Bethge on Bonhoeffer’s First Trip to the United States

Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Man of Vision, Man of Courage (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 104-5.

The reader should remember that Bonhoeffer completed his habilitation thesis (Act and Being) in the early months of 1930, having completed his doctoral thesis (Sanctorum Communio) in 1927. The trip to the United States here discussed followed upon his habilitation.
The idea of spending a year in America as an exchange student arose in the second half of 1929…Nevertheless he hesitated before putting in his application. He mistrusted what awaited him in America. The New World in itself did not fascinate him sufficiently. Was he to become a student again and devote a whole year to whatever place might be allotted him? He was told something about American ‘textbook methods’; and he regarded American theology as non-existent.

So he sought information from a previous recipient of an American grant, and what he was told was not exactly encouraging. One indeed had to go as an ordinary student, subject oneself to the ‘credit system’, and accumulate the required number of points by attending lectures and seminars and receiving satisfactory reports; agreement to this was insisted on by the American consulate before it granted a visa. To prevent him from being excessively disappointed as a result of his German ideas of academic freedom, his informant advised him to imagine the atmosphere of a German secondary school. In his field of systematic theology there was of course nothing to learn. The only place that was worth while was Union Theological Seminary in New York, which had a great many other things to offer, but he might well be allotted a place at Hartford or St. Louis; seventeenth-century orthodoxy still prevailed even at Princeton, so his German informant told him. He was advised to postpone going to America until he could go there as a professor.

He hesitated, but at the beginning of May, when he was assured of a place at Union Theological Seminary, he did so no longer.


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