Beliefnet

Editor's Note: The quotes and stories featured in this article are culled from various sources that include essays and articles found on the internet, "Bearing the Cross" by David J. Garrow (Harper Perennial, 1999), and "The Beloved Community" by Charles Marsh (Basic Books, 2004).  An excerpt from "The Beloved Community" can be read here on Beliefnet.


Last year as we celebrated Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the social studies class in my grandson’s middle school discussed the man and his ideas. However, it never once came up that Dr. King was a Baptist minister and his religious beliefs, as well as his philosophical beliefs, were the driving force behind his actions.

Included in Dr. King’s Christian beliefs were the biblical teachings about angels. He took courage in the knowledge that angels were helping those who worked for justice. He wrote, "The universe is under the control of a loving purpose, and that in the struggle for righteousness man has cosmic companionship (angels). Behind the harsh appearance of the world there is a benign power."

Dr. King and his wife discussed two incidents where angels played an important part in their journey. Dr. King himself had a life-altering experience when he was in the depths of despair. From his description of the incident, it seems likely that angels were present in his humble kitchen at the time. His wife, Coretta Scott King, was also certain that an angel saved her life and the life of their child at another time.

The first incident occurred one night when Martin Luther King was agonizing over the price his activities might exact against himself, Coretta, and their baby daughter, Yolanda, called Yoki. The decision to continue fighting for civil rights was not an easy one. It all came to a head one night in what Martin Luther King would later call his own “Gethsemane experience.”

He described that night:

“One night toward the end of January, I settled into bed late, after a strenuous day. Coretta had already fallen asleep and just as I was about to doze off, the telephone rang. An angry voice said, 'Listen, nigger, we've taken all we want from you, before next week you'll be sorry you ever came to Montgomery.'

"I hung up, but I couldn't sleep. It seemed that all of my fears had come down on me at once. I had reached a saturation point. I got out of bed and began to walk the floor. Finally I went to the kitchen and heated a pot of coffee. I was ready to give up. With my cup of coffee sitting untouched before me I tried to think of a way to move out of the picture without appearing a coward.

"In this state of exhaustion, when my courage had all but gone, I decided to take my problem to God. With my head in my hands, I bowed over the kitchen table and prayed aloud. The words I spoke to God that midnight are still vivid in my memory: 'I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I've come to the point where I can't face it alone.'

"At that moment I experienced the presence of the Divine as I had never experienced him before."

What did Martin Luther King mean when he wrote "I experienced the presence of the Divine"? Those who are familiar with the Gospel account of Jesus in Gethsemane recognize the parallels. For Jesus, after the agony, "An angel from heaven appeared to him and strengthened him." (Luke 22:43). Is this what Dr. King referred to as "the presence of the Divine"? Was it an angel? Or was it God? We can no longer ask Dr. King, but often the distinction is not clear. Either way it was God at work.

In the Scripture we are told that, right after being strengthened by an angel, Jesus gets up and walks with courage to face the ordeal that awaited him.

The second incident occurred not long afterwards, on January 30, 1956. Coretta was in the front of the house with a family friend, Mary Lucy Williams, while two-month-old Yoki, slept in her bedroom. The women were startled by the constant ringing of the back doorbell. Coretta and Mary Lucy went to see what the problem might be. When Coretta opened the door, no one was in sight. As they turned back into the house, they heard a thump and a commotion on the front porch. At that moment, there was a large explosion. A bomb had been thrown on the front porch, causing extensive damage to the front of the building. If Coretta had not hurried to the back door, it is certain that she and Mary Lucy would have been killed.

In an interview after the bombing, Coretta Scott King responded:

"I realized all the threats on my husband's life were on my life too. I realized I could have been killed as well--because I was in the house when the bomb hit the front porch--with my young baby. And the callers had been calling, and they said that they were going to bomb our house, told my husband they were going to bomb his house and kill his family if he didn't leave town in three days. And of course he didn't leave town in three days, and they did bomb the house. So knowing that they meant what they said, because they actually did bomb the house.

“I had to deal with the fact that if I continued in the struggle, I too could be killed, and that's when I started praying very seriously about my commitment and whether or not I would be able to stick with my husband to continue in the struggle. And of course it wasn't that difficult. It was a struggle, but I knew that we were doing the right thing. I always felt that what was happening in Montgomery was part of God's will and purpose, and we were put there to be in the forefront of that struggle, and it wasn't just a struggle relegated to Montgomery, Alabama or the South, but that it had worldwide implications. And I felt, really, a sense of fulfillment that I hadn't felt before, that this was really what I was supposed to be doing, and it was a great blessing to have discovered this, and to be doing what was God's will for your life.”

According to family friends, Coretta spoke of the incident often to friends. Publicly, she talked about hearing the thud and being grateful she and her friend had gone to the back of the house. Through these two defining moments, it is clear that both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King felt God confirmed their calling to work toward justice in a nonviolent way. They each understood the price they might be called to pay. They knew that with God’s help—and a little help from their angels--they would have the courage and strength to see the mission through. After all, many times angels come not to spare people from making difficult decisions, but to strengthen them to endure hardship.

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