In researching for the project on Martin Luther King Jr. and the Vietnam War, I have been reading quite a bit of his early writings found in places like The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. edited by Clayborne Carson. In volumes one and two, Carson carries King from his early childhood through his Ph.D. program at Boston University. King’s time at Crozer Theological Seminary, after graduating from Morehouse College, appears to me a ripe time to understand parts of King’s thinking that would be significant in his public ministry. Seminary training can be an opportunity for significant theological reflection, if one allows oneself to embrace both the critical approach to higher criticism and the purposeful reflection that intellectual enterprise encourages. King engaged in that kind of theological education at Crozer.
There will be more on the Vietnam project in the weeks ahead, but something that stood out to me in King’s writings at Crozer were his uncomfortableness with what he termed the status quo. This idea appeared to be a continuation of what peaked his interests at Morehouse. Carson has highlighted from the writings that King disliked the emotionalism he encountered in the black Baptist tradition because he thought it allowed for a narrow reading of the truths of the scriptures. Reflecting in an “Autobiography of Religious Development,” he writes,
I never felt any need to doubt them, at least at that time I didn’t I guess I accepted Biblical studies uncritically until I was about twelve years old. But this uncritical attitude could not last long, for it was contrary to the very nature of my being. I had always been the questioning and precocious type.
King’s criticism of his Sunday School teachers is not unusual, particularly in light of the attention given to how critical thinking engages theological reflection in seminary.
The fascinating point for me, however, occurred when King turned this note of criticism on the larger public. He appeared to locate the problem he found in his Sunday School teachers with their need to remain uncritical of the scriptures, which was a type of status quo for him. Writing about the Book of Jeremiah for a biblical studies class, King attached the prophetic calling to recognizing how the status quo saps the religion of its power to transform society. He notes, Again Jeremiah is a shining example of the truth that religion should never sanction the status quo. This more than anything else should be inculcated into the minds of modern religionists, for the worst disservice that we as individuals or churches can do to Christianity is to become sponsors and supporters of the status quo.
King had found a way to express his understanding of the call of Christ on Christians within the prophetic tradition found in the preaching of black churches. He would not, however, remained tied to the narrow reading of those scriptures. King’s later life is an example of how that thinking evolved and expanded to include groups and issues far beyond the cause of civil rights for African Americans in the South.