The Seminary Papers of Dr. King: Did He Reject the Tenets of Christian Faith?

As a seminarian, Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote that the bible was not to be taken literally. In one paper King practically denied basic tenets of the Christian faith. Does anyone know if the beliefs he espoused in seminary were genuinely held by King? What role, if any, did they play in his ministerial life? I cannot find copies of his sermons on topics touching these doctrines, or later writings on these topics.

Below is an excerpt of this paper concerning these critical doctrines--

But if we delve into the deeper meaning of these doctrines, and somehow strip them of their literal interpretation, we will find that they are based on a profound foundation. Although we may be able to argue with all degrees of logic that these doctrines are historically and philolophically untenable, yet we can never undermind the foundation on which they are based.

A King quote from this same paper about the Sonship of Jesus--

The first doctrine of our discussion which deals with the divine sonship of Jesus went through a great process of development. It seems quite evident that the early followers of Jesus in Palestine were well aware of his genuine humanity. Even the synoptic gospels picture Jesus as a victim of human experiences. Such human experiences as growth, learning, prayer, and defeat are not at all uncommon in the life of Jesus. How then did this doctrine of divine sonship come into being?
We may find a partial clue to the actual rise of this doctrine in the spreading of Christianity into the Greco-Roman world. I need not elaborate on the fact that the Greeks were very philosophical minded people. Through philosophical thinking the Greeks came to the point of subordinating, distrusting, and even minimizing anything physical. Anything that possessed flesh was always underminded in Greek thought. And so in order to receive inspiration from Jesus the Greeks had to apotheosize him [make him into a God].

...As Hedley laconically states, "the church had found God in Jesus, and so it called Jesus the Christ; and later under the influence of Greek thought-forms, the only begotten Son of God."

Next, King on the virgin birth--

First we must admit that the evidence for the tenability of this doctrine is to shallow to convince any objective thinker. To begin with, the earliest written documents in the New Testament make no mention of the virgin birth. Moreover, the Gospel of Mark, the most primitive and authentic of the four, gives not the slightest suggestion of the virgin birth. The effort to justify this doctrine on the grounds that it was predicted by the prophet Isaiah is immediately eliminated, for all New Testament scholars agree that the word virgin is not found in the Hebrew original, but only in the Greek text which is a mistranslation of the Hebrew word for "young woman." How then did this doctrine arise?

A clue to this inquiry may be found in a sentence from St. Justin's First Apology. Here Justin states that the birth of Jesus is quite similar to the birth of the sons of Zeus. It was believed in Greek thought that an extraordinary person could only be explained by saying that he had a father who was more than human. It is probable that this Greek idea influenced Christian thought.

A more adequate explanation for the rise of this doctrine is found in the experience which the early christians had with Jesus. The people saw within Jesus such a uniqueness of quality and spirit that to explain him in terms of ordinary background was to them quite inadequate. For his early followers this spiritual uniqueness could only by accounted for in terms of biological uniqueness. They were not unscientific in their approach because they had no knowledge of the scientific. They could only express themselves in terms of the pre-scientific thought patterns of their day.

And finally, King on the resurrection--

The last doctrine in our discussion deals with the resurrection story. This doctrine, upon which the Easter Faith rests, symbolizes the ultimate Christian conviction: that Christ conquered death. From a literary, historical, and philosophical point of view this doctrine raises many questions. In fact the external evidence for the authenticity of this doctrine is found wanting. But here again the external evidence is not the most important thing, for it in itself fails to tell us precisely the thing we most want to know: What experiences of early Christians lead to the formulation of the doctrine?

The root of our inquiry is found in the fact that the early Christians had lived with Jesus. They had been captivated by the magnetic power of his personality. This basic experience led to the faith that he could never die. And so in the pre-scientific thought pattern of the first century, this inner faith took outward form.

Quotes here are taken from "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" (

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Thank you Bro. Watson; I never knew that about Dr. King. Although this doesn't change my admiration for him as a freedom fighter, it is still good to come into this kind of information. Can you explain or define the Philosophy of Religion? What is their understanding of salvation?
I do seem to recall some of what you have stated here on philosophy from the class I took in college; however it was basically Philosophy 101. I still have all of my books. I just might revisit some of this basic material for as a refresher and pleasure. I have to admit, it was interesting because it really challenges you to think outside of the box.
Hi this is a great conversation, truly it is! Thank you for enlightening us Bro.Watson. When reading King's comments I immediately thought of Philosophy 101 that has the student critiqing religion in just this manner.

However, I, like you know that certain types of wicked bigots (Not the poster, but in general), like to show up King's writing as proof he wasn't a Christian. However, like you said, the 'philosophy of religion' calls for you to write in that philosophical way. If not, you'll get an "F" on your paper. :-)

I know as a young person I sounded militant when I first found out about the lies and deceits with regard to 'blackness' that was taken out of the Bible. Let alone, the true role of women that was suppressed by wicked males. Ofcourse, some would say, 'I still sound militant' but who cares? lol In reality, I am passionate and have zeal and righteous indignation against all who would oppose the re-erection of God's truth.

It all boils down to the Scripture, 'when I was a child, I thought as a child, behaved as a child but when I became a woman I put away childish things.'

We all go from glory to glory and the fact is, 'youth and truth' can stir a fiery tempest within any given believer. However, that is not the sum total of who we are. Nor is it the sum total of who Dr. King was.

I believe he showed his belief in God via his 'I"ve been to the Mountaintop' sermon. The Spirit of God was all over him when he spoke those words and Dr. King, had to know it!
The Memphis speech is a great piece of political rhetoric that ends with a prophetic flourish. It does feel as if God gave him vision of his own martyrdom, But of course it is tiny portion of a diatribe against political hypocrisy.

Still, I would like to believe what you do about his seminary days... that the position he staked out in his published papers were for the grades alone, and did not represent his own convictions about these Christian doctrines. It would also be encouraging to know that in his own pastorate he preached doctrinally sound messages.
Did he preach 'doctrinally sound messages?' I believe he had to to the congregation. The "I have A Dream' speech is doctrinally sound. His speech against 'Viet-Nam' proved to be doctrinally sound albeit, he was hated intensely even among blacks, for so speaking it.

Amidst his church he did weekly preach the 'salvation' message didn't he? I believe he did as that's by and large, how black preachers preached back then. Remember, it was a different era, and a different, more godly, if you ask me, group of AA's back then.

We called on Yahshua in all sincerity. Correction, we called on JESUS in all sincerity. I was but a young girl but we 'all' knew of, or if you lived in the south, saw the lynching, discrimination of us as a people. Hey, if you lived in the north, same thing, different expression in some ways, so when folks went to church they went with a open and hurting soul crying out to the Almighty.

As young as I was then, I knew that much! So yeah, Dr. King, amidst the youthful, foolish, arrogant, rebellion that college can wrought knew God. Oh, he knew him amidst his many alleged sinful flaws as well. Remember, it's a soul and heart thing between God and humanity and I believe when it got right down to spiritual things, King called on the 'God of his childhood', Jesus!
Awesome! Thanks for sharing.
Ms. Johnson, it is probably an accident of his particular variety of fame, but the sermons of Dr. King's that are usually disseminated are the political ones. They do not, to my memory, contradict the tenets of faith that he questioned in his Crozer days, but they don't directly affirm them either. Those sermons simply don't address Christology, so they tell us nothing of what King preached and taught about the nature of Jesus Christ: his divinity, or virgin birth, or resurrection.

Remember, I asked my questions about Dr. King's doctrinal soundness based on what he wrote about several key doctrines in seminary. The 1963 March on Washington speech (though not a sermon) may be described as doctrinally sound regarding its reflection of God's demand for justice; the frequently quoted "Loving Your Enemies" sermon (delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church) is perfectly sound in its teaching about forgiveness and forbearance; but neither of those, nor any other sermons I have read, touch on the key doctrines at question.

You at least rhetorically ask "[a]midst his church he did weekly preach the 'salvation' message, didn't he?" You assume so, given the time period in which he preached. But in truth, wasn't King a very different kind of preacher? He was reknowed for being erudite. Read even his trial sermon, "The Dimensions of a Complete Life," and tell me anyone else in Montgomery, or the whole state of Alabama, black or white, was preaching like that! Of course, that was what the socially aspiring crowd at the Dexter Avenue church wanted anyway. As the story goes, they were pretty sadity. But that at least argues against the notion that he was shaping his messages in the same format as the messages you heard in your youth.
Well, Mr. Gill, when all is said and done, one must go with his actions. They were 'Christ-like'. The whole 'peace march', 'turn the other cheek' under great oppression by the savage whites violating them.

A man's actions is where his soul is found to be right before God. He was a walking espistle in that regard preaching the gospel through his actions even though his 'written' youthful exuberance called for him to be 'cocky' with all that gibberish college can put into ones' head.

I mean afterall, we know prior to his attending college, he was reared on his father's knowledge of Christianity as that's all he knew. His 'actions' portrayed his fathers knowledge of Jesus Christ, Son of God.

His pertinent 'I Have A Dream" and "I've Been To The Mountaintop" attest to his belief in Jesus Christ, Son of God. As so, there, there's your answer to what King believed. As the old adage goes, 'actions speak louder than words.'
Of course, you are aware how he attributed the inspiration of his own nonviolence campaign to the political philosophy (and practical success) of Mahatma Gandhi's campaign against British rule in India.
I wonder what Daddy King actually said about this education his son received from Crozer. I realize King, Sr. was an advocate of an educated Black clergy, but I wonder if his son's abandonment of the doctrines he had preached for years made him realize there is a right and a wrong kind of seminary education.
Brother Watson, I think you are being overly charitable. The young King wrote: "The root of our inquiry is found in the fact that the early Christians had lived with Jesus. They had been captivated by the magnetic power of his personality. This basic experience led to the faith that he could never die. And so in the pre-scientific thought pattern of the first century, this inner faith took outward form." This is another way of saying the disciples were unaware of modern science and therefore easily persuaded that he could be resurrected. This is the psychobabble of skeptics, not a genuine interpretation "in light of Scripture." Scripture says "if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins" [1 Cor. 15:17]: for people who believe scripture, Christ's resurrection is a non-negotiable.

I appreciate that you are an energetic advocate of seminary education, but I suspect we would vigorously disagree about the value of theological liberalism. Nonetheless, because my academic training went no further than a B.A. in religion, I am prayerfully considering my options for continued education. I just pray if I am to go to seminary it won't be someplace hostile to conservative theology.
Brother Watson, I have to thank you for that reference to The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. The fifth volume of that series includes a transcript of his Easter sermon “A Walk Through the Holy Land,” delivered March 29, 1959. At the coda of that message King exclaimed: “Whatever you believe about the Resurrection this morning isn’t important. The form that you believe in, that isn’t the important thing. The fact that the revelation, “Resurrection is something that nobody can refute,” that is the important thing. Some people felt, the disciples felt, that it was a physical resurrection, that the physical body got up. Then Paul came on the scene, who had been trained in Greek philosophy, of Plato and others who believed in the immortality of the soul, and he tried to synthesize the Greek doctrine of the immortality of the soul with the Jewish-Hebrew doctrine of resurrection. And he talked, as you remember and you read it, about a spiritual body. A spiritual body. Whatever form, that isn’t important right now. The important thing is that the Resurrection did occur. The important thing is that the grave was empty. The important thing is the fact that Jesus had given himself to certain eternal truths and eternal principles that nobody could crucify and escape. So all the nails in the world could never pierce this truth. All of the crosses of the world could never block this love. All the graves in the world could never bury this goodness. Jesus had given himself to certain principles. And so today the Jesus and the God we worship are inescapable.”

That seems to be almost a repudiation of the argument in the Crozer paper that "the external evidence for the authenticity of [the Resurrection] doctrine is found wanting." I am encouraged that Dr. King either developed or harbored all along a deeper regard for the truth of the Resurrection than his seminary papers would imply. I think he was mistaken about what Paul meant when the latter spoke of the "spiritual body" in 1 Corinthians 15, but that is a relatively small point of interpretation over which I would never fall-out with a fellow believer.


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