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The Spiritual Lineage of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dear Friends,

You and I live in a time where we have set aside one day  to contemplate a man’s life and teachings who brought forth a movement of cultural change through non-violence in our country. Today is that day.

As I jumped out of bed this morning thinking about Dr. King, right along side his image was that of his mentor/friend Gandhi. This is the first time I saw the two coupled in my mind. I Unknown-5typically see King as an inspirational road warrior behind a pulpit resonating solid words of Truth surrounded by thousands. This is the first time I saw him in my mind with his mentor.

It got me thinking about his spiritual lineage and about my own. Each one of us has our own unique spiritual lineage made up of teachers who walked the path before us making the way possible and much easier for us to take the next step.

These past three weeks I have been reading Yogananda’s and Gangaji’s work. In both cases; these two Eastern teachers refer to their lineage within their teachings. Yogananda, often refers to Jesus Christ, Bhagavad Krishna, Mahavatar Babaji, Lahiri Mahasaya, and Swami Sri Yukteswar. Gangaji speaks of Sri Ramana Maharshi and H.W.L. Poonja (Papaji). And, in Christianity we read in Matthew 1 of the Bible the lineage leading up toward Jesus’ birth.

My contemplation today focused upon who was an active part of Martin Luther King, Jr’s lineage. I went to The King Center’s website as my primary source. In addition to Jesus Christ, Mahatma Gandhi and his immediate family the following names are listed: Dr. Benjamin Mays, Walter Rauschenbush, Reinhold Niebuhr, Howard Thurman, Edgar Brighten and L. Harold DeWolf.

I had to find out more about each of these and their contribution of who King would become.

Dr. Benjamin E. Mays (1894 – 1984) Dr. King refers to Dr. Mays as his spiritual mentor and intellectual father. Mays was a theologian, activist, and long time president of Morehouse benjamin maysCollege. Thurman (below) and Mays both traveled to India to spend time and learn along side Gandhi. Mays received 56 honorary degrees; wrote over 2,000 papers and nine books including his biography Born to RebelNot failure, but low aim is sin. Dr. Benjamin Mays

Walter Rauschenbush (1861-1918) Baptist minister, Rauschenbush, was a key figure in the Unknown-7Social Gospel movement interested in creating the kingdom of Heaven on earth.  Rauschenbush wrote nine books including The Theology for a Social Gospel and contributed to numerous writings on Social Christianity. Christianity in its nature is revolutionary. Walter Rauschenbush

Reinhold Niebuhr (1892-1971) When asked about his favorite philosopher, Unknown-8President Barak Obama referred to Niebuhr. Niebuhr was an American Protestant theologian, a political intellectual and professor at Union Theological Seminary for more than 30 years. In the Letter from Birmingham Jail, King wrote, “Individuals may see the moral light and voluntarily give up their unjust posture; but, as Reinhold Niebuhr has reminded us, groups tend to be more immoral than individuals.” Like Dr. King, he was an opponent of the Vietnam war. Books by Niebuhr include The Irony of American HistoryThe tendency to claim God as an ally for our partisan value and ends is the source of all religious fanaticism. Reinhold Niebuhr

Howard Thurman. (1899-1981) Theologian Howard Thurman was Dean at Boston University Unknown-9when Martin Luther King, Jr. was a student. He was a man who actively lived his faith; as is evidenced through his writing and his service. Thurman is the author of 21 books including Jesus and the Disinherited.  His work has been on my bookshelf and re-read many times for the past twenty years. Don’t ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is people who have come alive. Howard Thurman

Edgar Brightman. (1884-1953) Brightman taught there is a dynamic relationship between God Unknown-10and the world; always unfolding. He was seen as a progressive Christian. Author of 16 books including The Spiritual Life, Brightman like many other of King’s lineage was a professor. He was also a member of the ACLU, The Methodist Federation for Social Action, and Committee on Peace through Justice. No totalitarians, no wars, no fears, famines or perils of any kind can really break a man’s spirit until he breaks it himself by surrendering. Tyranny has many dread powers, but not the power to rule the spirit. Edgar Brighten

L. Harold DeWold. (1905-1986) After Edgar Brightman died, DeWold became the dissertation

DeWoldt standing to the immediate right of King

DeWold standing to the right of King

advisor to Dr. King. The two remained in correspondence during key moments in King’s ministry. DeWold gave a tribute at King’s funeral. King’s favorite book, he quoted often, was The Religious Revolt Against Reason. Theology is always a reflection on contemporary history, little as the theologians usually know it or will admit it. Harold DeWold

King was also known to quote Thomas Carlyle, William Cullen Bryant, James Russell Lovell, John Donne, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, Leo Tolstoy, Washington Irving and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

Which brings me back to my original question. What is my unique lineage of spiritual teachings that influences who I am today? What is yours?

To a Non-Violent Now,



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