King Encyclopedia
Martin Luther King, Jr. questioned issues of faith, new volume reveals

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      As a seminary student and young preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged the role of the church in preserving segregation and questioned whether the Christian bible was literally true, according to documents to be published in a forthcoming volume of his papers, Advocate of the Social Gospel, September 1948 – March 1963 of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.

      The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute will launch the volume during a month-long celebration of the King’s legacy, which will include a Jan. 12 open house at the King Research and Education Institute, campus visits by civil rights activists, lectures, an interfaith panel discussion on spirituality and social change and other events.

       With the publication of the volume, “scholars will have a new window into King’s religious beliefs when they see these previously unavailable writings from his early years as minister,” said history Professor Clayborne Carson, director of the Research and Education Institute and of the book’s editorial team.

       The work, part of a planned multi-volume series, documents King’s preaching career and provides a unique look at never-before published early sermons, offering the public the first detailed presentation of documents in the $32 million cache recently acquired by Morehouse College.

       In 1997, Coretta Scott King granted Carson permission to examine papers stored in boxes in the basement of the King family home. The most significant finding was the discovery of a battered cardboard box holding more than 200 folders containing sermons, papers King wrote for his preaching classes at Crozer Theological Seminary and correspondence. The heart of the collection was a trove of sermon notes, outlines and sermon texts from the years up to and including King’s involvement in the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956, a period for which little was known about King’s religious activities. Some ideas for homilies were jotted on notebook paper, some were scribbled on the backs of letters and travel itineraries and others were neatly typed and dated.

       Collectively, the documents reveal that King’s concern about poverty, human rights and social justice is present in his earliest handwritten sermons, which demonstrate King to be, in his own words, “an advocator of the social gospel,” the book’s editors said.

       King’s class papers from Crozer Theological Seminary, printed in the volume, contain evidence that he wrestled with basic issues of faith during his seminary years. While at Crozer, King asserted that liberal theology, or that line of thought critical of a literal reading of the Bible, was “the best or at least the most logical system of theology in existence.”  He agreed with liberal theology’s teachings that “the Pentateuch teachings were written by more than one author, that the whale did not swallow Jonah,” and “that Jesus never met John the Baptist. But after all of this,” King wondered, “what relevance do these scriptures have? What moral implications do we find growing out of the Bible?”

       King also charged in a paper on preaching that the Christian church was “the greatest preserver of the status quo” and, thereby, “one of the chief exponents of racial bigotry.” King wrote: “I can conclude that the church, in its present state, is not the hope of the world. I believe that nothing has so persistently and effectively blocked the way of salvation as the church.” 

       In an early sermon preached in 1953 while associate pastor at his father’s church, Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, King spoke out against the acceptance of segregation in churches, declaring, “I am [ashamed] and appalled that Eleven O’ Clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in Christian America.”

       King Institute associate director Susan Englander served as the volume’s lead editor. Susan Carson is the volume’s managing editor. University of Kentucky historian and minister Gerald L. Smith and Rev. Troy Jackson served as contributing editors on the volume.

Events scheduled between Jan. 11 and Jan. 31 include:
Clarence B. Jones Lecture. Jones, former attorney and speechwriter for King, will talk about his upcoming memoir, Thank You Martin, A Tribute to Winter Soldiers: Stories From the Front, on Jan. 11 from noon to 1:30 p.m. in Oak Room West at Tresidder Union.

Open House at the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research & Education Institute. Scheduled guests at the reception on Friday, Jan. 12 from 2 to 4 p.m. include Jones; historian and author Michael Honey; singer Bettie Mae Fikes, who was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s and a SNCC Freedom Singer, and writer Dorothy Cotton, former education director for the Southern Conference Leadership Conference. The Research Institute is at 466 Via Ortega, Cypress Hall D.

Christian Celebration Honoring Dr. King. The Rev. Benjamin Reynolds, former pastor of the Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church of Colorado Springs, will speak at Memorial Church at 10 a.m. on Jan. 14.

Food and Words for the Soul Luncheon. Jonathan Thomas, pastor of administration of Jerusalem Baptist Church in Palo Alto, will perform a reading of King’s sermons featured in Advocate of the Social Gospel at a luncheon from noon to 1 p.m. in the Oak Lounge at Tresidder Union on Jan. 17, followed by a book signing by two of the volume’s editors, history Professor Clayborne Carson and Sue Englander, of the King Institute. Refreshments and music will be provided.

Introducing Volume VI of the King Papers: Advocate of the Social Gospel.  Book co-editors Rev. Dr. Gerald L. Smith, Rev. Troy Jackson, and Susan Englander will speak on King’s current relevance as a religious leader from noon to 1 p.m. in Oak Room West at Tresidder Union from noon to 1 p.m. on Jan. 18.

Multi-Faith Celebration Honoring Dr. King. Smith, associate professor of African American studies and history at the University of Kentucky, pastor of the Farristown Baptist Church in Berea, Ky., as well as co-editor of Advocate for a Social Gospel will speak at 10 a.m. on Jan. 21 at Memorial Church.

Film Screening and Discussion. Rivers of Change: The Legacy of Five Unheralded Women in Montgomery and their Struggle for Justice and Dignity chronicles the struggles of five mostly uncelebrated women who were instrumental in starting and ending the Montgomery bus boycott. A discussion will follow the film screening, to be shown at 7 p.m. on Jan. 22 at Tresidder Union.

Aurora Forum presents Spirituality & Social Change: An Interfaith Roundtable. Susannah Heschel, associate professor of Jewish studies at  Dartmouth College; Imam Zaid Shakir of the Zaytuna Institute in Hayward; Rev. Heng Sure of the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery, and Rev. Raphael Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta will participate in a discussion on the relation of spiritual practice and social change from 7:30 to 9 p.m. on Jan. 25 at Kresge Auditorium. Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann, associate dean for religious life, will moderate.

White Like Me: Reflections on Race. Anti-racism activist and educator Tim Wise will speak about issues of race and privilege from 7 to 9 p.m. on Jan. 31 in Oak Room West in Tresidder Union. Wise, author of two books, is director of the Association for White Anti-Racist Education (AWARE) in Tennessee.


Document -- King’s handwritten outline for Robert E. Keighton’s Fall 1948 course Preaching Ministry of the Church at Crozer Theological Seminary

Document -- First page of handwritten draft from which King may have preached his initial sermon, “The Dimensions of a Complete Life,” at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church (January 1954)

Document -- King’s notes for his acceptance address to serve as pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church (2 May 1954)

Document -- King writes, “I am ashamed of Christianity, but not of Christ” in the margin of his copy of Harry Emerson Fosdick’s 1937 book Successful Christian Living, pp. 80-81.

Document -- Handwritten sermon outline titled “Opportunity, Fidelity, and Reward,” based on Jesus’ parable of the talents (January 1955).

Document -- King writes a sermon outline about dreams that do not come true in the margins of a chapter titled “Shattered Dreams” in his copy of James Wallace Hamilton’s book Horns and Halos, pp. 24-25.

Volume VI Cover photo – King at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church

Photo – King poses with his father in front of the family car in 1948, the year he graduated from Morehouse College and began his studies at Crozer Theological Seminary.

Photo – King continued to carry out his duties as a minister during the Montgomery bus boycott. Here King poses with mothers and babies during a baby pageant at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in July 1956.

Photo – King, his sister Christine King Farris (left), and his mother Alberta Williams King (right) at a book signing for his major volume of sermons, Strength to Love, June 1963.