Today Americans commemorate Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Last Friday marked the 87th anniversary of his birth.
The prominent civil rights leader fought tirelessly to promote racial equality in America. King founded the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and organized various pivotal non-violent protests against racial discrimination. These efforts included the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and the March on Washington in 1963. In October 1964, just months after the passage of the Civil Rights Act, King won the Nobel Peace Prize, becoming the youngest person to receive the award at 35-years-old.
In addition to serving as an important organizer within the civil rights movement, King remains one of America’s most revered political and religious thinkers. He was an ordained Baptist minister, and his many writings, speeches, and sermons reflected his firm Christian convictions.
King often addressed the Church specifically, calling on Christians to develop a strong social witness. He challenged his fellow clergy and believers to pursue both spiritual and political reform.
For example, King had plenty to say about the Church in his Letter from the Birmingham Jail. He particularly challenged the “white moderate” church to take a firmer stand against racial injustice.
“I hope the church as a whole will meet the challenge of this decisive hour,” King said.
Beyond opposing discrimination, King also called on the Church to pursue revival, engage society, and influence public policy. He addressed a wide range of topics, including communism, public opinion, and the relationship between Church and State.
Here are ten key quotes from Martin Luther King Jr. about vital Church-related topics:
- Social Transformation: “There was a time when the church was very powerful. It was during that period that the early Christians rejoiced when they were deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was the thermostat that transformed the mores of society.” (Letter from the Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963)
- Conquering Segregation: “The Philosophy of Christianity is strongly opposed to the underlying philosophy of segregation. Therefore, every Christian is confronted with the basic responsibility of working courageously for a non-segregated society. The task of conquering segregation is an inescapable must confronting the Christian Churches.” (The Role of the Church in Facing the Nation’s Chief Moral Dilemma, April 25, 1957)
- Church and State Relations: “The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool. If the church does not recapture its prophetic zeal, it will become an irrelevant social club without moral or spiritual authority.” (A Knock at Midnight, June 11, 1967)
- Church in Society: “It is our job as ministers to bring the church back to the center of the human race. But we can only bring the church back to the center of the human race when we bring Christ back to the center of the church.” (Is the Church the Hope of the World?, Sermon Notes, 1949-1950)
- Challenging the Status Quo: “The contemporary church is so often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. It is so often the arch supporter of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s often vocal sanction of things as they are.” (Letter from the Birmingham Jail, April 16, 1963)
- Diversity in the Church: “We must face the sad fact that at eleven o’clock on Sunday morning when we stand to sing ‘In Christ there is no East or West,’ we stand in the most segregated hour of America.” (Remaining Awake Through a Great Revolution, March 31, 1968)
- Competition between Local Churches: “Let the churches stop trying to outstrip each other in the number of their adherents, the size of its sanctuary, the abundance of wealth. If we must compete, let us compete to see which can move toward the greatest attainment of truth, the greatest service of the poor, and the greatest salvation of the soul and bodies of men. If the Church entered this type of competition we can imagine what a better world this would be.” (Cooperative Competition/Noble Competition, c. 1948-1954)
- Warring Denominations: “They tell me that in America you have within Protestantism more than two hundred and fifty six denominations. The tragedy is not so much that you have such a multiplicity of denominations, but that most of them are warring against each other with a claim to absolute truth. This narrow sectarianism is destroying the unity of the Body of Christ. You must come to see that God is neither a Baptist nor a Methodist; He is neither a Presbyterian nor [an] Episcopalian. God is bigger than all of our denominations.” (Paul’s Letter to American Christians, November 4, 1956)
- Uniting for Christ against Communism: “Communism also challenges us to invite all Christian forces for action. Too often have we been preoccupied with debates about orders and sacraments and ritual and denominationalism while civilization is engaged in a race with catastrophe. If we are to win the world to Christ we must rise above our differences realizing that we have unity of purpose and that God is not a denominational God.” (Communism’s Challenge to Christianity, August 19, 1953)
- Defending the Church: “Don’t be afraid to defend the Church where necessary. Certainly the Church is not perfect. It has often stood in the way of social and scientific progress and as I will show in a few minutes I am often ashamed of the Church, but in spite of its errors I would hate to see what the world would be like without it.” (Propagandizing Christianity, September 12, 1954)