Behind Martin Luther King Jr., a Public and Private Prayer Life
The amazing prayer life of Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. has long been hailed as a civil rights leader, but religious studies professor Lewis Baldwin said one aspect of his life has often been overlooked: the role of prayer.
"In order to understand him, you must begin, I think, with this idea of King as a spiritual leader," said Baldwin, author of the recent book, "Never to Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King Jr."
"Dr. King always made it clear that his civil rights and political activities were an extension of his ministry."
As the nation marks the 25th anniversary of Monday's (Jan. 17) federal holiday honoring King, the scholar who has spent a quarter century chronicling King's cultural influences has focused on King's prayer life.
For King, personal prayer and public prayer were equally significant, the scholar said.
"Dr. King's personal devotional life was very, very important in giving him the courage and the determination to fight for justice," said Baldwin, who teaches at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.
King would take "personal prayer retreats" and shut himself in a hotel room or pastor's study to pray, meditate and plan his next sermon or civil rights activities.
"But public prayer was important to him also because he understood prayer in that context as a form of creative energy," Baldwin said. "It was a way of motivating, affirming, reaffirming, empowering people in the context of the struggle for equal rights."
He writes that "prayer was King's secret weapon in the civil rights movement," a key to its success as people found the strength to continue despite arrests and killings.
King's prayers included a sense of perspective on the man and the movement he led. In a 1957 sermon at his Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., he said one of his daily prayers was, "Help me, O God, to see that I'm just a symbol of a movement."
Others were personal as well as corporate: "As we look within ourselves we are confronted with the appalling fact that the history of our lives is the history of an eternal revolt against thee," he prayed in a 1953 prayer broadcast from Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church.
He sounded a similar tone later that year: "We realize that we stand surrounded with the mountains of love and we deliberately dwell in the valley of hate," according to the 2007 volumes of "The Papers of Martin Luther King Jr."
Prayer -- at mealtimes and before leaving for school -- was emphasized in King's childhood home, where he grew up the son and grandson of Baptist preachers. As a young married father, he continued prayer traditions when he was home with his own family.
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