Many of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s most formative writings and sermons — some dating to when King was a precocious 19-year-old seminary student in 1948 — languished for decades in a battered cardboard box.
A decade before her death in 2006, King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, flew to San Francisco to ask Stanford Professor Clayborne Carson to examine and write about the box’s contents.
The texts, which illuminate the theological foundations that America’s most celebrated social activist would repeatedly return to, are revealed in a book to be released today — Martin Luther King Jr. Day — by Stanford University’s King Papers Project.
The collection includes documents from 1948 to 1963 — the years covered by the book — and “gets us closer to King’s true identity” because they shed new light on how he viewed the Bible, Carson said.
“King used to say, ‘People think of me as a civil rights leader, but fundamentally, I’m a Baptist preacher,’ ” said Carson, editor of “Advocate of the Social Gospel,” which is based on the newly disclosed writings and is the sixth book produced by the King Papers Project.
The texts are triggering a discussion about how much King’s rejection of a literal reading of the Bible shaped his social activism.
King was not a conformist Christian. He not only eschewed literalism, he was a strident critic of how the Christian church perpetuated injustices such as slavery and segregation.
“Too often has the church talked about a future good ‘over yonder,’ totally forgetting the present evil over here,” King wrote in 1952 to Coretta Scott, his future wife.
Within a decade, King would lead the Montgomery Bus Boycott to protest legal segregation and numerous marches for voting rights. He returned repeatedly to the idea that true Christianity is practiced through the work for social justice.
“Any religion that professes to be concerned about the souls of men and not concerned about the city government that damns the soul, the economic conditions that corrupt the soul, the slum conditions, the social evils that cripple the soul, is a dry, dead, do-nothing religion in need of new blood,” King preached in 1962 to his congregation at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
It wasn’t known until these papers were released how consistently King had been developing the social gospel. Nor was the extent to which King rejected a biblical literalism.
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.
For some literalists, King’s belief that not every word of the Bible is true would mean he was not a Christian — even though many others would say no other 20th century figure more effectively used Christianity to shape society.
King “wanted to develop an intellectually respectable form of Christianity that did not require people to simply abandon their rational, critical abilities,” Carson said. The essential truth King saw, according to Carson, was the social gospel — “to see the Bible as a message of spiritual redemption and global social justice.”
“What relevance do these scriptures have?” King asked in a document included in “Advocate of the Social Gospel.” “What moral implications do we find growing out of the Bible?”
Carson also said King criticized the other extreme — the belief that the Bible is purely a political text, devoid of faith.
Duke Divinity School Professor Richard Lischer, who has extensively studied and written about King’s theology, believes that his rejection of literalism has to be viewed in context.
King went to seminary and received a doctorate from two bastions of liberal theology, Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University, respectively. A professor told him that neither Moses nor the exodus were real — an irony, given that King was called “new Moses” for his role during the civil rights era.
Literalists were also linchpins of segregation, said Lischer, author of “The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word that Moved America.” To accomplish his goals, Lischer said, King had to distance himself from them.
“He saw all these theological discussions and hairsplitting about the factual discussion of the miracles as a huge distraction from the real business of Christians on Earth,” said Lischer, who is not associated with the King Papers Project.
In his later days, as the death threats and the stress of the civil rights movement intensified, “King developed an almost mystical connection with the suffering Jesus,” Lischer said. “King felt that he himself was not alone in his suffering, but that he was closely identified with Christ, who went to the cross and who would be raised again.
“King’s idea was that by acting nonviolently and by resisting peacefully, one is re-enacting Jesus’ way on Earth,” Lischer said. “King’s followers didn’t carry guns. They didn’t kill people. They instead took a beating.”
The paradox of King is that the development of a close, personal relationship with Jesus also is typical of evangelicals — who view the Bible as the inerrant word of God and would not doubt things like the virgin birth. But most evangelicals allow some room for poetry and metaphor in the Bible. Those who don’t, literalists, are also called fundamentalists.
Jim Wallis, an evangelical speaker and author popular with the political left, believes King’s faith grew beyond the liberal theology of his youth and deepened as the civil rights struggle intensified.
“His theological liberalism was not an adequate foundation for what he would face later,” Wallis said in an interview. “I would argue that the more deeply one moves in the struggle for social justice … personal faith becomes more important.”
He disagrees with Carson, the Stanford professor, that King’s liberalism with regard to the Bible was connected to his social activism.
“It’s a mistake to say social justice comes from demystifying scripture, becoming a liberal and then you become committed to poverty,” said Wallis, who has heavily criticized Christian conservatives for their moral attacks on homosexuality at the expense of working to tackle social problems, particularly poverty. “There is a tradition that theological liberalism leads to a social gospel, but there’s also an evangelical tradition that Jesus brings you to justice.”