faith.