New volume of MLK Jr. papers reveal his early concerns about social justice

Chuck Painter King speaks in Memorial Auditorium in 1964

Friday’s launch of the new volume, Advocate of the Social Gospel, is one of many events planned this month honoring the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. Above, King speaks in Memorial Auditorium on April 23, 1964.

As a seminary student and young preacher, Martin Luther King Jr. challenged the role of the church in preserving segregation and questioned whether the Christian Bible was literally true, according to documents to be published in a forthcoming volume of his papers, Advocate of the Social Gospel, September 1948-March 1963. The book is Vol. VI of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute will launch the volume during a celebration of King's legacy, which will include a Jan. 12 open house at the King Institute, campus visits by civil rights activists, lectures, film screenings, an interfaith panel discussion on spirituality and social change, and other events throughout the month.

With the publication of the volume, "scholars will have a new window into King's religious beliefs when they see these previously unavailable writings from his early years as minister," said history Professor Clayborne Carson, director of the institute and of the book's editorial team.

The work, part of a multi-volume series, documents King's preaching career and provides a unique look at never-before-published early sermons. It offers the public the first detailed presentation of documents in the $32 million cache recently acquired by Morehouse College.

In 1997, Coretta Scott King granted Carson permission to examine papers stored in boxes in the basement of the King family home. The most significant finding was the discovery of a battered cardboard box holding more than 200 folders containing sermons, papers King wrote for his preaching classes at Crozer Theological Seminary and correspondence. The heart of the collection was a trove of sermon notes, outlines and sermon texts from the years up to and including King's involvement in the Montgomery bus boycott in 1956, a period for which little was known about King's religious activities. Some ideas for homilies were jotted on notebook paper, some were scribbled on the backs of letters and travel itineraries, and others were neatly typed and dated.

Collectively, the documents reveal that King's concern about poverty, human rights and social justice is present in his earliest handwritten sermons, which demonstrate King to be, in his own words, "an advocator of the social gospel," the book's editors said.

King's class papers from Crozer Theological Seminary, printed in the volume, contain evidence that he wrestled with basic issues of faith during his seminary years. While at Crozer, King asserted that liberal theology, or that line of thought critical of a literal reading of the Bible, was "the best or at least the most logical system of theology in existence." He agreed with liberal theology's teachings that "the Pentateuch teachings were written by more than one author, that the whale did not swallow Jonah" and "that Jesus never met John the Baptist." "But after all of this," King wondered, "what relevance do these scriptures have? What moral implications do we find growing out of the Bible?"

King also charged in a paper on preaching that the Christian church was "the greatest preserver of the status quo" and, thereby, "one of the chief exponents of racial bigotry." King wrote: "I can conclude that the church, in its present state, is not the hope of the world. I believe that nothing has so persistently and effectively blocked the way of salvation as the church."

In an early sermon preached in 1953 while associate pastor at his father's church, Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, King spoke out against the acceptance of segregation in churches by declaring, "I am [ashamed] and appalled that Eleven O' Clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in Christian America."

King Institute Associate Director Susan Englander served as the volume's lead editor. Susan Carson is the volume's managing editor. University of Kentucky historian the Rev. Dr. Gerald L. Smith and the Rev. Troy Jackson served as contributing editors on the volume.

Campus events celebrating King's legacy scheduled from Jan. 11 to Jan. 31 include:

  • Clarence B. Jones Lecture. Jones, former attorney and speechwriter for King, will talk about his upcoming memoir, Thank You Martin, A Tribute to Winter Soldiers: Stories from the Front, from noon to 1:30 p.m. Jan. 11 in Oak Room West at Tresidder Union.

  • Open House at the Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute. Scheduled guests at the reception from 2 to 4 p.m. Jan. 12 include Clarence Jones; historian and author Michael Honey; singer Bettie Mae Fikes, who was a member of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in the 1960s and a SNCC Freedom Singer; and writer Dorothy Cotton, former education director for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. The Research Institute is at 466 Via Ortega, Cypress Hall D.

  • Ecumenical Christian Celebration Honoring Dr. King. The Rev. Benjamin Reynolds, former pastor of the Emmanuel Missionary Baptist Church of Colorado Springs, will speak at 10 a.m. Jan. 14 in Memorial Church.

  • Freedom Train. A King Institute-sponsored student delegation will ride a specially chartered Caltrain between San Jose and San Francisco on Jan. 15 to celebrate the Martin Luther King Holiday. Ticket and schedule information is available online at

  • Food and Words for the Soul Luncheon. Jonathan Thomas, pastor of administration at Jerusalem Baptist Church in Palo Alto, will perform a reading of King's sermons featured in Advocate of the Social Gospel at a luncheon from noon to 1 p.m. Jan. 17 in the Oak Lounge at Tresidder Union, followed by a book signing by two of the volume's editors, history Professor Clayborne Carson and Sue Englander of the King Institute. Refreshments and music will be provided.

  • Introducing Vol. VI of the King Papers: Advocate of the Social Gospel. Book co-editors the Rev. Dr. Gerald L. Smith, the Rev. Troy Jackson and Susan Englander will speak on King's current relevance as a religious leader from noon to 1 p.m. Jan. 18 in Oak Room West at Tresidder Union.

  • Percy Julian Celebration. An event featuring an excerpt of the upcoming PBS film Forgotten Genius and guest speakers will honor the memory of Percy Lavon Julian (1899-1975), a pioneering research chemist who was among the first African Americans elected to the National Academy of Sciences. The event will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. Jan. 18 at the Clark Center Auditorium.

  • Multifaith Celebration Honoring Dr. King. The Rev. Dr. Gerald L. Smith, associate professor of African American studies and history at the University of Kentucky, pastor of the Farristown Baptist Church in Berea, Ky., and co-editor of Advocate for a Social Gospel will speak at 10 a.m. Jan. 21 in Memorial Church.

  • Film Screening and Discussion. Rivers of Change: The Legacy of Five Unheralded Women in Montgomery and Their Struggle for Justice and Dignity chronicles the struggles of five mostly uncelebrated women who were instrumental in starting and ending the Montgomery bus boycott. A discussion will follow the film, to be screened at 7 p.m. Jan. 22 at Tresidder Union.

  • African and African American Studies Lecture Series. History Professor Clayborne Carson will talk about racial conflict in France and the French response to King's theory of nonviolent direct action as part of the "Paris Noir" lecture series from noon to 1 p.m. Jan. 24 in the Wallenberg Learning Theater, Building 160.

  • Aurora Forum Presents: "Spirituality and Social Change: An Interfaith Roundtable." Susannah Heschel, associate professor of Jewish studies at Dartmouth College; Imam Zaid Shakir of the Zaytuna Institute in Hayward; the Rev. Heng Sure of the Berkeley Buddhist Monastery; and the Rev. Raphael Warnock of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta will participate in a discussion on the relation of spiritual practice and social change from 7:30 to 9 p.m. Jan. 25 in Kresge Auditorium. Rabbi Patricia Karlin-Neumann, associate dean for religious life, will moderate.

  • "White Like Me: Reflections on Race." Anti-racism activist and educator Tim Wise will speak about issues of race and privilege from 7 to 9 p.m. Jan. 31 in Oak Room West in Tresidder Union. Wise, author of two books, is director of the Association for White Anti-Racist Education (AWARE) in Tennessee.