David Waters originally wrote this column for On Faith in August 2011, at the time of the dedication of the Martin Luther King, Jr., memorial in Washington, DC. With the news that Obama plans to use the civil rights leader’s Bible during the swearing ceremony at his Inauguration, Waters’ column has been updated and re-posted here.
Let’s hope one essential fact won’t be lost when we remember Martin Luther King Jr.: He was a Gospel preacher.
Indeed, King’s son, Martin Luther King III, told the Post [in 2011] that he believes his father was “anointed,” and “chosen by God to make the kind of impact that he made.”
“If we overlook the fact that Dr. King was a man of God, a follower of Jesus Christ, we miss the point of his life and his death,” said Kelly Johnson, founder of Two By Two prayer ministries in Memphis.
Johnson and others believe the ultimate legacy of King, a fourth-generation Baptist preacher, will be more theological and less social or political.
“People go right to the Dr. part, but they forget that before the Dr. part came the Rev. part, “ Dr. Luther Ivory, who teaches religion at Rhodes College, told me. “It was King’s response to the gospel of Jesus Christ that changed him, and the world around him. It was the Rev. part that made all the difference.”
King described himself by his spiritual vocation. “In the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher,” he once said.
King’s dream was “deeply rooted in the American dream” but even more deeply rooted in the gospels. “If one is truly devoted to the religion of Jesus, he will seek to rid the Earth of social evils,” he once said.
King grew up wanting to be a lawyer or doctor, not a preacher like his father, grandfather and great-grandfather. But at Morehouse College, he met Dr. Benjamin Mays, a rational man who wed mind, body and soul. King began to see the ministry as a spiritual force for social change.
At Crozer Seminary in Pennsylvania, he was introduced to liberal theologians and their Social Gospel, including Niebuhr and his ideas on collective evil.
At Boston University, King rediscovered the notion of grace and began to re-evaluate his ideas about capitalism, communism, pacifism and the role of Christians in the world.
He synthesized all he learned and drew his own conclusions: Man is capable of both good and evil, but evil can be overcome only through Christ-centered agape love that appeals to the good in man.
“Our actions must be guided by the deepest principles of our Christian faith. Love must be our regulating ideal,” he said.
In the first part of King’s “I Have a Dream” speech he talked about America and its documents of hope - the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Emancipation Proclamation.
But midway through the speech, he departed from the prepared text and spoke from other documents inscribed in his heart. King the speaker became King the preacher.
“I have a dream today that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh will see it together,” he said, paraphrasing verses in Isaiah’s 40th chapter.
Bernice King, King’s youngest child, told me a few years ago that her father’s dream “is a dream that captures the very essence of the kingdom of God.”
King changed the rules of preaching in the black church. In 1969, there were 825 black men and women enrolled in seminaries. Today, there are more than 10,000. He also changed the roles of preachers. His spiritually based social activism inspired a generation of clergy, from Jesse Jackson to El Salvador’s Oscar Romero to South Africa’s Desmond Tutu.
But King’s most lasting contribution to America and the world may be his theology, his understanding and application of the nature of God and evil and their relationships to humanity.
King’s theology, revealed in such documents as “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” and his books such as “Strength to Love,” has influenced liberation movements from Latin America to Africa to Eastern Europe. It is being taught in colleges and seminaries around the world.
The day after King’s assassination, a white Episcopal priest carried a gold cross through the streets of Memphis. A rabbi, a black pastor, a white priest and a dozen other clergy followed. They marched to the mayor’s office to demand justice and to call for racial reconciliation.
“What we come for this morning, sir, is to appeal to you out of the fervor of our hearts that this city shall be ruled with justice, and justice for all, “ Rabbi James Wax told the mayor.
Other clergy were leading the march, but they were following King.
David Waters is the former editor of On Faith. He currently runs Faith in Memphis.