Stanford University The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute
Announcing Volume VI: Martin Luther King, Jr. questioned issues of faith, new volume reveals
January 08, 2008

As a seminary student and young preacher, Martin Luther King, Jr. challenged the role of the church in preserving segregation and questioned whether the Christian bible was literally true, according to documents to be published in a forthcoming volume of his papers, Advocate of the Social Gospel, September 1948 – March 1963 of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.

      The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute will launch the volume during a month-long celebration of the King’s legacy, which will include a Jan. 12 open house at the King Research and Education Institute, campus visits by civil rights activists, lectures, an interfaith panel discussion on spirituality and social change and other events.

       With the publication of the volume, “scholars will have a new window into King’s religious beliefs when they see these previously unavailable writings from his early years as minister,” said history Professor Clayborne Carson, director of the Research and Education Institute and of the book’s editorial team.

       The work, part of a planned multi-volume series, documents King’s preaching career and provides a unique look at never-before published early sermons, offering the public the first detailed presentation of documents in the $32 million cache recently acquired by Morehouse College.

       In 1997, Coretta Scott King granted Carson permission to examine papers stored in boxes in the basement of the King family home. The most significant finding was the discovery of a battered cardboard box holding more than 200 folders containing sermons, papers King wrote for his preaching classes at Crozer Theological Seminary and correspondence. The heart of the collection was a trove of sermon notes, outlines and sermon texts from the years up to and including King’s involvement in the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956, a period for which little was known about King’s religious activities. Some ideas for homilies were jotted on notebook paper, some were scribbled on the backs of letters and travel itineraries and others were neatly typed and dated.

       Collectively, the documents reveal that King’s concern about poverty, human rights and social justice is present in his earliest handwritten sermons, which demonstrate King to be, in his own words, “an advocator of the social gospel,” the book’s editors said.

       King’s class papers from Crozer Theological Seminary, printed in the volume, contain evidence that he wrestled with basic issues of faith during his seminary years. While at Crozer, King asserted that liberal theology, or that line of thought critical of a literal reading of the Bible, was “the best or at least the most logical system of theology in existence.”  He agreed with liberal theology’s teachings that “the Pentateuch teachings were written by more than one author, that the whale did not swallow Jonah,” and “that Jesus never met John the Baptist. But after all of this,” King wondered, “what relevance do these scriptures have? What moral implications do we find growing out of the Bible?”

       King also charged in a paper on preaching that the Christian church was “the greatest preserver of the status quo” and, thereby, “one of the chief exponents of racial bigotry.” King wrote: “I can 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.” 

       In an early sermon preached in 1953 while associate pastor at his father’s church, Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, King spoke out against the acceptance of segregation in churches, declaring, “I am [ashamed] and appalled that Eleven O’ Clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in Christian America.”

       King Institute associate director Susan Englander served as the volume’s lead editor. Susan Carson is the volume’s managing editor. University of Kentucky historian and minister Gerald L. Smith and Rev. Troy Jackson served as contributing editors on the volume.

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