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Atlanta, Georgia

Ebenezer Baptist Church: Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Prophetic Voice in American Politics

Founded during Reconstruction, Ebenezer Baptist Church served not only as a place of worship and community for Atlanta’s newly freed black population, but also as a hub of black resistance to segregation and racial oppression, This aspect of the church’s identity grew over the course of the early twentieth century, and became an especially prominent element of its mission when it called Martin Luther King, Jr. (son of the church’s senior pastor) to serve as co-pastor with his father in 1960.

The name of the church is a reference to 1 Samuel 7:12 in which the prophet Samuel is recorded as raising a monument to the Lord in gratitude for His presence with Israel during their battle with the Philistines.  An “ebenezer” thus became tangible reminder of the providence of God. Similarly, church buildings in black communities offered both physical and spiritual shelter to their congregations, a reminder that God’s work in their community was not yet finished.

Interior, view from the balcony. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, Ebenezer Baptist Church, 407 Auburn Avenue Northeast, Atlanta, Fulton County, GA. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. HABS GA,61-ATLA,54--1

Interior, view from the balcony. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, Ebenezer Baptist Church, 407 Auburn Avenue Northeast, Atlanta, Fulton County, GA. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. HABS GA,61-ATLA,54–1

Churches like Ebenezer Baptist played a central role in the black community during the period between the end of the Civil War and the Civil Rights Movement, as seen in this image from Millard Owen Sheets’ series of murals on The Negro’s Contribution in the Social and Cultural Development of America at the Main Interior Building in Washington, D.C.

Religion by Millard Owen Sheets, 1943. Mural at the Department of Interior, Washington, D.C. Photograph in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. LC-DIG-highsm-24731.

Religion by Millard Owen Sheets, 1943. Mural at the Department of Interior, Washington, D.C. Photograph in the Carol M. Highsmith Archive, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division. LC-DIG-highsm-24731.

Note the central figure in the foreground of the image, whose dress and posture are both evocative of 18th and 19th century depictions of enslaved men. In contrast, the woman in pink to the far right of the composition, stands out against the more sober colored garments of the men around her., and she alone of the kneeling figures looks heavenward – perhaps a commentary on the central role of women in sustaining the African-American church.  The woman’s upward case is echoed by the singers in the background, as well as the dramatically extended arm of the preacher, and Sheets thus balances the humility and perhaps even lament of the figures in the foreground with a more hopeful perspective from those in the background.

Martin Luther King, Jr.: Christianity and Social Justice

Within the African-American church community, such hope often found expression and support in the Social Gospel movement of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Proponents of the Social Gospel emphasized the practical dimensions of Christ’s ministry to the poor and downtrodden in society, as well as the Bible’s overarching message of justice and mercy. As the son, grand-son, and great-grandson of Baptist preachers committed to the Social Gospel movement, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s theology from the beginning was shaped by reflection on the practical as well as the pietistic. King would borrow heavily from the Social Gospel tradition, using his national platform to speak with a prophetic voice against the racial and class injustices he observed.

MLK, Jr. Interview on Look Here, 27 October 1957 presented by NBC News Time Capsule on Hulu

Although King’s denunciations of injustice were forceful, he maintained a life-long commitment to peaceful protest. In this television interview given three years prior to his sermon Can A Christian Be A Communist?, King discusses the influences on his understanding of Christian conscience and dissent, including what he refers to as “Ghandi-ism.” In what ways does this earlier, more conversational discussion of the necessity for African American Christians to assert themselves as actors within the civil sphere prefigure the themes of King’s later statement?

The hymn Jesus is Tenderly Calling, by Franny Crosby & George Stebbins, #229 in the Baptist Hymnal (1956) is referenced by King at the end of his sermon Can A Christian Be A Communist?. In what ways might the lyrics, with their emphasis on the response of the individual to the “call” of Christ have served to motivate King’s listeners?

Reverend Theodore M. Hesburgh and Martin Luther King Jr. at the Illinois Rally for Civil Rights, June 21, 1964

Reverend Theodore M. Hesburgh and Martin Luther King Jr. at the Illinois Rally for Civil Rights, June 21, 1964. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; gift of the University of Notre Dame in honor of the Rev. Theodore M. Hesburgh, C.S.C | NPG.2007.205.D1

Taken just two days after the U.S. Senate passed the Civil Rights Bill of 1964, at the close of a rally at Soldiers’ Field in Chicago when King and Hesburgh (president of Notre Dame and a member of the United States Civil Rights Commission) clasped hands in solidarity during the singing of “We Shall Overcome.”

Boston, Massachusetts

Revolutionary Churches: Religion, Resistance, and Conformity

Resistance to the British government during the prelude to the American Revolution had a decidedly religious element: many in the colonies feared the imposition of religious conformity.

An Attempt to Land a Bishop in America. London, 1768. Engraving, artist unknown. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsca-13637.

An Attempt to Land a Bishop in America. London, 1768. Engraving, artist unknown. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, LC-DIG-ppmsca-13637.

In this political cartoon, the motivation of the crowd of protesters is “Liberty and Freedom of Conscience.” As they literally push the bishop and his boat away from American shores, the crowd hurls neither rocks nor insults, but “Calvin’s Works,” “Sydney on Government,” “Locke,” and “Barclay’s Works”—and of the four, “Calvin’s Works” is the first to hit the target. Such a selective grouping of authors clearly indicates that the artist had reason to consider Calvin as among the more important defenders of religious freedom.

Jonathan Mayhew. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.74.63.

Jonathan Mayhew. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, NPG.74.63.

Jonathan Mayhew, a Congregational minister, was among the most outspoken supporters of the American opposition to British imperial policies such as the Stamp Act. John Adams credited Mayhew’s 1750 sermon Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission with reminding the people of the colonies of their liberties.

Title page from A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission. Library of Congress, http://hdl.loc.gov/loc.rbc/AmericanImprints.19678.1

Title page from A Discourse Concerning Unlimited Submission. Library of Congress, https://lccn.loc.gov/12019678.

“It was read by everybody; celebrated by friends, and abused by enemies. ”

John Adams To H. Niles, February 13, 1818

In this sermon, delivered to commemorate the hundredth anniversary of the execution of King Charles I, Mayhew denied Charles’ status as a martyr and instead portrayed him as a tyrant, intent on destroying the liberties of the people of Great Britain. Mayhew (writing in what Adams described as terms “seasoned with wit and satire superior to any in Swift or Franklin”) denied that Christians had an obligation to submit to unjust governments; he lauded the leaders of the Parliamentary cause who had opposed Charles for their reasonable act of self-preservation.

Mayhew’s language was stirring: “For a nation thus abused to arise unanimously, and to resist their prince, even to the dethroning him, is not criminal ; but a reasonable I way of vindicating their liberties and just rights ; it is making use of the means, and the only means, which God has put into their power, for mutual and self-defence. And it would be highly criminal in them, not to make use of this means.” The sermon was printed “at the request of the hearers” who apparently found his robust endorsement of natural rights and individual liberty worth committing to the more enduring and easily disseminated medium of print. 

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