After completing his undergraduate work at Morehouse College in 1948, Martin Luther King attended Crozer Theological Seminary near Chester, Pennsylvania. King was drawn to the school’s unorthodox reputation and liberal theological leanings. It was at Crozer that King strengthened his commitment to the Christian social gospel, developed his initial interest in Gandhian ideas, was first exposed to pacifism, and developed his ideas about nonviolence as a method of social reform.
Crozer opened in the fall of 1868 as the new home of the University of Lewisburg Theology Department. Although founded by Baptists, Crozer adopted a nondenominational approach to religious education, gaining a reputation as a theologically liberal institution.
As 1 of only 11 black students at the seminary in 1948, King was initially self-conscious. He said of his early experience at Crozer, “If I were a minute late to class, I was almost morbidly conscious of it and sure that everyone noticed it.” He recalled being “grimly serious for a time. I had a tendency to overdress, to keep my room spotless, my shoes perfectly shined and my clothes immaculately pressed” (Peters, 72). Through the years he became more comfortable, developing meaningful relationships with classmates and professors. He was elected class president in his third year.
King studied preaching with Robert Keighton, beginning his first term with Keighton’s class Preaching Ministry. King drafted an assignment for that class that revealed many of his early conceptions of the role of preaching, which he called “one of the most vital needs in our society, if it is used correctly” (Papers 6:71). King’s commitment to addressing societal needs and ills was evident in his closing words: “I must be concerned about unemployment, slums, and economic insecurity. I am a profound advocator of the social gospel” (Papers 6:72).
In November 1949 King was introduced to pacifism in a lecture by A. J. Muste of the Fellowship of Reconciliation. Although not immediately convinced of the practicality of Muste’s position, King later attended a sermon by Mordecai Johnson, president of Howard University, and learned of the life and teachings of Mohandas K. Gandhi. It was through Gandhi’s emphasis on love and nonviolence that King discovered the method of social reform that he had been seeking. King was also greatly inspired by George Washington Davis, who expanded his knowledge of social gospel philosophies and introduced him to the writings of Reinhold Niebuhr.
In 1951, the year of King’s graduation from Crozer, Dean Charles Batten praised him as “one of our most outstanding students” and someone who exhibited “fine preparation, an excellent mind, and a thorough grasp of the material” (Papers 1:390–391). King graduated from Crozer with honors as class valedictorian and was also the recipient of the Pearl Plafker award for scholarship. In 1970 the seminary merged with Colgate Rochester Divinity School in Rochester, New York.
Batten, “Martin L. King,” 1951, in Papers 1:390–392.
King, “My Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” 1 September 1958, in Papers 4:473–481.
King, “Preaching Ministry,” 14 September 1948–24 November 1948, in Papers 6:69–72.
King, Stride Toward Freedom, 1958.
William Peters, “Our Weapon Is Love,” Redbook (August 1956): 72.