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Boston University

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April 24, 1839

After graduating from Crozer Theological Seminary in 1951, Martin Luther King pursued his doctoral studies in systematic theology at Boston University’s graduate school. King’s desire to study at Boston University was influenced by his increasing interest in personalism, a philosophy that emphasizes the necessity of personal religious experience in understanding God. Two of the country’s leading personalist theologians, Edgar S. Brightman and L. Harold DeWolf, taught at Boston University and helped to refine King’s concept of the theory. King stated in his graduate application that Crozer professor and Boston University graduate Raymond Bean’s “great influence over me has turned my eyes toward his former school” (Papers 1:390). 

At Boston University Brightman and DeWolf became King’s primary mentors. King also broadened his studies by taking several classes on the history of philosophy that examined the works of Reinhold Niebuhr, Alfred North Whitehead, Plato, and Hegel. King’s tenure at Boston University culminated with the completion of his dissertation, entitled “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.” Although King had not previously studied either Tillich or Wieman, he was interested in their denial of both the personality of God and of the possibility of personal knowledge of God, which contrasted greatly with his earlier studies of personalism. 

Outside the classroom King helped organize, and participated in, the Dialectical Society, a dozen African American theological students who met monthly to discuss philosophical and theological ideas and their application to the black situation in the United States. A classmate of King’s, W. T. Handy, described the group as “solving the problems of the world, politically, socially, and in the theological realm” (Papers 2:161). King also delivered sermons at local churches and developed a reputation as a powerful preacher. 

Although King received satisfactory grades at Boston University, later analysis would reveal that many of King’s essays and his dissertation relied upon appropriated words and ideas for which he failed to provide adequate citations. King’s plagiarism escaped detection during his lifetime, and his professors had little reason to suspect him of such, based on his success in the classroom. King completed his dissertation in April 1955 and received his PhD that June. He was not able to attend his graduation ceremony due to financial constraints and his wife Coretta Scott King’s pregnancy. 


W. T. Handy to King, 18 November 1952, in Papers 2:160–164.

Introduction, in Papers 2:1–25.

King, “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” 15 April 1955, in Papers 2:339–544.

King, Fragment of Application to Boston University, September 1950–December 1950, in Papers 1:390.