Visionary. Charismatic leader. Gifted orator. World changer. These are words often used to describe Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But, one term we do not hear often enough regarding him is “Man of God”. Dr. King is best known for his efforts towards racial and social equality, but it also important to recognize his faith in God, for it no doubt greatly influenced his work.
Dr. King was raised in a Christian home and ministry ran in the family, as his grandfather, father, and brother were preachers. In fact, Rev. Adam Daniel Williams, Dr. King’s grandfather, was pastor of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, a church that Martin Luther King Sr. would later pastor. King Sr. was led to become a preacher from being around ministers who wanted to make strides for racial equality. He played a principal role in getting African-Americans registered to vote, in addition to making teachers’ salaries in Atlanta more equitable.
In turn, Dr. King was significantly affected by how he saw his father live. In his essay, “An Autobiography of Religious Development”, he stated, “'I guess the influence of my father also had a great deal to do with my going in the ministry. This is not to say that he ever spoke to me in terms of being a minister, but that my admiration for him was the great moving factor; He set forth a noble example that I didn't mind following.” This is a great example of how we can minister to others simply by how we live our lives.
Dr. King obtained his education to enhance the practical spiritual training he received from his family. After graduating from Morehouse College with a B.A. degree in Sociology, he entered Crozer Theological Seminary in 1948. While attending seminary, Dr. King would occasionally preach at Ebenezer, and was later ordained there in February 1948.
Dr. King earned his Bachelor of Divinity degree from in 1951, and accepted the pastorate of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama in 1954. During his pastorate, he received his Ph.D. degree in Systematic Theology from Boston University in 1955. In 1957, Dr. King was elected the first president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), a nonprofit, non-sectarian, inter-faith, advocacy organization that is committed to non-violent action to achieve social, economic, and political justice. In order to lead the SCLC from Atlanta, he resigned his pastorate in 1959. The following year, he was appointed as Co-Pastor under his father at Ebenezer – a position he held until his death in 1968.
It is obvious that Dr. King was well educated and held prestigious positions, but what is most important is how his Christianity was displayed in his words and actions. For example, while autographing a recently published book in 1958, he was stabbed in the chest by an alleged mentally deranged woman. The first thing he said at his press conference from the hospital – after apologizing for not being able to speak to reporters earlier – was that he felt “no ill will” toward his attacker. That was a real-life display of God’s love and forgiveness.
Unfortunately, this was not the only trial Dr. King endured. He was stoned in Chicago while leading a march in 1966, received numerous death threats, and bombs were thrown on his porch on more than one occasion. In addition, he was jailed multiple times on false or ludicrous charges. While in jail, instead of being angry or feeling sorry for himself, he made an effort to convert inmates and employees. Everywhere he went, he affected lives with the love of God.
Through each ordeal, Dr. King relied on His faith in God for comfort and strength, and he never stopped doing what he believed was right. He pressed on, refusing to give up on his dream or his purpose. As a result, the world is a better place. As an African-American, I truly revere and appreciate what Dr. King has done for me personally, but I also honor the peaceful and loving way he went about his work. Just like Jesus, he did not fear what could happen to him, but instead gave his life for the sake of others.
Dr. King left a spiritual legacy that is still being carried on today. For example, Bernice King, his youngest daughter, is also a minister. But, Dr. King’s legacy is for anyone else who desires a better world, whether or not they are a person of color. Through his life, we can see that one person can make a difference through prayer, unselfishness, and peaceful, positive behavior.
I think Dr. King put it best in his sermon, “The Drum Major Instinct”, delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia, on February 4, 1968:
“If you want to be important—wonderful. If you want to be recognized—wonderful. If you want to be great—wonderful. But recognize that he who is greatest among you shall be your servant. That's a new definition of greatness.
And this morning, the thing that I like about it: by giving that definition of greatness, it means that everybody can be great, because everybody can serve. You don't have to have a college degree to serve. You don't have to make your subject and your verb agree to serve. You don't have to know about Plato and Aristotle to serve. You don't have to know Einstein's theory of relativity to serve. You don't have to know the second theory of thermodynamics in physics to serve. You only need a heart full of grace, a soul generated by love. And you can be that servant.”
Dr. King is right. YOU can be that servant. Christ’s love is demonstrated through acts of service, so let us recognize and fulfill the spiritual legacy left by Dr. King – Man of God.