Martin Luther King Jr. Rejected the Divinity of Jesus

Martin Luther King Jr. Rejected the Divinity of Jesus

This article originally appeared in Tikkun Magazine under the title "King’s God: The Unknown Faith of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr." It has been cited by Dr. King scholar Lewis Baldwin in one of his books and used in a course on Dr. King at Columbia University.

Written by Be Scofield, founder of

You know that Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a progressive Christian and champion of the social gospel. You may also know that he spoke out against the Vietnam War, harshly critiqued U.S. foreign policy and questioned the capitalist system that produced poverty. Let us not forget that he was assassinated in Memphis, TN while supporting sanitation workers one year to the day after he delivered his most poignant speech rebuking the Vietnam War. But as he traveled the country awakening the conscience of the nation he did so as a Baptist minister. Do you know his theology? What was the meaning of Jesus for Dr. King? Was he divine? How did he believe we should approach the Bible? Biographies describe him as a liberal Protestant, but what does this mean? What were his religious convictions on orthodox Christian beliefs and why are they important to us?

With the release in recent years of many of his previously unpublished letters, sermons, papers and correspondences in a multi volume set called the “Papers Project” the public can now read in great detail Dr. Kings personal thoughts on the core doctrines of the Christian faith. Launched as a joint project between Stanford University and the King center, the project is designed to give researchers easier access to documents previously buried deep within archives and university collections. A number of academic papers written during seminary provide an intimate look at the young King as he struggled to reconcile religion with a changing, dynamic and modern world.

To understand Dr. King’s theology we must first begin when he was only a month past nineteen. It is February 1948 and he has just applied to Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, PA. A small integrated school with a population of less than one hundred; Dr. King would be only one of eleven black students. A letter informed him that he would enjoy a sense of community, close working relationships with the faculty and diverse courses taught by Christian leaders in their respected fields. King would end up taking one-third of his courses with one of these professors, George Washington Davis. This pairing would prove critical in the forging of his theological beliefs. He stated on his application to Crozer that his reason to apply for ministry is different than any of the other’s he’d heard, “This decision came about in the summer of 1944 when I felt an inescapable urge to serve society. In short, I felt a very strong sense of responsibility which I could not escape.” (1) He was just fifteen during the summer that he realized his deep calling. He would enter Morehouse College in Atlanta that same fall, going directly into seminary upon graduating with a degree in sociology.

The “shackles of fundamentalism” broke off within his first two years at Morehouse preparing him well for his liberal theological education at Crozer. However, King struggled with his Christian faith from an early age. His very own introduction to the Church at the age of six didn’t come from any genuine religious conviction, rather he saw his sister make the alter call during a religious revival and quickly followed. He never experienced the “crisis moment” that defined so many conversions. Even during his baptism he claims he had no idea of what was occurring. His entrance into the Church was gradual and based on the community, music and fellowship. He would later claim to be embarrassed by the emotionalism that defined so many of the religious expressions he witnessed at Ebenezer Church where his father was the pastor. King wondered if this peculiar expression of faith could ever be reconciled with reason in a modern society. Growing up in a lineage of Baptist preachers from the south he was taught an orthodox Christianity based on a literal interpretation of the Bible. Not surprisingly, it came as quite a shock when in Sunday school he boldly denied the bodily resurrection of Jesus; he was only thirteen. From this point, “doubts began to spring forth unrelentingly.” (2)

While at Crozer Seminary his intellectual pursuits included a comprehensive study of the great social and ethical philosophers. From Aristotle to Hume, Locke, Rousseau and Nietzsche to the insights of Jainism, Hinduism, Islam and the world’s religions King seemed as if on a mission to figure out the world. He criticized the individualism of capitalism and the collectivism of communism during this time, stating that some form of democratic socialism would be needed if America were to fulfill her potential as a Christian nation. Growing up during the depression Dr. King harbored a negative impression of capitalism as he witnessed the daily food lines and poverty. Hegel’s philosophical influence is clear; “the kingdom of God is neither the thesis of individual enterprise nor the antithesis of collective enterprise, but a synthesis which reconciles the truths of both.” (3) King would later also apply this dialectical form of thinking when sorting out his views on human nature.

Like most any other seminary student, King took classes in Biblical criticism, Christian theology, history, ethics, ancient religions and preaching among others. The course of study at Crozer however was not Kings first exposure to a liberal Christian theology. While at Morehouse, professor George D. Kelsey influenced King in a powerful way. Kelsey, a Baptist was firm advocate that religion should address the pressing issues of the day. Up until King took a Bible course with Kelsey in his junior year, he was unsure if he could reconcile the literal religious tradition he had grown up in with advances in modern society. The course gave King the tools he needed to see the truths in the Bible while maintaining his firm commitment to reason and experience. King had always wondered if religion could be “intellectually respectful as well as emotionally satisfying.” Another influential Morehouse leader was the president of the college and minister Benjamin Mays. Every Tuesday during chapel students would eagerly gather to listen to Mays talk about religion, society and social justice. He was an inspiring and passionate figure for the young men at Morehouse. Both Kelsey and Mays were ministers who advocated the religious life but they were also well educated and understood the challenges of the modern era. King later claimed that Mays was “one of the great influences on my life.” (4)

Kings most significant teacher at Crozer Seminary was George Washington Davis. A Yale graduate who had been deeply influenced by the social gospel of Walter Rauschenbusch, Davis helped King to expand and deepen his liberal theology. His first course with Davis was “Christian Theology For Today,” a two-semester long look into the historical and contemporary relevance of contemporary Christianity. King’s writing at this time illustrates a marked improvement over his previous coursework. He applied himself fully to Davis’ course and would end up taking seven classes with him; a full one third of his entire coursework while at Crozer Theological Seminary.

In 1950 during his second year at Crozer King traveled to Philadelphia to hear Howard University President Mordecai Johnson talk about the life of Mahatma Gandhi. He was so impressed with Gandhi that he went out and purchased half a dozen books on his teachings. He would later call Gandhi the “greatest Christian ever” claiming that he was “probably the first person in history to lift the love ethic of Jesus above mere interaction between individuals to a powerful and effective social force on a large scale.” 5 Gandhi’s emphasis on love, nonviolence, God and social revolution impacted Dr. King’s moral and religious development in a profound way that no other philosophy or intellectual pursuit had.

While King was only a mediocre student at Morehouse earning a 2.48 grade point he excelled while at Crozer. It was an exciting and intellectually stimulating time for him.

The seed planted at Morehouse was enough for him to grow into a passionate and articulate student committed to applying the best of reason to his religious faith. King ended up graduating first in his class receiving the Pearl Plafker award for all around outstanding student and had the honor of delivering the Crozer commencement address. By age twenty-two he had received a B.A. from Morehouse in sociology and a B.A. in divinity from Crozer Theological Seminary. His intellectual and religious pursuit didn’t stop there. He went on to receive a PhD in systematic theology at the well respected Boston University. His understanding of God continued to evolve as he studied the theology and philosophy of Paul Tillich, Wieman, Hegel, Whitehead and other great thinkers. However, by the time King had finished seminary at Crozer he had clearly laid out his beliefs on the core doctrines of the Christian faith. And it is here that we now direct our focus.

The Divinity of Jesus

When King was only five years old he began performing gospel songs at his father’s Ebenezer Baptist Church. With his mother on the piano his favorite song to sing was, “I Want to Be More and More Like Jesus.” Being raised in an evangelical Baptist tradition, King was taught to view Jesus as a personal savior. Later, when King grew up he would state that “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” was his all time favorite gospel song. In fact the title of the song were his last words uttered before he was shot. While standing on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, King looked down a moment before the bullet rang out and saw the Chicago musician Ben Branch in the parking lot. “Ben, make sure you play ‘Precious Lord, Take My Hand’ at the meeting tonight. Sing it real pretty.”(6) So, how did someone like King who believed that “Christ is the hope of the world” understand Jesus? What did he think about his precious Lord’s divinity? The answers lie in papers that King wrote while at Crozer Seminary. It is here that he spelled out his thoughts on the divinity of Jesus, the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of Jesus.

In The Humanity and Divinity of Jesus, a paper written for professor Davis in a class called “Christian Theology Today” King clearly lays out his view on the divinity of Jesus,

The orthodox attempt to explain the divinity of Jesus in terms of an inherent metaphysical substance within him seems to me quite inadequate. To say that the Christ, whose example of living we are bid to follow, is divine in an ontological sense is actually harmful and detrimental. To invest this Christ with such supernatural qualities makes the rejoinder: “Oh, well, he had a better chance for that kind of life than we can possibly have...” So that the orthodox view of the divinity of Christ is in my mind quite readily denied. The significance of the divinity of Christ lies in the fact that his achievement is prophetic and promissory for every other true son of man who is willing to submit to his will to the will and spirit of God. Christ was to be only the prototype of one among many brothers. The appearance of such a person, more divine and more human than any other, and in closest unity at once with God and man, is the most significant and hopeful event in human history. This divine quality of this unity with God was not something thrust upon Jesus from above, but it was a definite achievement through the process of moral struggle and self- abnegation. (7)

The question King answered was not if Jesus was divine but rather how he became divine. This approach allowed him to deal with the “insuperable difficulties” of the orthodox position while still explaining why Jesus was unique and different than other Jews. For King, Christ is a “prototype” of our true human potential. Jesus provides a personal life path to model.

If Jesus’ divinity came upon from high then his communion with God would not be possible for others. According to King it was the ability of Jesus to submit to God, develop trust and obey that invested him with such a divine nature. All people are able to achieve this level of divinity and for Christians Jesus is the most prophetic example to follow.

While at Crozer Seminary, King became influenced by the ideas of a school of thought known as personalism. In the early 20th century Boston professor Borden Parker Browne articulated a system that affirmed the reality of the soul and God but placed the person and personality at the center. A basic tenet is that only persons are real and have value; they are the fundamental category of the universe. The universe is but an expression of the person’s experience. While at Boston King studied under Harold Dewolf and Edgar S. Brightman, both strong proponents of personalism. It was at Crozer however where King first had to review a book of Brightman’s. King’s understanding of Jesus was deeply influenced by this strain of thought, “The noble principles of Christianity remain abstract until they are personified in a person called Christ...This is the ringing affirmation of Christmas – that a personality has come in the world to split history into A.D. and B.C.” (8) For King any cause or movement must be personified before it can be affective, “We often tell people to love the cause. But people cannot love a cause in abstract.” (9) In the intellectual world of theory and philosophy that defined his education personalism gave King a method for maintaining a personal view of God. The idea also proved useful in his later campaigns. During his application of nonviolence in the civil rights movement personalism helped him develop a metaphysical grounding for his view that all people had inherent value and dignity.

Christian Doctrines

Christian doctrines have defined much of orthodox Christianity throughout the ages. As most any typical seminary student would, King studied the origin, history and context in which these doctrines were created. In line with his metaphorical interpretation of Jesus, King searched for the deeper significance of these organizing beliefs. He suggests, “We should delve into the deeper meaning...and somehow strip them of their literal interpretation” when we do this “we will find they are based on a profound foundation.” (10)

In a paper discussing the creation of orthodox beliefs King argues that the virgin birth story represents a pre-scientific worldview in which Christ followers believed that Jesus’ uniqueness could only be explained biologically. According to King, Jesus’ early disciples saw his “spiritual life so far beyond theirs” that any attempt to explain his existence as human was inadequate. He concludes, “We of this scientific age will not explain the birth of Jesus in such unscientific terms.”(11) This same type of thinking led his followers to externalize their inner experience of the lasting power of Christ in relation to the story of the bodily resurrection. Those who knew Jesus “had been captivated by the magnetic power of his personality, ” which led them to believe that he “could never die.” (12) The living and eternal presence they experienced was then transferred into the story of a bodily resurrection.

In The Christian Pertinence of Eschatological Hope a paper King wrote for “Christian Theology Today” he explores the meaning of the day of judgment, second coming of Christ, the Kingdom of God and heaven and hell. Perhaps more than any other doctrine King is most direct in his denunciation of the return of Jesus, “It is obvious that most twentieth century Christians must frankly and flatly reject any view of a physical return of Christ.”(13) What were the early Christians trying to convey in their describing the return of Jesus? King states it very simply, “Every time we say no to self that we may say yes to Jesus...Whenever we turn our lives to the highest and best there for us is the Christ.” (14) In addressing the orthodox notion of the Day of Judgment, King suggests that we “set aside the spectacular paraphernalia of the judgment scene and the literal throne.”(15) Jesus has already come to judge the world King tells us. When we judge ourselves against the life of Christ or experience closeness to him we are experiencing the Day of Judgment. King also denies the traditional notion that some are destined for eternal communion with God while others are destined for hell, “A physical heaven and a physical hell are inconceivable in a Copernican world...for us immortality will mean a spiritual existence. (16) A man once asked King why religion is important. In a note King suggests that he could have told the man that if he did or didn’t have religion he might face heaven or hell but King concludes, “in reality I know nothing about heaven...personally I don’t’ believe in hell in the conventional sense.” (17) And finally King interprets the Kingdom of God not as some cataclysmic end time or a theocratic kingdom which triumphs over “satanically inspired regimes.”(18) Rather the kingdom of God is associated with the eternal love of God on earth. “When we see social relationships controlled everywhere by the principles which Jesus illustrated in life – trust, love, mercy, and altruism – then we shall know that the kingdom of God is here.”(19) King is unsure of how or when this will happen because a society governed by love is so different than our current way of living.

King lays out his understanding of the atonement in a paper entitled A View of the Cross Possessing Biblical and Spiritual Justification. He first describes the various different views of the meaning of the cross throughout history and then concludes, “Any doctrine which finds the meaning of atonement in the triumph of Christ over such cosmic powers as sin, death and Satan is inadequate...If Christ by his life and death paid the full penalty of sin, there is no valid ground for repentance or moral obedience as a condition of forgiveness. The debt is paid; the penalty exacted, and there is, consequently, nothing to forgive.”20 What then is the meaning of the atonement? To begin, humanity is as at the center of the process of redemption, not God. He describes the cross as “the eternal love of God seeking to attract men into fellowship with the divine.”21 Humanity for King is the “growing family of God” and that which gives the atonement its significance. The spiritual meaning of the cross can be understood when others sacrifice for us and we experience the beauty and goodness of the act.

The Bible

Known for his sharp mind, King began memorizing Bible passages as a young boy. When Kings father Martin Sr. was young he would spend hours reading the Bible and never grew tired of revivals and Church gatherings. The Bible of course was central to King’s upbringing and ministry. How then as a Christian was one to approach the Bible according to King?

King’s understanding of the Bible is quite simple. He believed the Bible was written in a pre-scientific world and used language that was representative of its era. He flatly rejects any literal interpretation of Biblical stories claiming it would be “absurd” in a Copernican world. The pre-scientific worldview that informed the authors of the Bible is clearly inadequate for modern Christians. Written by men trying to understand their social environment and place in the cosmos the Bible is filled with “mankind’s deepest devotional thoughts and aspirations.”22 If accepted literally the reader is faced with impossibilities and deep contradictions but when seen as myth it reveals “many profound truths which one cannot escape.”23 For Dr. King the value of biblical stories is not diminished by their mythological nature. Rather, the myth serves to take the reader beyond the idea or thought within the mind. In a paper entitled How to Use the Bible In Modern Theological Construction, King reveals his approach to the Bible,

The interpretation of any portion of the Bible must be both objective and disinterested. All attempts to read one’s own opinions and desires into the Bible and then claiming authority for them must be avoided. This, in short, is the method used in modern theological construction...This process supported by modern instruments of literary, historical, and archaeological research brought about amazing results...It sees the Bible not as a textbook written with divine hands, but as a portrayal of the experiences of men written in particular historical situations. 24

Textual criticism, archaeology and history revealed to King how a literal biblical interpretation can’t be reconciled with advances in modern day science. He claimed that this critical approach to the Bible was, “the best or at least the most logical system of theology in existence.” 25 He also believed “Biblical criticism and Biblical archaeology will serve to justify the church in modern culture...”26 However, King was also keenly aware of liberal theologians ability to get caught up in abstract theory. He understood his role as a religious leader to reconcile theory with concrete meaning,

It is certainly justifiable to be as scientific as possible in proving that the Pentateuch was written by more than one author, that the whale did not swallow Jonah, that Jesus was not born a virgin, or that Jesus never met John the Baptist. But after all of this, what relevance do the scriptures have? What moral implications do we find growing out of the Bible? What relevance does Jesus have in 1948 A.D.? These are questions which the liberal theologian must of necessity answer if he expects to influence the average mind. To often do we find many of the liberals dodging these vital questions.27

Christianity and the Church

In addition to King’s scientific approach to the Bible he recognized the diverse historical and cultural influences that had shaped Christianity stating, “To discuss Christianity without mentioning other religions would be like discussing the greatness of the Atlantic Ocean without the slightest mention of the many tributaries that keep it flowing.”28 In a paper entitled The Influence of Mystery Religions on Christianity King illustrates how the Cult of Cybele and Attis clearly impacted stories about Jesus. He describes how in the myth, Attis is born of a virgin, dies and then arises in the springtime. King writes that Christians adapted the date of March 25th to celebrate their Lord’s passion directly from the Roman festival celebration of the death and resurrection of Attis.

Again we may notice that at this same Attis festival on March 22nd, an effigy of the god was fastened to the trunk of a pine tree, Attis thus being “slain and hanged on a tree.” This effigy was later buried in a tomb. On March 24th, known as the day of the blood, the High Priest, impersonating Attic, drew blood of a human sacrifice, thus, as it were, sacrificing himself. It is this fact that immediately brings to mind the words of the Epistle to the Hebrews: “But Christ being come an High Priest...neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood...obtained eternal redemption for us.” Now to get back to the festival. That night the priests went back to the tomb and found it empty, the god having risen on the third day from the dead; and on the 25th the resurrection was celebrated with great rejoicing. During this great celebration a sacramental meal of some kind was taken, and initiates were baptized with blood, whereby their sins were washed away and they were “born again.” There can be hardly any doubt of the fact that these ceremonies and beliefs strongly coloured the interpretation placed by the first Christians upon the life and death of the historic Jesus.”29

This quote is provided at length to illustrate both the historical and contextual lens through which King viewed Christianity. In the paper he goes on to draw out similar conclusions with the early worship of Adonis, Egyptian mysteries of Osiris and Iris, Eleusian mystery cult and Mithraism. During his first semester at Crozer, writing on the Old Testament he compares almost side-by-side, the creation accounts, flood stories and theologies of Babylonia, Egypt and Sumer with those in the Bible and concluded that biblical stories are rooted in the surrounding cultures. He concludes, the Hebrew authors who wrote the flood story were, “producing from Babylonian mythology an almost verbatim story.”30 What was the significance of Christianity compared to many of the pagan practices? Christianity simply gave a more “profound and spiritual meaning” to these pagan views to which it must be indebted.31 These traditions also prepared people “mentally and emotionally to understand the type of religion which Christianity represented.”32 For King the only reason Christianity triumphed was due to particular historical and social circumstances. He even went on to suggest that Christianity might end up like those other cults, religions and pagan practices that didn’t survive, “The staggering question that now arises is, what will be the next stage of man’s religious progress? Is Christianity the crowning achievement in the development of religious thought or will there be another religion more advanced?”33

The purpose of the Church for King was not to create dogma, theology or creeds but rather “to produce living witnesses and testimonies to the power of God in human experience,” and to commit to action. From a young age King understood the importance of combining his religion with social justice. From this perspective King viewed the role of the Church as a promoting a way of life rather than a belief system, “Jesus always recognized that there is a danger of having a high blood pressure of creeds and an anemia of deeds.”34 He states that Christ is more concerned with how we treat our neighbors, our attitudes toward racial justice and living a high ethical life than he is with long processionals, knowledge of creeds or the beautiful architecture of a Church.35 King also delivered a harsh rebuke of the Christian church. In a sermon entitled Is the Church the Hope of the World he described the problems of the church,

So it was very easy for slavery to receive a religious sanction. The church is one of the chief exponents of racial bigotry. Monopoly capitalism has always received the sanction of the church.
Since this is the case, we must admit that the church is far from Christ. What has happened is this: the church, while flowing through the stream of history has picked up the evils of little tributaries, and these tributaries have been so powerful that they have been able to overwhelm the mainstream. This is the tragedy of the church, for it has confused the vices of the church with the virtues of Christ. The church has been nothing but the slave of society; whenever the mores call for evil practices, society runs to the church to get its sanction.
Therefore I 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. On the other hand, the church can become the hope of the world, but only when it returns to Christ. If we take Christ to the world, we will turn it upside down, but the tragedy is that we to often take Christianity. It is our job as ministers to bring the Church back to the center of the human race. But we can only bring the church back to the center of the human race when we bring Christ back to the center of the church.36

God and Human Nature

By the time King was a senior at Crozer he had developed a strong belief in liberalism. Walter Rauschenbusch’s ideas on the social gospel had deeply instilled within him a belief in the inherent goodness and capacities of people. As he understood it, God worked through history as evidenced by human progress, democracy and the growth of science and reason. It was at this time that King turned to an in-depth study of Reinhold Neibuhr and the neo-orthodoxy theological movement, which in the mid-twentieth century was all the rage. Proponents were also known as the “crisis theologians.” In books like Moral Man and Immoral Society and The Nature and Destiny of Man Neibuhr delivered a strong blow to the liberal belief in the goodness of human nature claiming it was naïve for overlooking the problem of evil and denying sin. For King, Neibuhr was a powerful reminder of the capacity of humans to sin. As he studied history and the numerous tragedies throughout he had already been reexamining his liberal positions. Neibuhr helped him to “recognize the illusions of a superficial optimism concerning human nature and the dangers of a false idealism.” 37 While accepting the wake up call King sought a way to synthesize both the liberalism of the social gospel movement with the best of neo- orthodoxy theology. For King this meant viewing Neibuhr’s concept of original sin as symbolic or mythological for all of humanity but he never accepted a belief that man was inherently evil. Sin was a choice but all too much of a reality in the world. He suggested that any view that man had fallen “leaving him totally helpless in his desire for salvation” was “preposterous.”38 Rather he suggested a middle ground, proposing that it is not wise to view humans as either naturally evil or good.

Like all of the great mystics had, King viewed God as an experience. He rejected the neo- orthodoxy of Karl Barth and others who suggested that God was ‘wholly other,’ claiming “The very idea of God is an outgrowth of experience.”39 Barth and others in the neo-orthodox movement criticized the idea that God was an experience because it meant that we as humans could find God, whereas they believed only God could find us. For King however, God is both transcendent and immanent. He is creator and giver of life and love. King states, “No theology is needed to tell us that love is the law of life and to disobey it means to suffer the consequences; we see it everyday in human experience.”40 The divine union with God is what all religious people seek. King’s understanding of our ability to connect with God was not limited to Christianity, “Of course the true seeker will realize that there is no one way to find God. To be sure, there are many possible ways of finding God.”41 King also believed God was Supreme Reason. Quoting E. Brightman King states, “hostility to reason is one form of hostility to the divine.”42 The role of reason is to “examine, interpret and classify the facts of experience.”43 King provides an overview of God in a sermon entitled Mastering Our Evil Selves,

By developing a continuous prayer and devotional life...the soul of man will become united with the life of God. Yes this is possible. This has been the ringing cry of the mystic throughout the ages. God is not “wholly other.” God is not a process projected somewhere in the lofty blue. God is not a divine hermit hiding himself in a cosmic cave. But God is forever present with us. The God of religion is the God of life. He somehow transcends the world, yet at the same time he is immanent in the world. And so by identifying ourselves with this knowable God our wills will somehow become his will. We will no longer think of our selfish desires. We will somehow rise above evil thoughts. We will no longer possess two personalities but one. We will be true, because God is truth; we will be just, because God is justice; we will love, because God is love; we will be good, because God is goodness; we will be wise, because God is wisdom. 44

As King notes God is justice. He believed firmly that God is able and acting in the universe. This was of course the foundation of Kings social gospel. Thoreau’s thoughts on civil disobedience, Gandhi’s nonviolent movement, Rauschenbusch’s social gospel and works like Howard Thurman’s The Jesus of the Disinherited deeply influenced his understanding of God as a force for good in the world. It is the poor, oppressed and humiliated that God calls us to serve according to King. He is popularly quoted as saying, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.”45 In King’s understanding of God one could easily replace justice with the divine. He believed God was right there with him and others during the civil rights movement as his spirit manifested into reality, “The God that we worship is...but an other-loving God Who forever works through history for the establishment of His Kingdom.”46 This was the eternal and unchangeable God which King worshiped and gave his faith to. The “false” Gods of money, science and pleasure were “gods that are here today and gone tomorrow” but King prayed to, loved and worshiped “the God that is the same yesterday, today and forever.” 47

To follow Jesus and do God’s work one must work for justice, which ultimately means being a nonconformist. King understood this clearly and in an address to the American Psychological Association on September 1st 1967 he defined what it meant to be a follower of Christ in the twentieth century,

There are some things concerning which we must always be maladjusted if we are to be people of good will. We must never adjust ourselves to racial discrimination and racial segregation. We must never adjust ourselves to religious bigotry. We must never adjust ourselves to economic conditions that take necessities from the many to give luxuries to the few. We must never adjust ourselves to the madness of militarism, and the self-defeating effects of physical violence...Thus, it may well be that our world is in dire need of a new organization, The International Association for the Advancement of Creative Maladjustment.48


At this point a few important questions need to be raised. How can we be sure that King’s views on the Christian doctrines while in seminary didn’t change throughout his life? He was a minister to a Baptist congregation, wouldn’t he have chosen a different denomination if his views were so liberal? Why wouldn’t he have continued to write about and promote his interpretation of Christianity? World renowned Dr. King scholar and director of the King Paper’s Project at Stanford Dr. Clayborne Carson provides some insight on whether King’s doctrinal views ever changed or not.

I haven't seen any documentary evidence of a shift in King's early views on Christian doctrines. Having talked with a number of liberal ministers, I believe that many (who are not Unitarians) simply avoid addressing controversial theological questions in their sermons. As a Baptist minister trained at non-Baptist seminaries and graduate schools (and married to a non-Baptist woman), King probably found ways to avoid public expressions of his unorthodox theological views.49

Carson accurately reflects the historical record of King’s doctrinal beliefs. Throughout his educational career at Morehouse, Crozer Seminary and Boston University King clearly described his positions on how he interpreted Christianity. Much of his understanding of core Christian doctrines developed while at Crozer Seminary but nothing changed while he was at Boston University pursuing his PhD. King’s metaphysical and philosophical understanding of God and human nature did grow and develop while at Boston and during his time as a Civil Rights leader. However, this is very different than King’s beliefs on core Christian doctrines such as the divinity of Jesus and how to interpret the Bible. There is simply no evidence suggesting that King’s framework to approach the Bible and Christianity ever changed. As it was noted earlier his skepticism with his literal religious upbringing actually began at a young age. Even as King was a minister at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church and when he became a national Christian leader he never made statements that contradict his core doctrinal beliefs. Therefore King’s sermons about Jesus and Christianity or those based on biblical passages were entirely metaphorical and non-literal.

Long before the fast growing and popular “emerging” Christian movement, Dr. King articulated a vision of Christianity as a way of life, based on an inner-experience, rooted in a metaphorical interpretation of the Bible. It should not be surprising then that while Martin Luther King Jr. was known as a Baptist, his first choice of religion was Unitarian Christian (which later merged with Universalism.)50 With its acknowledgment of the truth of all religions, its view of Jesus as an exemplary teacher and a rejection of Biblical literalism, Dr. King’s liberal faith resonated with the dynamic Unitarian Christian tradition. Coretta Scott King had been attending Unitarian Churches for years before she met Martin and they both attended Unitarian services while in Boston. He ultimately faced the reality that he couldn’t play a role in the civil rights movement in this tradition and thus became pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, shortly thereafter being elected to lead the Montgomery bus boycott.51 King’s choice to join a conservative Baptist tradition reflects a strategic ability to suppress his radical theological views while maintaining his radical social and political views. This is unique because King was such a prominent and famous Christian and someone who successfully led a mass social change movement. King proves that it is possible to communicate the essence of Christianity while not believing in its doctrines as literal.

While many have long looked to Dr. King for moral and religious guidance, how he grappled with important Christian doctrines such as the divinity of Jesus has received very little focus. A close examination of his religious convictions while in seminary provides insight and perspective into the mind of one of the greatest Christians of all time.

Understanding Dr. King’s religious beliefs is important because God is bigger than any one religion and his theology reminds us of this. Christianity, Judaism, Hinduism, Islam or any of the other world’s faiths are all expressions of the divine. King acknowledged the many paths to God. As a liberal Christian he saw himself as adapting his faith to a complex and changing world while seeking to reconcile religion with modern advances and scientific knowledge. He understood the power of myth while recognizing the limitations and dangers of religious fundamentalism. He is a powerful example of someone who was able to interpret Christianity in a metaphorical way but still express the depth and capture the faith of a tradition. For this reason he is an inspiring spiritual progressive.

From Constantine to the inquisition, crusades, witch trials and into the rise of fundamentalism, the ruling elite has used both cultural and physical violence to limit religious diversity among Christians. Each stage of Christian history has brought about conflict, conformity and drastic change. Let us not forget that for over 1,500 years, almost three-fourths of the history of Christianity, to be a Christian meant to not read the Bible. In fact in certain eras you could be killed for owning a Bible.52 It was only during the reformation of the 16th century that a few men decided to make accessible and distribute the Bible. This was heresy of the highest form to the Catholic Church. For better or worse we now have thousands of different denominations of Christianity with vastly different opinions of Christian doctrine and Biblical interpretations. Similarly, among the early Christ followers there were many different beliefs about the divinity of Jesus and the requirements necessary for becoming a Christian.

In a world where the Bible is used to justify so much hatred and division Dr. King’s thoughtful interpretation of scripture is reassuring and much needed. His work toward a nonviolent future need not be limited to social protest. It can be applied to religious violence, both internal and external and to the challenges that people of faith will grapple with for years to come. Pressing issues such as poverty, warfare, gay/lesbian rights, racism, the environment, AIDS, and women’s rights define the future of America and we need to remember the spiritual leaders who used reason and faith to translate the religious wisdom of the past into a prophetic and powerful vision for tomorrow.

Dr. King’s theology therefore begs the question which is as true today as it was in Rome, “Who has the power to define who is and is not a Christian?” Making Dr. King’s beliefs about Christian doctrine and the Bible well known can thus serve to legitimize the diverse representations of the Christian faith and promote interfaith religious engagement. For those of us Christians who have fought for a seat at the table, Dr. King politely pulls the chair out for us to sit on.


Ansboro, John. Martin Luther King Jr. The Making of a Mind. Orbis Books. 1982 Carson, Clayborne, ed. The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr. Vol I. University of

California. 1992
The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr. Vol II. University of California. The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr. Vol VI. University of California.

Jakoubek, Robert. Martin Luther King Jr. Civil Rights Leader. Chelsea House. 1989
King Jr., Martin L. A Call to Conscience: The Landmark Speeches of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Grand Central Publishing. 2002
King Jr., Martin L. A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend.

Grand Central Publishing. 2000
Oates, Stephen. Let the Trumpet Sound: A Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. Harper Perennial. 1994 Frady, Marshall. Martin Luther King, Jr. Penguin. 2002
King Jr., Martin L. The Strength to Love. Augsburg Fortress Publishers. 1981


King Jr., Application for Admission to Crozer Theological Seminary in “The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr. Vol. 1” p. 142
King Jr., ed. Clayborne Carson. The Autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. Warner Books. 1998 p. 6
Ibid p. 22 ibid p. 16 ibid p. 24
6 7
9 10
11 12 13
21 22
23 24
29 30
32 33
34 35
Jakoubek, R. Martin Luther King Jr. Civil Rights Leader.
King Jr., The Humanity and Divinity of Jesus in “The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr. Vol 1.” p. 150.
King Jr., Christ is the Center of Our Faith in “The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr. Vol. 6.” p. 201
ibid p. 201
King Jr., What Experiences of Christians Living in the Early Christian Century Led to the Christian Doctrines of the Divine Sonship of Jesus, the Virgin Birth, and the Bodily Resurrection in “The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr. Vol 1.” p. 224
ibid p. 229
ibid p. 229
King Jr., The Christian Pertinence of Eschatological Hope in “The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr. Vol. 1” p. 269
ibid p. 270
ibid p. 271
ibid p. 271
King Jr., Why Religion? in “The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr. Vol. 6” p. 83
ibid p. 272
ibid p. 272
King Jr., A View of the Cross possessing Biblical and Spiritual Justification in “The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr. Vol. 1” p. 265
ibid p. 266
King Jr., Light on the Old Testament from the Ancient Near East in “The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr. Vol. 1” p. 180
ibid p. 180
King Jr., How to Use the Bible in Modern Theological Construction in “The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr. Vol. 1” p. 253
King Jr., The Weaknesses of Liberal Theology in the “Papers of Martin Luther King Jr. Vol. 6” p. 78
King Jr., Light on the Old Testament from the Ancient Near East in “The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr. Vol. 1” p. 180
King Jr., The Weaknesses of Liberal Theology in “The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr. Vol. 6” p. 78
King Jr., The Influence of Mystery Religions on Christianity in “The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr. Vol. 1” p. 311
ibid p. 299
King Jr., Light on the Old Testament from the Ancient Near East in “The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr. Vol. 1” p. 172
King Jr., The Influence of Mystery Religions on Christianity in “The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr. Vol. 1” p. 311
King Jr., The Influence of Mystery Religions on Christianity in “The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr. Vol. 1” p. 311
King Jr., A Religion of Doing in “The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr. Vol. 6” p. 171 ibid p. 171

37 38
40 41 42 43 44
45 46 47 48
King Jr., Is the Church the Hope of the World? In “The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr. Vol. 6” pp. 105-106
ibid p. 27
King Jr., How Modern Christians Should Think of Man in “The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr. Vol. 1” p.275
King Jr., The Place of Reason and Experience in Finding God in “The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr. Vol. 1” p. 234
ibid p. 234
ibid p. 232
ibid p. 235
ibid p. 235
King Jr., Mastering Our Evil Selves in “The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr. Vol. 6”
p. 97
King Jr., Where Do We Go From Here? In A Call to Conscience
Ansboro, John. Martin Luther King Jr., The Making of a Mind. p. 47
King Jr., Worshiping false Gods in “The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr. Vol. 6” p. 204 King Jr., The Role of the Behavioral Scientist in the Civil Rights Movement. Address to the American Psychological Association, 1967.
49 Carson, Clayborne. Email interview, Jan. 22nd 2009
51 52
Bray McNatt, Rosemary. The Problem of Theology in the work of Anti-racism: A Meditation. “In Soul Work: anti-racist theologies in dialogue.” Skinner House, 2003. ibid p. 27
Ellerbe, Helen. The Dark Side of Christian History. Morningstar Books. 1995