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Chapter 4: Boston University

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Book cover - The Autobiography of Martin Luther King, Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson

As a young man with most of my life ahead of me, I decided early to give my life to something eternal and absolute. Not to these little gods that are here today and gone tomorrow. But to God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever.

  • September 13, 1951 King enters Boston University's School of Theology
  • February 25, 1953 Academic advisor Edgar S. Brightman dies, Harold DeWolf becomes now advisor   
  • June 5, 1955 Receives doctorate in systematic theology from Boston University

    The next stage of my intellectual pilgrimage to nonviolence came during my doctoral studies at Boston University. Here I had the opportunity to talk to many exponents of nonviolence, both Students and visitors at the campus.

    Boston University School of Theology, under the influence of Dean Walter Muelder and Professor Allen Knight Chalmers, had a deep sympathy for the pacifist position. Both Dean Muelder and Dr. Chalmers had a passion for social justice. One never got the impression that this passion stemmed from a superficial optimism concerning human nature, but from a deep faith in the possibilities of human beings when they allowed themselves to become coworkers with God. My association with men like that also caused me to deepen my concern, and of course many of the studies I continued to make concerning the philosophy and theory of nonviolence naturally influenced my thinking.

    Theologically I found myself still holding to the liberal position. I had come to see more than ever before that there were certain enduring qualities in liberalism which all of the vociferous noises of fundamentalism and neo-orthodoxy could never destroy. However, while at Boston, I became much more sympathetic towards the neo-orthodox position than I had been in previous years. I do not mean that I accept neo-orthodoxy as a set of doctrines, but I did see in it a necessary corrective for a liberalism that had become all too shallow and that too easily capitulated to modern culture. Neo-orthodoxy certainly had the merit of calling us back to the depths of Christian faith.

    I also came to see that Reinhold Niebuhr had overemphasized the corruption of human nature. His pessimism concerning human nature was not balanced by an optimism concerning divine nature. He was so involved in diagnosing man's sickness of sin that he overlooked the cure of grace.

    I studied philosophy and theology at Boston University under Edgar S. Brightman and L. Harold DeWolf. I did most of my work under Dr. DeWolf, who is a very dear friend of mine, and, of course, I was greatly influenced by him and by Dr. Brightman, whom I had the privilege to study with before he passed on. It was mainly under these teachers that I studied Personalistic philosophy--the theory that the clue to the meaning of ultimate reality is found in personality. This personal idealism remains today my basic philosophical position. Personalism's insistence that only personality-finite and infinite-is ultimately real strengthened me in two convictions: it gave me metaphysical and philosophical grounding for the idea of a personal God, and it gave me a metaphysical basis for the dignity and worth of all human personality.

Memories of Housing Bias While in Graduate School

I remember very well trying to find a place to live. I went into place after place where there were signs that rooms were for rent. They were for rent until they found out I was a Negro, and suddenly they had just been rented.

Quoted in Boston Globe, April 23, 1965

Just before Dr. Brightman's death, I began studying the philosophy of Hegel with him. This course proved to be both rewarding and stimulating. Although the course was mainly a study of Hegel's monumental work, Phenomenology of Mind, I spent my spare time reading his Philosophy of History and Philosophy of Right. There were points in Hegel's philosophy that I strongly disagreed with. For instance, his absolute idealism was rationally unsound to me because it tended to swallow up the many in the one. But there were other aspects of his thinking that I found stimulating. His contention that "truth is the whole" led me to a philosophical method of rational coherence. His analysis of the dialectical process, in spite of its shortcomings, helped me to see that growth comes through struggle.

My work at Boston University progressed very well. Both Dr. DeWolf and Dr. Brightman were quite impressed. I completed my residence work and began the process of writing my dissertation. My dissertation title was "A Comparison of the Conception of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman." The concept of God was chosen because of the central place which it occupies in any religion and because of the ever-present need to interpret and clarify the God concept. Tillich and Wieman were chosen because they represent different types of theology and because each of them had an increasing influence upon theological and philosophical thought.

In 1954 I ended my formal training with divergent intellectual forces converging into a positive social philosophy. One of the main tenets of this philosophy was the conviction that nonviolent resistance was one of the most potent weapons available to oppressed people in their quest for social justice. Interestingly enough, at this time I had merely an intellectual understanding and appreciation of the position, with no firm determination to organize it in a socially effective situation.

Rediscovering Lost Values

The thing that we need in the world today, is a group of men and women who will stand up for right and be opposed to wrong, wherever it is. A group of people who have come to see that some things are wrong, whether they're never caught up with. Some things are right, whether nobody sees you doing them or not.

All I'm trying to say is our world hinges on moral foundations God has made it so! God has made the universe to be based on a moral law...

This universe hinges on moral foundations. There is something in this universe that justifies Carlyle in saying,

"No lie can live forever."

There is something in this universe that justifies William Cullen Bryant in saying,

"Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again."
There is something in this universe that justifies James Russell Lowell in saying, 

"Truth forever on the scaffold,
Wrong forever on the throne.
With that scaffold sways the future.
Behind the dim unknown stands God
Within the shadow keeping watch above his own."

There is something in this universe that justifies the biblical writer in saying,
"You shall reap what you sow."

As a young man with most of my life ahead of me, I decided early to give my life to something eternal and absolute. Not to these little gods that are here today and gone tomorrow. But to God who is the same yesterday, today, and forever. 

I'm not going to put my ultimate faith in the little gods that can be destroyed in an atomic age, but the God who has been our help in ages past, and our hope for years to come, and our shelter in the time of storm and our eternal home That's the God that I'm putting my ultimate faith in. The God that I'm talking about this morning is the God of the universe and the God that will last through the ages. If we are to go forward this morning, we've got to go back and find that God That is the God that demands and commands our ultimate allegiance.

If we are to go forward, we must go back and rediscover these precious values--that all reality hinges on moral foundations and that all reality has spiritual control.

NEXT: Chapter 5: Coretta