Forty-five years after his death, Martin Luther King, Jr. still serves as an important and often overlooked theological resource for the Church today. As one of the towering figures of the civil rights movement, most people know King as activist, ethicist and orator. However, far too few know King in the way he thought of himself, as pastor-theologian.

As with most icons, King’s true life and thought have often fallen prey to his formidable legacy. As various factions play political football over King’s words and ideas, his theological contributions are often left untapped, except by the faithful few who know the King studies field of scholarship.

Therefore, to a large degree, the church (especially the conservative evangelical segments) has failed to draw from the crucial biblical insights King highlighted in his life and works. Even more tragic, the black church tradition, which produced King, is often neglected as a serious theological resource. In other articles, I hope to show why pastors today should at least engage King’s thought as serious theological resource from the black church tradition. But here, I’d like to address a few major misconceptions about King and the community he represented.

Misconception #1: Martin King as Mere Civil Rights Icon

Often people think of King exclusively as a civil rights icon, who used the church as a platform to carry on his social activism. However, King was first and foremost a pastor-theologian who viewed his social engagement as a function of his unique pastoral calling. As an African-American in the segregated south, King daily confronted the principality of white supremacy and its institutional manifestations. He recognized racism as a sinful ideology, originally formulated to justify and perpetuate two and a half centuries of man-stealing, a practice patently condemned by Scripture (Exodus 21:16, Deut. 24:7, 1 Timothy 1:10).

As an institutional manifestation of racism, segregation threatened the very witness of the church. It dehumanized black Christians by making them live as if they were inherently inferior to their white brothers and sisters. It also dehumanized white Christians by causing them to live as if they were superior to their black brothers and sisters. Rather than bow the knee to the idol of white supremacy through passivity or compromise his Christian witness through violent retaliation, King surmised that the only proper Christian response to segregation was non-violent resistance.

He challenged the church to think deeply about what it means to be “the light of the world”—a community whose conspicuous unity and love for one another bears witness to the power of the risen Christ. He also challenged the church to use its theological resources to address the systemic and personal dynamics of black suffering—issues most often neglected by conservative Reformed evangelical theology.

Misconception #2: Martin King as Theological Novice

King is often overlooked as a serious theologian. However, this cannot be for lack of credentials. After graduating from Crozer Seminary, King pursued doctoral studies at Boston University, focusing in Systematic Theology. He went to Boston in order to study the Philosophy of Personalism, the basic belief that God is personal and persons are the highest intrinsic values.

According to King, Personalism gave him philosophical categories to articulate and explore the biblical beliefs that God is personal and that humans have intrinsic dignity. Under the watchful eyes of personalist luminaries like Edgar Sheffield Brightman and Harold DeWolf, King explored many theological topics with such depth and sophistication that he graduated at the top of his class. King was particularly adept at critically appropriating and blending eclectic ideas (including ideas from Luther and Calvin). Surprisingly, King didn’t often directly take up the social plight of blacks in his formal academic writings. However, he almost always undertook the theological task with a view towards the practical consequences. He even critiqued theologians like Karl Barth at exactly this point, for being too abstruse for the masses to comprehend.

As scholars have well noted, King was a “theologian of action.” In many respects, he exemplifies James’ words “Show me your faith apart from your works, and I will show you my faith by my works” (James 2:18b). True to the black church tradition that produced him, King’s theology emerged in sermons, speeches, memoirs, and his life of social and civil engagement. Having spent his seminary and graduate years exploring the world of ideas, King devoted the rest of his brief life applying those ideas to life circumstances. Therefore, King didn’t produce a formal systematics in the typical Anglo-American and western European style of doing theology. However, this makes him no less important to the theological landscape than say, Barth, Niebuhr, or Bavinck. Few modern theologians have exemplified their theology through putting their lives on the line like King—especially the call to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44).

Misconception #3: Martin King as Thoroughgoing Liberal

Sadly, many religious conservatives still view King with a sense of suspicion—rejecting him out-of-hand as a thoroughgoing theological liberal even before they’ve examined his thought. Though most might celebrate his social achievements, they would never think of reading him as a serious theological resource. Although King used protestant liberalism, he was a product of a very religiously conservative black church tradition. King was raised in the Ebenezer Baptist Church—a community full of Bible believers who taught him the essentials of the Christian faith. He also came from three generations of black Baptist preachers, all of whom preached and applied the gospel and the resources of biblical orthodoxy directly to the social plight of African-Americans. King saw himself as continuing this pastoral legacy.

For King, protestant liberalism offered categories to articulate and develop the “homespun” theology he inherited from his church, family and community. Two years after arriving at Morehouse College, King fell under the sway of George Kelsey and Benjamin Mays, two black preachers who used protestant liberalism to address the social plight of blacks in the south. Daddy King recalled that Kelsey “saw the pulpit as a place both for the drama, in the old-fashioned, country Baptist sense, and for the articulation of philosophies that address the problems of society.” Kelsey and Mays never intentionally taught King to reject the faith he learned at Ebenezer, rather they encouraged him to use higher critical methods to develop his faith. Therefore, King adopted the parts of liberalism that he understood as being essentially in-step with the basic theological foundation received as a boy.

King often rejected the parts of liberalism which ran contrary to his black church sensibilities and which proved unhelpful to addressing black suffering. For instance, he often criticized liberalisms overly optimistic view of humanity and its “cult of inevitable progress.” King’s experiences growing up in Jim Crow south and in the black Baptist church tradition shielded him against such excesses. Despite the influence of his mentor, Edgar Brightman, King also rejected theistic finitude as a suitable answer to the problem of evil. Influenced by his black church sensibilities, King insisted that God is omnipotent, able to do as he pleases.

However, this is not the whole story. King’s academic works also reveal his deep embrace of higher critical methods. Accordingly, he either modified or rejected a number of core evangelical doctrines such as the virgin birth.

Nevertheless, anyone who would label King as a thoroughgoing liberal should remember his “Vision in the Kitchen” in 1956. Feeling the pressure of persecution for his leadership in the fledgling Montgomery Bus Boycott, King explained the inadequacy of liberal solutions to his suffering. He said,

“Then I started thinking about many things—I pulled back on the philosophy and theology that I had just studied in the universities, trying to give philosophical and theological reasons for the existence and the reality of sin and evil, but the answer didn’t quite come there….And something said to me, ‘You can’t call on Daddy now, he’s up in Atlanta, a hundred and seventy five miles away. You can’t even call on Mamma now. You’ve got to call on that something and that person that your Daddy used to tell you about—that power that can make a way out of no way.’”

Here, King reveals his fundamental commitment to the God he first came to know in the black church, the God that can “make a way out of no way.” This famous idiom conveys something of the black church’s traditional doctrine of God. It refers to the covenant God who is faithful and powerful, able and willing to deliver and protect his people from harm.

This God fashions deliverance (i.e “a way”) out of the raw material of adversity (i.e. “no way”), thereby bringing comfort, hope, and meaning to the suffering and the oppressed. King’s Kitchen encounter with this God gave him the courage to continue his leadership within the freedom movement. He would often refer to this episode throughout his lifetime.

King never returned to formal academic theology after his vision in the Kitchen, so it is difficult to say whether he repudiated his liberal stances. He clearly made a decisive step towards the faith he learned in the Sunday schools of Ebenezer. Moreover, King returned to Ebenezer in February of 1960 as co-pastor alongside his traditional Baptist father. As co-pastor of Ebenezer, he deliberately reinvigorated the Christian education department with a view towards improving the lay members’ understanding of essential Christian doctrines. It would be difficult to imagine him serving in this capacity at Ebenezer, if he stood fundamentally opposed to Ebenezer’s traditional understandings of core biblical doctrines. However, because King didn’t live long enough to return to theology classrooms, no one can know exactly where he stood when he died.

Misconception #4: Martin King as the De-Contextualized “Exceptional” Negro

Although King was brilliant and exceptional in many ways, fundamentally he was a product of the black church tradition. You cannot wrestle with King’s ideas without also wrestling with the community that helped forge so many of them. Surprisingly, even many King scholars have forgotten this, writing as if he didn’t really begin thinking until he attended predominantly white seminaries and encountered white theologians.

However, scholars such as Lewis Baldwin and Rufus Burrow, Jr. have helped correct this trend. King’s black church roots were “highly significant” in determining his religious attitudes and were “absolutely necessary” in understanding his religious development.

King often drew on the rich pastoral, prayer, and song traditions of the black church—expressing his ideas using the conventions of those religious forms. The black church gave King his basic theological structure, often serving as the filter through which he analyzed and critiqued protestant liberalism. Much of King’s theological brilliance reflects not only one exceptional man’s thinking, but centuries of rich communal reflection. As we encounter King, we should know that we are also encountering a nearly 400-year history of African-American saints who have wrestled with profound theological questions. And, by God’s grace, have rich theological insights for the entirety of God’s chosen people.

Finally, if we treat King as if he fell from the sky fully formed, not only do we fail to understand him, but we also fail to learn from the rich faith tradition that produced him. In so doing, we would be dishonoring the providential wisdom of God in fashioning King, using the black church experience.

More Information  

For more information on King’s life and legacy, see Lewis V. Baldwin, There Is a Balm in Gilead: The Cultural Roots of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1991); Rufus Burrow, Martin Luther King, Jr. for Armchair Theologians (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009); Rufus Burrow, Jr., God and Human Dignity: The Personalism, Theology, and Ethics of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2006); Stephen B. Oates, Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr., Reprint (New York: Harper Perennial, 1994); Martin Luther King, Jr., A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writings and Speeches of Martin Luther King, Jr., ed. James Melvin Washington (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 1991).

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