Original Sin and Everyday Protestants

The Theology of Reinhold Niebuhr, Billy Graham, and Paul Tillich in an Age of Anxiety

By Andrew S. Finstuen

272 pp., 6.125 x 9.25, notes, bibl., index

  • Paperback ISBN: 978-1-4696-2228-6
    Published: December 2014
  • eBook ISBN: 978-0-8078-9853-6
    Published: December 2009

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Awards & distinctions

2010 Frank S. and Elizabeth D. Brewer Prize, American Society for Church History

In the years following World War II, American Protestantism experienced tremendous growth, but conventional wisdom holds that midcentury Protestants practiced an optimistic, progressive, complacent, and materialist faith. In Original Sin and Everyday Protestants, historian Andrew Finstuen argues against this prevailing view, showing that theological issues in general--and the ancient Christian doctrine of original sin in particular--became newly important to both the culture at large and to a generation of American Protestants during a postwar "age of anxiety" as the Cold War took root.

Finstuen focuses on three giants of Protestant thought--Billy Graham, Reinhold Niebuhr, and Paul Tillich--men who were among the era's best known public figures. He argues that each thinker's strong commitment to the doctrine of original sin was a powerful element of the broad public influence that they enjoyed. Drawing on extensive correspondence from everyday Protestants, the book captures the voices of the people in the pews, revealing that the ordinary, rank-and-file Protestants were indeed thinking about Christian doctrine and especially about "good" and "evil" in human nature. Finstuen concludes that the theological concerns of ordinary American Christians were generally more complicated and serious than is commonly assumed, correcting the view that postwar American culture was becoming more and more secular from the late 1940s through the 1950s.

About the Author

Andrew S. Finstuen is dean of the Honors College and associate professor of history at Boise State University.
For more information about Andrew S. Finstuen, visit the Author Page.


"Traces a powerful mid-20th-century intellectual revival in which millions of Americans sought their bearings in the original-sin theology of three seemingly very different men."--The Christian Century

"The best works of intellectual history make unexpected, yet insightful connections using a comparative framework. The best works in the lived religion tradition demonstrate the limits of employing conventional categories of theological analysis. Finstuen succeeds on both fronts in this creative and thought-provoking study."--Religion in American History

"[An] engaging, well-researched book. . . . Finstuen's analysis demonstrates fascinating, unexpected, and convincing thematic overlaps between Tillich, Graham, and Niebuhr. . . . Of interest to all students of American Christianity, not only for its interesting and engaging writing, but also for Finstuen's ability to convincingly combine first rate theological analysis with social history."--Reviews in Religion and Theology

“[Finstuen’s] examination of letters to the editor and readers’ personal letters to Niebuhr, Graham, and Tillich reveal many surprises.”--Books & Culture

"Highly readable. . . . Recreates a mid-century landscape shared and shaped by these leaders and the lay people who pondered them. . . . Compelling."--Church History

"The historiographical importance of the work extends beyond the author's subjects. . . . A useful book of intellectual history that corrects our impressions of the post-war era. Finstuen makes a persuasive case that Americans in that era were more theologically literate than the popularity of Peale and others might suggest."--Journal of American History