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.
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