Considering La Shawn Barber on the Theological Beliefs of Martin Luther King, Jr.

A brief look at the unorthodox theology of Martin Luther King, Jr.
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Martin Luther King, Jr. is an American icon who is rightly remembered for giving his life working to advance Civil Rights. He was also a Baptist pastor though it seems not much is known or said about his theological beliefs. Below, King’s beliefs will be noted as La Shawn Barber laid them out in her article Assessing the Legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Her piece will help answer the question – what where Martin Luther King, Jr.’s theological beliefs?

First, Barber’s whole article is worth reading to get a good sketch of King’s life under the following subtopics: “Kings Life and Work,” “Influences and Application,” “Were King’s Beliefs Biblical?” and “King’s Legacy and Our Apologetics.” The focus of this post is from her section on King’s beliefs. Barber points out some of the same troubling theological positions I have read about from King’s own writings. King’s denial of some of the core tenants of the Christian faith would no win him many pastorates today.

The conclusion reached from reading King’s works is that he denied three essential tenants about Jesus Christ: 1) his virgin birth 2) his bodily resurrection, and 3) his deity.  I have written on King’s beliefs, as I recall, more as side issues. I have notes his denial of Jesus’ resurrection and deity in a post on the Manhattan Declaration and a post comparing King with the Puritans.

Barber confirms my own findings when she asks the question, “Were King’s Beliefs Biblical?” As she begins assessing King’s theology, she points out the lack of orthodox belief in black churches quoting Pastor Jerry L. Buckner. Buckner’s reason that a lack of “formal orthodox theological education” combined with those who are educated, but from a liberal theological perspective.

Barber  summarizes biblical Christianity including the “central tenet” – the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. Her focus in answering the question about King’s beliefs focuses on the resurrection. She explains, as I have pointed out in previous articles linked above, that King began doubting Jesus’ bodily resurrection, contrary to his church’s teachings at 13 years old. She continues (footnotes in the original):

In 1985, Coretta Scott King asked Stanford professor Clayborne Carson to become the head of The King Papers Project, tasked to publish fourteen volumes of King’s papers to preserve his work.38 The papers’ dates range from 1948 to 1963. Around 1996, Mrs. King gave Carson a box with papers that affirmed King’s doubts about whether the Bible was literally true: “King didn’t believe the story of Jonah being swallowed by a whale was true, for example, or that John the Baptist actually met Jesus, according to texts detailed in the King papers book. King once referred to the Bible as ‘mythological’ and also doubted whether Jesus was born to a virgin, Carson said.”39

While at Crozer, King argued that the Apostles’ Creed probably was influenced by Greek thought, and “in the minds of many sincere Christians this creed has planted a seed of confusion which has grown to an oak of doubt. They see this creed as incompatible with all scientific knowledge, and so they have proceeded to reject its content.”40

In “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,” written in 1949 when King was twenty, he wrote that external evidence for the authenticity of the Resurrection is “found wanting.” He implied that the bodily resurrection was a mythological story early Christians spread to explain “the faith that he could never die” and to symbolize their experiences with Christ.41

Without the bodily resurrection of Christ there is no hope of salvation, and we’re still in our sins (1 Cor. 15:17). Based on these early papers, one could make the case King did not believe in basic tenets of the faith. One might also argue that his papers merely were theoretical exercises in which he stated and supported a thesis. Should we take into account King’s relative youth at the time? If these were his beliefs, did he ever repudiate them? Perhaps examining the entirety of his work will lead Christians to a definitive answer.

Barber leaves us with some good questions to consider at the end of this section. Indeed, we should examine his work to answer to understand where he stood theologically. As to the question of whether or not King ever repudiated the above theological beliefs, I may have an answer.

In the past few years I was curious about whether or not King ever changed his beliefs. So, I emailed one of King’s biographers who, in turn, forwarded my inquiry to another of his biographers. The reply from both biographers was that they saw no indication that King ever changed his beliefs. However, Christian doctrine wasn’t really King’s focus as he was more concerned about fighting for social justice and civil rights.

Some may reply that this conversation is not necessary and is more harmful than helpful toward King and his cause. As a Christian, I disagree. Often people are influenced by their heroes and Martin Luther King, Jr. is no exception. If King is considered a great Christian leader, as is often said, it is not unthinkable that a younger person (or older) seek out his writings. His writings are available online. King’s unorthodox positions may lead someone astray who thinks those positions are okay to hold since King espoused them.

False doctrine for Christians, especially denying the resurrection, is a serious matter. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul explains in Scripture the resurrection of Jesus is the key component of the gospel. And without the resurrection there is no hope and Christians are to be pitied most of all people.

Finally, as Americans, we can learn from King’s words and ways in which he advanced civil rights and social justice. A powerful speaker and leader, King did and taught many great things, but that doesn’t mean his doctrine was biblical. Therefore, we Christians may also learn from King’s words and ways, but must be discerning about his doctrine. Indeed, we must be discerning lest we are influenced and tempted toward false doctrine.

Here I blog…

Mark

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The above article was posted on January 20, 2014 by Mark Lamprecht.
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{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Michael Buratovich January 20, 2014 at 1:10 am

If you deny the deity and resurrection of Jesus Christ, then it seems to me that you cannot be called a Christian in any meaningful sense of the word.  While King was certainly heavily influenced by Christian ideals and concepts, it is certainly fair to question that he was, in fact, a professing Christian.  I do not think that this takes anything away from King’s work as a leader of the Civil Rights Movement.  His work there was powerful, seminal, and changed the course of American history.  However, from what I have read here he cannot justifiably be called a Christian.

2 veritasdomain January 21, 2014 at 3:11 am

I was seriously disappointed years ago to learn of the real MLK, the man, his beliefs and theology.
I’m sadden to also see the myth of MLK propagated among Evangelicals.
Thus, I’m thankful for your post

3 Mark Lamprecht January 21, 2014 at 10:00 am

Michael Buratovich I agree that if you deny the resurrection you cannot be called a Christian. It the core tenet of Christianity. He was certainly influenced by Christian principles and he did great work in the area of civil rights – more than I will probably ever grasp.

4 Mark Lamprecht January 21, 2014 at 10:02 am

@veritasdomain I was also disappointed to learn of MLK’s theology and did not belief it at first. However, after reading various parts of his works, I saw where he stood in relation to core Christian beliefs and was saddened.

5 Chaz christianlifehacker January 21, 2014 at 11:41 am

People are complicated and MLK’s complexity was increased by
an order of magnitude due to his ambition, feats and outsized personality. I
too, was disheartened upon learning of MLK’s theology. But only for awhile. We really have first or secondhand knowledge of Dr. King’s mindset at age 39, and who among us can truthfully say that we have never experienced a Dark Night Of The Soul?

King’s
mission was pressed through the grid of Christian principles and proper orthopraxy
and his personal theology was rarely questioned in public (if at all). That he
left such a profound cultural (religious and secular) legacy should not be
tarnished by questions that, ultimately, lay between MLK and his creator.

6 johnnyb61820 November 13, 2015 at 12:46 am

I don’t have any independent knowledge of King’s theological viewpoints, but as a graduate of a liberal seminary, I would caution over-reliance on seminary papers as evidence of actual belief. It’s not like you write papers with the full freedom to say whatever the heck you want, you have to write papers according to the guidelines of the classes. Note that there was never a full-fledged denial in any of the quotes, only a denial of the *evidence* of the doctrine in question. This can simply be a reflection on the required theological/historical method more than his actual belief. A person can, as a Christian, hold that there is no external evidence for the resurrection, but still hold to the belief. Saying so in a paper doesn’t make one not a Christian.

It is entirely possible that King was as un-Christian as you say, but I don’t think it is wise to base that on papers written while at a liberal seminary.

7 Mark Lamprecht November 15, 2015 at 12:47 am

Johnny, in King’s “An Autobiography of Religious Development,” he wrote that “At the age of 13 I shocked my Sunday School class by denying the bodily resurrection of Jesus.” This was, as I recall, prior to seminary and against what his church taught. I’m not convinced it is accurate to say his seminary papers were not his actual beliefs.

I’ve exchanged emails with two of his biographers and they are unaware of his beliefs changing. Of course, King’s goal was not vying for proper doctrine but social change.

8 zetanupe79 January 11, 2016 at 10:08 am

I hope the writer of this article is around and reads a book that I’m writing. Not simply because of the commercial aspects, but because it will present indisputable truth that corrects the tarnishing of Dr. King’s legacy. Sadly, people have perpetuated falsehoods about Dr. King’s theological positions simply because they have not researched. It’s sad. And what is more sad is the person who has given what none of what these apologists have given and in so more represents Christ, have spent a lot of capital in spreading lies. I say this is sincerity and will present my case. I only hope my Christian friends who are wrong will take it upon themselves to openly acknowledge their mistake and consider the damage that has done.

9 David January 23, 2016 at 11:24 pm

Zetanpe79, what has your research uncovered? I would like to know about his relationship to his father as co-pastor of Ebenezer Baptist. I wonder if after seminary the influence of his home congregation tempered the findings of his seminary education.

10 Mark Lamprecht January 24, 2016 at 8:09 pm

Zetanpe79, I replied to your email that I am willing to publish your rebuttal research to this article on MLK.

David, interestingly enough, King is recorded, as shown in the article, that his view denying the resurrection was before seminary and contrary to his own church’s teachings.

11 David January 25, 2016 at 5:53 pm

Mark Lamprecht, I have read King’s autobiography as compiled by Carson and also the article that you quote from in this blog. Now as I listen to his speeches and sermons I am contrasting what is said in them to the beliefs that he put forth while studying at Crozer and Boston and to his childhood misgivings about Christianity. I think that his famous encounter with God at his kitchen table may be a turning point in his belief in the Jesus of the Bible. For he specifically, “I heard the voice of Jesus saying…” Now if he didn’t believe in the bodily resurrection, would he believe that Jesus could speak to him? Perhaps the liberal theology allows for that, I don’t know at this point.

Furthermore, I have listened to King’s “Mountaintop” speech and parts of the speech he gave at Montgomery following the march from Selma to Montgomery. In both, he ended with a phrase from the Battle Hymn of the Republic. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.” I know that at least a number of liberal scholars do not believe in the second coming of Jesus. For example, Jimmy Carter prescribes to a great deal of liberal scholarship and he seemed to scoff at the idea, at least in writing, of a return of Christ where some would go to heaven and others go to hell. So I am wondering if King had a change of heart in his views toward Jesus.

Incidentally, I also listened to and read a speech of his from 1962 where he spoke a few sentences about “lower life forms” in an evolution reference. I think that this is a time after his kitchen table experience with God. I know that several liberal scholars prescribe to belief in at least a form of evolution. I continue to view his speeches and sermons through the lens of his academic years stated liberal beliefs to see I can discern a drift from the toxic liberal beliefs that he seems to have espoused during those years.

It’s just that I know that God was in a number of the things that went on in that movement ad He blessed them, but I don’t know yet if Jesus was in King.

12 johnnyb61820 January 25, 2016 at 6:02 pm

David –

The issue with determining beliefs is that liberal scholars, preachers, and theologians regularly use the language of evangelicals even while not believing the literal content. They believe that God-talk is more about people and community than it is about God, therefore, they are fully comfortable using the phrases that you speak of. “The coming of the Lord,” for a liberal theologian, doesn’t mean Jesus’ literal return, but rather a time period where humans follow the teachings of Jesus more fully. Likewise “Jesus speaking to him” can refer to the condition of his heart instead of a literal word from Jesus.

I graduated from a liberal seminary (they actually considered themselves centrist) so I am fairly familiar with the norms surrounding them. This is why the more academic pieces have me concerned, because they often use more literal terminology surrounding their belief systems in academic papers than in their sermons. Liberals view God-talk as almost entirely metaphorical, and therefore rarely have any qualms about using it themselves, as they think everyone is talking about God in this metaphorical way.

13 David January 25, 2016 at 7:01 pm

Johnnyb61820 Your post is very insightful to me. I am mildly aware of the double meaning that individuals can have when referring to Christian terminology. So in viewing his sermons I guess I will want to look for any phrases that have content that is explicitly speaking of or giving hints of an experience of Biblical Christianity. Since King’s main calling was to serve God in the civil rights arena, I think it’s going to be a difficult task. However, it’s interesting to look through these sermons with looking for this particular thing. If anything, I feel more burdened these days to win back those who are drowning in liberal theology. To me, it’s sad and a bit irritating to see how God has been so reduced in these circles and then give it the label of liberation. Sad.

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