This topic is discussed in more detail in my upcoming book Just Spirituality: How Faith Practices Fuel Social Action (IVP, 2012).
Prayer was one of the primary ways Martin Luther King, Jr. engaged in his personal relationship with God. In his book about the prayer life of Martin Luther King, Jr., Lewis Baldwin writes, “King turned to prayer as the foundation of his personal spiritual life, the center of his devotional practice, and a powerful, sacred force in his struggle to liberate and empower people.”[i] King’s commitment to prayer was disciplined and empowered him in his pursuit of social equality and freedom. Baldwin concludes, “King’s emphasis on private prayer as creative energy was, as the content of this work shows, consistent with his tendency to place spiritual transformation at the center of every action he took as a crusader for freedom, justice, and human dignity. Thus, he was able to confront the relentless pressure of the forces of evil and retrogression without faltering.”[ii] Prayer strengthened King and enabled him to stand up to the harsh criticisms and physical threats to himself and his loved ones.
Baldwin claims that prayer was the undergirding power behind King’s proclamations toward freedom: “King’s leadership was effective because his praying and preaching were effective… In fact, prayer and preaching were the great factors in the sharing and spreading of King’s gospel and vision of human freedom.”[iii] King’s formation in the context of community empowered him to be able to proclaim a message of freedom and hope for people who were suffering. During one of his departing sermons given at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, King shared these words:
“And I know this God enough to know that He’s with us. I’ve come to believe in prayer, stronger, stronger than ever before, since I’ve been in Montgomery. And I’ve convinced that when we engage in prayer, we are not engaging in just the process of autosuggestion, just an endless soliloquy or monologue, but we are engaged in a dialogue. And we are talking with a father who is concerned about us. And I’ve come to believe that… I have felt His power working in my life in so many instances, and I have felt an inner sense of calmness in dark and difficult situations, an inner strength I never knew I had.”[iv]
And I discovered then that religion had to become real to me, and I had to know God for myself. And I bowed down over that cup of coffee. I never will forget it… I prayed a prayer, and I prayed out loud that night. I said, ‘Lord, I’m down here trying to do what is right. I think I’m right. I think the cause that we represent is right. [v]
King was convinced the prayer was an “empowering an liberating force” which would enable him and others to stand up to any resistance in their pursuit of freedom and justice.[vi] Prayer gave King courage and hope to stay the course when it seemed the changes he sought would never come. King also believed that activism accompanied by prayer was the most effective. Prayer was not a “substitute for human initiative” but was a source of power and a significant part of his rallying cry toward justice.[vii]
[i] Lewis Baldwin, Never to Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), p. x.
[ii] Lewis Baldwin. Never to Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King Jr. (p. xii). Kindle Edition.
[iii] Lewis Baldwin. Never to Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King Jr. (p. 50). Kindle Edition.
[iv] Martin Luther King, Jr. “Address Delivered during ‘A Salute to Dr. and Mrs. Martin Luther King’ at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church,” January 31, 1960, ET-56, Martin Luther King Estate Collection in Troy Jackson, Becoming King: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Making of a National Leader (Lexington, KY: The University Press of Kentucky, 2008), p. 178.
[v] David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York, NY: HarperCollins Pubishers, 1986), p. 58.
[vi] Lewis Baldwin, Never to Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), p. xii.
[vii] Lewis Baldwin, Never to Leave Us Alone: The Prayer Life of Martin Luther King, Jr. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2010), p. xii.