Martin Luther King, Jr.'s living faith

Martin Luther King Jr. prays in a photo that opens the book Never to Leave Us Alone by Lewis Baldwin. (Frank Dandridge)

One of the theology courses I teach at Marquette University explores the lives and thoughts of Malcolm X, James Baldwin and Martin Luther King Jr. My students enter the course thinking that they already know much about King. They are familiar with his leadership as a civil rights activist and his uncompromising advocacy of nonviolent social change. My challenge, however, is to move them to appreciate King as a man of faith. His Christian ideals and religious convictions not only grounded his political strategies, but also provided the reservoir of fortitude needed to endure racial persecution, political harassment and the constant threat of death.

Without a deep appreciation of King’s living faith, our understanding of the man and the movement that transformed America is both limited and inadequate.

We could ask for no better guide for exploring the inner terrain of King’s relationship with the divine than Lewis Baldwin, a religious studies professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., and author of several seminal books on King’s life and legacy.

The slimness of Never Leave Us Alone is deceptive. Its brevity masks its importance. This is a landmark study, the first book-length treatment of King’s understanding and practice of prayer. It is an indispensable resource for not only acquiring a better understanding of one of the most significant figures of U.S. Christianity, but also for appreciating the intrinsic connection between authentic religious piety and committed social action.

Indeed, Baldwin shows how King demonstrates the enduring relevance of prayer in a secular, postmodern age.

Based on a meticulous examination of some 78 prayers and orations composed by King during his life, Baldwin develops a fascinating and even moving account of King’s inner dialogues with God and encounters with the sacred. Richly researched and referenced for the scholar and specialist, Baldwin’s elegant prose also renders King as a man of prayer accessible to those whose interests are more inspirational.

By Lewis V. Baldwin
Published by Fortress Press, $16.95

The book begins with an arresting photograph of King sitting in his pulpit rapt in silent prayer. There is nothing studied or posed about this portrait. Its reflective serenity reveals an inner luminosity and calm, all the more remarkable in view of the incessant demands, struggles and crises that clamored for his attention and response during the height of the battles for social equality. The inner quiet gracefully captured in this picture illustrates the major theme of Baldwin’s study: The praying King made the activist King possible. Baldwin argues that King’s “prayer life, philosophy of prayer, and practice of praying are immensely important for understanding him both as a person of faith and a social activist.”

After a survey of the black prayer tradition, Baldwin examines King’s sermonic prayers, that is, how he used prayer as a vehicle for expressing faith publicly and as a preparation for preaching; his use of prayer in pastoral conversations and ministry; and his prayer practices in the midst of social protests, mass demonstrations and civil rights activism.

The book concludes with a reflection on the relevance of King’s understanding of prayer and the spiritual life for Christian discipleship and social action today.

Three facets of Baldwin’s account of King’s encounters with God seem especially significant for me. The first is King’s lifelong quest for a harmonious unity that would knit together his personal piety, intellectual ability and social vision. As the account unfolds, Baldwin shows how these facets became woven into a seamless whole. Profound faith, acute intelligence and compassionate commitment for the sake of “the least of these”: Each facet informed the others and resulted in a compelling form of Christian spirituality and witness. Baldwin amply demonstrates how “King never separated intellectual ability, moral responsibility and social praxis from deep personal responsibility and piety.”

Second, I found particularly compelling Baldwin’s accent on the contemplative dimension of black prayer.

Baldwin accurately highlights the quiet contemplative practices that marked King’s devotional life. Even in the midst of a crushing speaking calendar as a civil rights and peace activist, and the demands of national leadership, King often would spend a “prayer-centered day” in a motel while on the road, longing for the “spiritual renewal” obtained through inner quiet and contemplative prayer.

Accenting the importance of contemplative prayer is, in my opinion, one of the most pressing needs for men and women today -- and one of the failures of the contemporary church. Contrary to the opinions of many church leaders, the greatest threat to the Catholic church’s future lies not in religious illiteracy, doctrinal dissent or an ignorance of the catechism. Our greatest threat stems from a lack of spiritual maturity in all too many adult believers, rooted in the failure of the official church to nurture the spiritual hunger so palpable today -- a hunger reminiscent of the Gospel plea: “Teach us how to pray.”

A final facet that I found compelling in Baldwin’s account of King’s prayer life is the prime place that King assigned to prayer in social justice activism. King was far from a quietist, and never advocated “pray-it-away” solutions to personal or social ills. He was deeply realistic about the intransigence of social evil and how it yields only in the face of determined action and persistent challenge. Yet he insisted that prayer is an essential dimension of social engagement and never a secondary force in the quest of justice.

There is only one frustration with this text: the omission of King’s prayer texts because of various intellectual property disputes. One hopes that these disputes can be soon resolved so that we can be inspired by King’s actual words, and not only an account of them.

Baldwin has given us yet another major contribution to King scholarship that may well become a classic. It establishes King as a significant figure in Christian spirituality.

[Fr. Bryan N. Massingale is a priest of the Milwaukee archdiocese, an associate professor of theological ethics at Marquette University, and author of Racial Justice and the Catholic Church (Orbis).]

Join the Conversation

Send your thoughts and reactions to Letters to the Editor. Learn more here