The Thinking and Theology of Martin Luther King Jr.


I’ll be leading a 3-week online course beginning June, 19th that explores the theological and intellectual influences of Dr. King. We’ll look at how he interpreted the Christian doctrines, his experience in seminary and higher education, the role of the African-American Christian religious experience in his life and some of the key ideas and people that shaped his thinking. See for more information.
Do you remember the news story in September of 2010 about President Obama and a misquoted phrase on his new Oval office rug? The rug contained a popular line that Dr. King used frequently. It read “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” However, as multiple news sources pointed out, it was the Unitarian minister and social reformer Theodore Parker who stated this, not King. In 1853 Parker said, “I do not pretend to understand the moral universe; the arc is a long one. . . . But from what I see I am sure it bends toward justice.” While many Unitarian Universalists already knew the correct source of the quote it was fascinating to see the public get a small lesson in Unitarian history.
As highly noted liberal religious reformers of their day, King and Parker shared some other interesting similarities. They both had originally wanted to be lawyers, but ended up as ministers. Each of them was exceptionally smart from a young age. King memorized Bible passages when he was a child, entered Morehouse college at age 15, graduated from Crozer Seminary as the Valedictorian and completed a PhD from Boston University. By age eight Parker had read Homer, at age ten he began studying Greek and Latin and could memorize 500 to 1000 word poems after one reading. He began teaching at age 16 and he read the entire Harvard college curriculum on his own before later being accepted into the Divinity school. Both men had very supportive and large families and were nurtured by their church community. Each spoke out against war, poverty and the injustices of the day and suffered from public scorn for speaking their truths.
Parker and King also embraced very liberal and non-literal interpretations of the Christian doctrines. From the age of 13 King denied the bodily resurrection of Jesus in Sunday school and by college and seminary his formal thinking on doctrinal interpretation was figured out. Parker’s theological positions took longer to form and evolved over several years of writing and preaching. One notable difference is that Parker publicly advocated his liberal Christian positions whereas King avoided public discussions about the particular details of his doctrinal interpretation. Parker’s outspoken words landed him in some hot water with congregants. One member said, “I would rather see every Unitarian congregation in our land dissolved and every one of our churches occupied by other denominations or razed to the ground than to assist in placing a man entertaining the sentiments of Theodore Parker in one of our pulpits.”
Another interesting chapter in King’s theological life is the fact that he and Coretta attended Unitarian Churches while living in Boston. According to theologian Rosemary Bray McNatt, Coretta told her that King even expressed interest in being a Unitarian minister but felt that he couldn’t adequately participate in the social issues that faced African Americans in the tradition.
King’s relationship to Parker and his liberal theological influences are just a few of the fascinating things that I will discuss in my upcoming 3-week online course called “The Thinking and Theology of Martin Luther King Jr.” We’ll explore topics like Walter Rauschenbusch and the social gospel movement, Reinhold Niebuhr and sin, Howard Thurman, Benjamin Mays and how King was influenced by the African American Christian religious experience, King’s professors, Karl Marx, Henry David Thoreau and lots more. Participants will be sent links to original papers that King wrote in seminary, resourceful articles and videos.
Understanding that King embraced a historical and critical interpretation of Christianity is important because we live in an age where fundamentalists use literal interpretations of the Bible to support bigotry and hate. Knowing the facts about King’s life is important as he is a widely revered figure and we can use his life and teachings to advance a more reasoned approach to religion and social justice.
Other interesting facts:
King described Jesus as white up until 1966 and then after he no longer did.
He said that he didn’t believe in a literal heaven or hell, denied the literal divinity of Jesus, thought the Bible was myth and rejected literal interpretations of Christian doctrines.
The only C grade that King earned in a class during seminary was in the course “Public Speaking.”
King was first introduced to the teachings of Karl Marx in college at Morehouse by sociology professor Walter Chivers.
To learn more about the course visit:
Be Scofield is founder of, and a Dr. King scholar. He writes for Tikkun Magazine and and is an anti-racist educator. He is a leading voice on issues of progressive religion and atheism. Be is studying to be an interfaith minister at the Starr King School for the Ministry a member school of the Graduate Theological Union, where he recently taught a graduate course called “Dr. King and Empire: How MLK Jr. Resisted War, Capitalism and Christian Fundamentalism.”

0 thoughts on “The Thinking and Theology of Martin Luther King Jr.

  1. Thank for this informative article. I didn’t know that much about the theological thinking of MLK.jr. It gives me hope that more Christians might mature beyond the infantile and convoluted belief system of a literal interpretation of the bible (as if that was even possible; there’s always the subjective element of a personality filtering and distorting perceptions). To me, the Christian teaching of human sin and belief in a divine Jesus as the only “thing” capable of redeeming humanity from sin is one of the most evil doctrines ever inflicted upon us.

  2. Rev. Martin Luther Jr. (1929-1968) is quoted as saying:”Racism is at peak in America at 11:00 on Sunday”. 48 years ago he also said: “I have a dream”. Unfortunately, his dream has also been shattered as not much has changed for the great majority of Afro-Americans (12.6% of country’s total population) in the US.
    History tells us that no society has ever been changed for the better by maintaining the existing status qua. Rev. Martin Luther Jr. was one of those leaders who wanted to raise the living standard of his fellow Blacks without rocking the boat. He wanted to play the role of American Gandhi. The later fought for the rights of 200 million untouchable Hindus (Dalit) but failed and met a terrible death at the hands of a Hindu belonging to an upper-caste. Luther, too, failed and met a terrible death at the hands of his own people.

    • You said that he didn’t want to rock the boat?? You are wrong.
      On Dr. King’s birthday, Jan. 15th 1968 – which was sadly to be his last – he was organizing with a multi-racial coalition of Native Americans, Chicanos, Appalachian whites and urban black people to start an encampment in Washington D.C. that would be a massive “nonviolent army” which would “cripple the operation of an oppressive society.” By 1968, King’s earlier emphasis on civil rights had evolved into a revolutionary stance against capitalism, the Vietnam War, U.S. Imperialism and poverty. Leading tens of thousands of poor people, activists, clergy and concerned citizens to camp in D.C. was a “kind of last, desperate demand for the nation to respond to nonviolence.” He even suggested to his staff that after a few days they could call in the peace movements and “try and close down the Pentagon.” King meant business. The encampment would have to be “as dramatic, as dislocative, as attention-getting as the riots without destroying life or property.” He talked about clogging the roads, shutting down bridges and making the “city not function anymore.” The country that he loved so much had strayed so far from its ideals that he said, “We’ve got to go for broke this time…they aren’t going to run me out of Washington.”

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