"The pastor role was central to everything, virtually everything, that Dr. King achieved," Lewis Baldwin, professor of religious studies at Vanderbilt University, told the PBS program "Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly." Baldwin has written widely on King's religion.
As the nation prepares to mark King's birthday on Jan. 16, Baldwin said he fears King's pastoral side is being forgotten. He believes the nation must develop an appreciation for that part of King's life if it is to fully grasp the whole of King's life and legacy.
"Being a pastor, for him, was being a civil-rights leader," Baldwin said. In many ways, Baldwin noted, King was simply carrying on the family business.
"His father was a pastor. His grandfather had been a pastor. His great-grandfather had been a pastor, and several of his uncles were preachers and pastors," Baldwin said. "It was very much a part of his religious background."
King was 25 and finishing his doctoral dissertation at Boston University when he was appointed to his first pastorate--at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala. The church was founded in 1877, in a former slave-traders' pen. At the time it was called the Second Colored Baptist Church. In 1879 the congregation moved to its current location, next to the state Capitol building.
King, who was hired in 1954, was the church's 20th pastor. And he came to the church after a period of internal tensions in the congregation. Church leaders said they were looking for a "non-controversial" pastor who could help restore morale.
The young pastor arrived with a 34-point plan for the congregation's future. Today, the church--which has officially changed its name to the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church--looks pretty much the same as when King was there. The pews date back to the 1880s but the pulpit was King's addition. "It was one of his 34-point recommendations that the congregation buy new pulpit furniture," said the Rev. Michael Thurman, the current pastor of the church.
Even before King became nationally known for his oratory, his preaching impact on the congregation was strong. Asked what it was like to listen to his sermons, Smiley said with a laugh, "I tell you what it was like to learn that he wasn't going to preach (on a Sunday morning) ... it was devastating."
"You sat there awed," she added. "You understood every word. He used words maybe you hadn't heard before but somehow you knew what it meant. And you felt a closeness to him as he spoke, and you felt as he was speaking directly to you," she said.
Smiley said King sought to involve everyone in the congregation in the life of the church. She became a minister in large part because of his efforts to give women leadership roles. "He, in the church, would engage the women to help him, not just to dust off the pews or keep the utensils clean, but he would engage them in helping make plans for the church," Smiley said. "I felt something from him to me that said, 'you're needed in the church, too.' "
But even as the young King was establishing his pastorate, racial tensions were rising in Montgomery--the tensions that would launch him into a leadership role in the civil rights movement. About a year after his arrival, Montgomery seamstress and rights activist Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to yield her seat on a bus to a white passenger. King began speaking out and leading peaceful protests. And from the pulpit of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he helped ignite the Montgomery bus boycott.
"It was the African-American church that nurtured him and gave him the sense that God was a God of justice, God was a God of mercy. God was a God of reckoning," Thurman said.
According to Thurman, King's position in the congregation enabled him to become deeply involved with the boycott and the wider civil-rights struggle. "Because Dr. King was not directly tied to the white power structure of the city ... he had an independent source of income ... from the congregation. They freed him up to do the things that he did for the larger community," Thurman said.
But as King was drawn deeper into the national civil-rights effort, he became concerned that he was neglecting his responsibilities at the church.
"He often did not have sufficient time to engage in counseling, to do funerals and weddings, to do the kind of administrative work that comes naturally with the pastoral role," Baldwin said.
Even before he became a national leader, Thurman said, King apologized to his congregation because "all the overwhelming activities and duties" of the boycott "had just overwhelmed his schedule."
In 1960, King resigned from Dexter Avenue in order to devote more time to the national civil-rights struggle. But at the same time, King wanted to maintain his pastoral role. He became an associate pastor at his father's Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta.
"Not only was he a pastor at the local congregational level, preaching to people, responding to the needs of people, but he was also a pastor to the nation, because he was very interested in the soul, determined to redeem the soul of the nation," Baldwin said.