For years after King’s death, many white Christians continued to eye him with suspicion, even as families like mine proudly displayed his portrait on our walls. Today, in an era when all fifty U.S. states now observe the King holiday and a resplendent monument to the man stands in our nation’s capital, it’s difficult to conceive of a time when King wasn’t acceptable. But once upon a time, we couldn’t hear King’s prophetic voice due to all the distortion drowning it out—some of it manufactured out of racism and ignorance, some of it real: “He was not a true Christian.” “He was a communist.” “He was a plagiarist.” “He was an adulterer.” (Edward Gilbreath, Birmingham Revolution: Martin Luther King Jr.’s Epic Challenge to the Church, p. 161)
Given MLK’s seemingly universal popularity today, it is indeed difficult to conceive of his one-time unacceptability among some American Christians. But Gilbreath’s “distortion” was very much in evidence the one time that Martin Luther King, Jr. came closest to visiting Bethel College of St. Paul, Minnesota — the Baptist Pietist school (now Bethel University) where I work.
It was 1960: three years before King wrote the jailhouse epistle that is the subject of Gilbreath’s book, and eight years before his assassination.
Bethel president Carl Lundquist first invited “Brother King” to speak at Bethel in January 1957, the same year that Billy Graham asked the civil rights leader (and fellow Baptist pastor) to pray at his crusade in Madison Square Garden. When a King visit to Bethel was finally arranged for December 1960, Lundquist received fiery criticism from other theological conservatives. The fundamentalist preacher G. Archer Weniger (a fourth Baptist pastor in this paragraph — Weniger had studied at Bethel Seminary and was ordained at First Baptist in Minneapolis by W.B. Riley) saw the invitation as “brazen open evidence” of a “Sad Drift” at Bethel:
We wonder how the fundamentalists in the [Baptist] General Conference [Bethel’s sponsoring denomination] will take this evidence of penetration of pacifism, socialism, modernism, and subversion in their cherished institution.
In response, Lundquist dismissed Weniger (with Carl McIntyre) as a leader “in the separatist emphasis [in fundamentalism] which decries relationship with even acknowledged specialists if they do not share our theological points of view down to some fairly minute details.” He placed this “emphasis” in opposition to the evangelicalism of the BGC:
The Conference is not known by whom it is against but by what it is for. Churches coming into our fellowship realize that while we are committed wholeheartedly to the evangelical interpretation of the Scriptures and are a conservative Baptist body, we have not at the same time cut off conversations with other religious leaders or groups.
(On the difficulty of categorizing the Baptist General Conference ca. the 1960s, see this recent “Bethel at War” post by Fletcher Warren.)
“Dr. King,” explained Lundquist, “has been invited because he is today one of the foremost leaders in promoting non-violent programs for racial equality. This is a concern for every Christian. As a matter of fact, the matters of social welfare constitute one area where theological differences among Christians are less significant and where we find that many of us can work together toward a common objective.”
Embarrassed by the controversy, the Bethel president apologized to King in a November 1960 letter:
All of us are sorry for the renewed controversy that has swirled around you in recent weeks and the personal inconvenience to which you have been subjected. We trust, however, that it has been used of God to intensify the Christian spirit you have demonstrated so often in the past and to make it a more powerful force for righteousness in our land.
As it happened, King never did speak at Bethel. He was called back to Atlanta, where the truce that followed the October 1960 student sit-in and King’s arrest (see Birmingham Revolution, pp. 58-59) was falling apart.
(My colleagues Diana Magnuson and Kent Gerber told the whole story of King’s invitation and non-appearance in the May 2011 issue of The Baptist Pietist Clarion. Weniger’s attack and Lundquist’s response are included in the 1960-1961 minutes of Bethel’s Convocation and Commencement Committee, available at Bethel’s Digital Library along with Lundquist’s correspondence with King.)
Still, I think the episode is intriguing. The Lundquist-Weniger debate over MLK points to the chasm widening between fundamentalists and neo-evangelicals in the 1950s. (Bethel incurred further fundamentalist wrath in 1966, when the college screened the documentary film, A Time for Burning, about a Lutheran pastor trying to convince his white parishioners to reach out to their African-American brethren.) But it also suggests that the gap between theological conservatives like Lundquist and theological liberals like King was perhaps not so unbridgeable at it often seems.
I want to think that Lundquist’s, and not Weniger’s, was the position taken by most of the faculty and students at Bethel in 1960. It may be so. This past spring one of my students, Mike Vangstad, researched Bethel responses to the civil rights movement for his capstone research paper. While the Minnesota Baptist Conference had gone out of its way in the 1950s to “leave the blacks alone,” Mike found that many Bethel students, faculty, and administrators in the 1960s “demanded immediate action regarding the progressive efforts of the Civil Rights Movement.”
Mike also found that much of that momentum dissipated in the 1970s, but I’m quite certain that whomever designed the display I walk past every morning at Bethel would like to think that King has long since become a heroic figure on our campus:
- King’s face is one of the only two on the display not belonging to someone who studied or worked at Bethel. (He shares a panel with Abraham Lincoln.)
- Only the Apostle Paul (five times) is quoted more often on the display than MLK (twice).
The first MLK quotation is probably less than familiar (coming from a 1947 issue of The Maroon Tiger, the campus newspaper of King’s alma mater, Morehouse College) but certainly applicable to the mission of a university:
The function of education is to teach one to think intensively and to think critically. Intelligence plus character — that is the goal of education.
And inspiring as those words are, they now make me think of this passage from Birmingham Revolution:
In various ways, King has been sanitized, domesticated or simply forgotten. The real Baptist churchman and fighter for social justice has been reduced to the fatherly saint who “had a dream.” Conservatives who once reviled him now claim him as one of their own (at least when it comes to certain issues). Liberals who once failed to fully grasp his significance now treat him as their modern standard-bearer while ignoring his roots in the church. But all these versions pale in comparison to the radical visionary who composed “Letter from [a] Birmingham Jail.” Revisionist history abounds, but somehow the real man has been misplaced. (p. 139)
How likely, after all, is a Bethel marketing display to quote King’s words opposing the war in Vietnam? Or those suggesting that Christians cannot be Communists, but ought to be challenged by Marx and Lenin’s vision of social justice? Those supporting labor unions? Those making the case for reparations to African-Americans?
If a prophetic voice can be drowned in “distortion,” it can also be silenced by being made anodyne.
I’m as guilty of this as anyone — that will be the subject of my last post in this series — but I’d like to hear from readers:
Has your opinion of Martin Luther King, Jr. changed over time? Do you see his as a prophetic voice? Have you observed him becoming more acceptable to theological conservatives? If you attended Bethel in the 1960s, 1970s, or 1980s, was King the cherished figure that he seems to be today? Does King seem to be “sanitized” or “domesticated” today?