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Martin Luther King Jr.
Martin Luther King Jr.
The Theology of Martin Luther King, Jr.
by Jacqueline Trussell
Founder and President of

In the book, A Theology for the Social Gospel, Walter Rauschenbusch, writes, "The social gospel needs a theology to make it effective, but theology needs the social gospel to vitalize it."1 In other words, Christ’s message to today’s world is still relevant because, in part, we still have the need to preach the gospel to the poor and oppressed of the world. Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., brought a message of liberation to the poor and deliverance to the captives from the bondage’s of racism, classism, economic and social oppression. King’s message remains important today and can serve as a model for those seeking solutions to today’s societal ills. Rauschenbusch understood the need to bridge the gap between spiritual work and work in the real world. Thus, just as Chicago Theological Seminary has adopted as their theme, " Ministry for the real world," it speaks to the continual need to keep the gospel message alive and rooted in the lives of the people it is attempting to serve.

King was impacted by Rauschenbusch’s theology because of its rationality in applying theology to the world. King was concerned, not just for the soul of the individual but for the holistic well being of the entire person--mind, body and spirit. The dichotomy between the sacred and the secular in King’s theology, moved him way beyond, just a civil rights leader, but rather it catapulted him to the entire world stage. King, however, was not only affected by the great theologians of the day, but he was also influenced by the black church and his lineage in the black church tradition, particularly the Baptist Church. 

King’s God enabled him to see the interrelatedness of all humankind. In Strength to Love, he wrote,

“ In a real sense, all life is interrelated. All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly. I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I’m what I ought to be. This is the interrelated structure of reality.2

Thus King was at the forefront and in some ways, I propose, a pioneer in interreligious dialogue, having adopted Mohandhas Gandhi’s non-violent philosophy, but King also saw that, as the Rev. Willie Barrow says, “we are not so much disunited as we are disconnected.”

King’s theology, I contend, has made an impact in both the secular and sacred arena. I would like to suggest several ways where I see King’s theology as relevant to today. 

First, King brought the black church to the public arena, giving it prominence that continues today. Within the black community, the church served as the institutional base for social, political and economic survival. Thus, when Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama bus to a white patron in 1955, it was the black church and its leadership that was able to organize and rally the masses to boycott the segregated transportation system in the city. While it should be noted that the NAACP was another prominent institution at the time, it was unable to reach the large numbers of people needed to make the movement successful. The black church provided meeting space and a structure for reaching and organizing the people. The men and women of the many congregations provided human and financial resources. Black Baptist churches were at the forefront of the movement, due largely to their ability to operate autonomously without benefit of the hierarchical structure of the Methodist denominations. Although many of the black Baptist congregations were associated with the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., their individual relationship to this organization was strictly voluntary. 

King’s leadership in forming the Southern Christian Leadership Conference is a testament to his administrative skills and understanding of the intricate nuances of the Baptist church structure. There is very little conformity among individual Baptist churches, leaving the administration of the church primarily under the control of the minister or pastor. In upholding the independence of each church as the body of Christ, Baptist’s oppose any and all authority over the separate churches. However, they do “associate” together in regional groups, which once formed, would accept only like churches as members. These associations advise churches on policy and in practice, impose some uniformity, but churches are still free to leave the associations.

Subsequently, the black church is called upon to support various causes around the world. Clergy, representing the historically black denominations, are invited to the White House, serve on boards, hold elective office and are involved in many economic development programs within their respective communities. King placed the black church on center stage thus increasing its credibility and visibility nationally and internationally.

Second, the black church provided leadership to the movement and through King, elevated the status of black Christian clergy. The Civil Rights movement gave birth to committed and dedicated trailblazers and produced leaders that gained national and international reputations. King’s training in the seminary enabled him to argue theologically, his position for racial equality. Other black clergy, impressed with King’s eloquence and education, sought to emulate him, by acquiring seminary education. King was not only highly educated, his membership into the black church was sealed from his birth into a prominent family of Atlanta Baptist ministers. His father, Rev. Martin Luther King, Sr., and grandfather, Rev. A. D. Williams, instilled in him an activism that was part of his heritage. Both pastored the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. King’s relationship to the Baptist church stretches back even farther. Willis Williams, his great-grandfather, was also a Baptist minister, near Atlanta, during the pre-Civil War years. 

King, the young pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, was drafted to lead what became the Civil Rights movement. Protests against segregation were held in many southern cities, and all had a location and some association within the structure of the black church. In January 1957, a meeting at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia led to the organization of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). King undoubtedly knew how to form SCLC without infringing on church and ministerial autonomy and in building the organization, he stuck with the familiar structure of the black Baptist church. Sociologist Aldon Morris describes who was at the corps of the organization. 

“ Ministers who were in the process of leading local movements became leaders of SCLC...Indeed, the criteria for leadership in SCLC proved to be movement experience and stature. After the initial organizing meetings of the SCLC, nine men emerged as its leadership...All but [one] were clergymen. ” 4

Among this elite group, King was selected as President. Others included: Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth of Birmingham, Alabama; Rev. C. K. Steele of Tallahassee, Florida; Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Rev. T.J. Jemison, Baton Rouge, Louisiana and Rev. Kelly Miller Smith, Nashville, Tennessee. A majority of the ministers on the SCLC Board were Baptist ministers, a fact substantiated by one writer. 

“All but a handful of the ministers were Baptist,” writes Adam Fairclough, “ a fact partially explained by the numerical preponderance of black Baptists in the South. Baptists made up perhaps two-thirds of the church going population...Baptists knew each other and tended to stick together. 5

As the organization grew and progressed, other clergy from around the nation became active in the grouup, including Rev. Andrew Young and Rev. Joseph Lowery. However, it should be noted that the majority of King’s close associates shared membership within the ministerial association known as the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., under the leadership of the Rev. J.H. Jackson.

Jackson, who saw himself more as a preacher than an activist, represented a segment of the black church that preferred a less confrontational solution to the plight of blacks in America. His theology differed from King’s, whose training as a systematic theologian, informed his life and work in the Civil Rights movement. Space does not permit a thorough discussion of Jackson’s theological perspectives, however In Black Religious Leaders: Conflict in Unity, Peter Paris offers some insight into Jackson’s theology and quotes him as saying, 

“ Our acceptance of Jesus Christ as our personal Savior is based on His message from the Sermon On The Mount, His personality and life force that He sheds in the gospel writings and through the revelation of truth that comes to us in all the epistles of the New Testament.6

Clearly, the primary source of Jackson’s theological beliefs comes from the Bible as the foundation from which all truth is gleaned. To Jackson, King was a troublemaker who broke the laws of the land and thereby also acted against the laws of God because as Paris points out, Jackson believed that, "the source of good social action is extraordinary personal, spiritual and moral refinement."7

Marching, protesting and being arrested were not signs of "moral refinement" in Jackson’s view, thus King did not exemplify Christ’s life and message. Although Jackson’s theology was prevalent among the National Baptist organization that he led, it was by no means the only view. King, therefore, with his more radical theological perspective, was able to organize and lead those black clergy who were tired of Jackson's "wait and see" attitude.

Third, as Interdenominational Theological Seminary President, Robert Franklin writes in his book, Another Day’s Journey, "the key to restoring urban civil society depends on the vitality of the faith community, including but not limited to black churches."

Here we see an echo of Rauschenbusch’s assertion that theology needs the social gospel to vitalize it. King revitalized the black church faith community and raised the consciousness of whites around the world to the racism that permeates American society. King’s application of the social gospel to the Civil Rights movement, made the movement come alive because it ignited in those who heard him, a call to action. As Rauschenbusch contends, "It [the Social Gospel] seeks to put the democratic spirit, which the Church inherited from Jesus and the prophets, once more in control of the institutions and teachings of the Church".
Therefore, King mobilized a generation who had become "sick and tired of being sick and tired", with a message that proclaimed God’s love for all of His people. King’s familiarity with the teachings of the world’s great theologians enabled him, on the one hand, to negotiate on behalf of the poor and oppressed citizens of the south, for a better way of life. Influenced by Paul Tillich, King learned to look at other examples of lives that exemplified the message of Christ. King found Gandhi’s nonviolent approach to solving India’s oppressive rule to be a life that symbolized the love of Christ. King did not abandon his Christian beliefs nor his grounding in the black church tradition to become an adherent of Gandhism. He did, however, synthesize into his ethic, the teachings of Tillich and the wisdom of Gandhi. King, unlike J.H. Jackson, felt justified, that like Paul who carried Christ’s message wherever he went, King felt called to carry out the campaign against sin and evil which existed in the form of segregation and to tackle the institution of racism. 

The black churches that followed him and the clergy that led their churches into the struggle, were attempting to be the forces that brought hope back into the lives of those who had lost hope. King sought to eradicate evil, in the form of the sin of racism, by practicing a theology of God’s love based on a future hope in glory. During slavery, blacks had little hope here on earth, but when they gave their lives to Christ, there was hope for a better life in the hereafter. King’s training in the black church tradition enabled him to give leadership to the people of his church congregation but he was also able to transcend the local pulpit and bring his message of hope and peace to the nation and the world. 

Next, King was led by his overwhelming belief in God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. Yet, equally important, King saw himself as a servant. Writing about his call to the ministry on his application to Crozer Theological Seminary, King said,

“ My call to the ministry was quite different from most explanations I’ve heard. This decision came about in the summer of 1944 when I felt an inescapable urge to serve society. In short, I felt a sense of responsibility which I could not escape.10

He was setting the tone for his future ministry which would promote the social gospel, not unlike that of his spiritual ancestors who had fought to establish independent Baptist churches or those who had organized against slavery. He followed a lineage of Baptist leaders who promoted a social agenda of uplift for African Americans. In other words, King stood on big shoulders. King’s father and grandfather were pioneer black Baptist civil rights activists and both were entrenched in the political structure of the church. 11

His grounding in the black church tradition was important to his work and ministry and helped him to navigate through the local church as a pastor, in the southern and northern cities where he challenged racism and on the world stage when he spoke out against the Vietnam war. In The Trumpet of Conscience, King wrote,

“ I would yet have to live with the meaning of my commitment to the ministry of Jesus Christ. To me the relationship of this ministry to the making of peace is so obvious that I sometimes marvel at those who ask me why I am speaking against the war.12

King opposed the War as economically depriving the nation from resources that could aide against the problems at home--poverty, racism, and oppressions of all kinds. America’s failure to see itself as a nation full of sin and evil, was a key reason why King felt that his actions and voice was needed--to call America into the reality that it had an obligation to do what was right by black Americans and grant them full citizenship and participation as outlined in the Constitution and in Scripture.

Finally, if we were to look ahead and imagine King’s ministry today, we would see the impact of the influences that shaped his life. King, perhaps would have faced many new challenges throughout his subsequent years. In the 1970s, black theology emerged. King was not nationalistic but rather he believed that God’s gospel included all humankind, thus the question remains as to how he would have responded to James Cone. King’s inclusive nature may have led him to see Cone’s theology as divisive and exclusive but he might have related to black theology’s theme of liberation of the poor. 

King’s theology for the world of the 21st century would need to address issues of sexuality, HIV/AIDS,  the continued economic disparity of the world’s poor, the lack of progress in race relations and wrestle with gender equality particularly in the black church. If King were to stay true to his theological thinking that sought to embrace and unify all, then King’s theology would remain important in today's world. If however, he failed to work diligently on the issues relevant to today, then his stature as an advocate for the gospel message of Jesus Christ may have been compromised. We will never know for certain. Yet, King's legacy lives on.

In the sermon entitled, "Lord, Let the Works I’ve Done Speak for Me,"13 Rev. Christilene Whalen Weaver challenges us to be God’s helping hands. King, I believe, was God’s helping hands here on earth.

1Walter Rauschenbusch, A Theology for the Social Gospel (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1945), p. 1.
2Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength To Love (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1963), p. 70.
3Rev. Willie Barrow serves as Chair of the Board of the Rainbow/PUSH Coalition and has this saying in her office.
4Aldon Morris, The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement (New York: The Free Press, 1984), p. 86-87.
5Adam Fairclough, To Redeem the Soul of America: The Southern Christian Leadership Conference and Martin Luther King, Jr. (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1987), p. 34.
6Peter J. Paris, Black Religious Leaders: Conflict in Unity (Louisville: John Knox Press, 1991), p. 68.
7Paris,  p. 72.
8Robert M. Franklin, Another Day's Journey: Black Churches Confronting the American Crisis (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1997), p. 54.
9Rauschenbusch, p. 5.
10Clayborne Carson, "Martin Luther King, Jr. and the African American Social Gospel," African American Christianity: Essays in History, ed. Paul E. Johnson (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994),
p. 162-163.
11See Jacqueline Trussell, "Standing on Big Shoulders,", January 2001.
12Martin Luther King, Jr., The Trumpet of Conscience (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1967), p. 25.
13Rev. Christilene Whalen Weaver, "Lord, Let the Works I've Done Speak for Me,", October 2000.

Copyright © 2002

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