Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is best known for his accomplishments in the area of civil rights and fighting against injustice. He will always be remembered as a “drum major for justice” and as a man who had a dream of equality for all. What many do not know is that along with being an activist King was a theologian. King’s activism was rooted in a theology that was rich and deep and drew upon a variety of sources. Let’s take a look at what influenced one of the greatest Americans of all time.
King went to school for his PhD at Boston University. There he was influenced by the Boston Personalism of Borden Parker Bowne. Bowne asserted that persons were more than just mere particles of matter and that all persons are significant and valuable. This helped to undergird King’s conviction that all persons have dignity and worth in the eyes of God who is also a person. This understanding of God as a person helped to buoy Dr. King during the difficult and dark days of involvement in the civil rights struggle. In his stand for equality and justice for all King was influenced by Boston Personalism as a perspective on humanity and humanity’s relationship with God.
Ethical Realism of Reinhold Neibuhr
While in school, King came across the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr. Niebuhr believed that human beings were both fallen and free and checked the idea that we were automatically marching forward to progress. This gave King a healthy dose of reality and steered him clear of the prevailing liberal thought of the day. This prevailing thought was that humanity was getting better and better and one day utopia would be realized. Instead, King was motivated by Niebuhr’s ethical realism to commit to fighting against injustice and dealing with “the complexity of human motives and the reality of sin on every level of man’s existence.”
The Black Church
One of the biggest influences on King’s theology was the black church. Although he had changed many of his ideas and perspectives due to his encounter with liberal thought the black church shaped Dr. King’s words and speech. The Dr. King that you hear is the Pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church. The Black Church influenced King’s understanding of the struggle for freedom. He looked at all those who were oppressed as God’s chosen people under the yoke of Pharaoh. This was an idea taken directly from the Black Church tradition in which the Exodus is a metanarrative of salvation for African Americans. In the struggle for freedom the objective was to be liberated from Pharoah’s bondage and be led into the Promised Land. King took it a step further and saw the church and his preaching as the Ark of the Covenant which he would take with him into battle.
All of these sources point to a much richer understanding of King. He is more than just a civil rights mascot but a man who turned orthodoxy into orthopraxis. King is a shining example of someone who blended different streams of theological thought and instead of putting them on the shelf he put them into action.
Ramon Mayo is an alumni of Fuller Theological Seminary and currently lives in Pittsburgh, PA with his wife and children. He is the author of His Story, Our Story, a black history devotional taking you through 31 days of God’s hand in the African American experience, coming out January 31st. More information is available at his personal blog.
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Metzger, Paul Louis. Consuming Jesus. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans. 2007
Roberts, J. Deotis. Boenhoeffer and King: Speaking Truth to Power. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press. 2005
Washington, James Melvin. A Testament of Hope. New York, NY: Harper Collins. 1991