As Martin Luther King recuperated from surgery after his September 1958 stabbing, he received a warm letter from his mentor at Crozer Theological Seminary, George W. Davis, expressing his “moral and spiritual support” (Papers 4:512). King replied, “Your encouraging words came as a great spiritual lift to me and were of inestimable value in giving me strength and courage to face the ordeal of this trying period” (Papers 4:528). Davis’ classes exposed King to social gospel teachings and greatly influenced his concepts of God and Christian faith.
Born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to Benjamin Ivor Davis, a steel mill union activist, and his wife Catherine Kaiser Davis, Davis attained his BD (1928) and ThM (1929) at Rochester Theological Seminary, and his PhD (1932) at Yale University. Davis served as pastor of Baptist churches in Maine and Ohio before becoming professor of theology at Crozer in 1938, where he remained for the rest of his career.
King began his studies with Davis during his second term at Crozer in 1949. It was in Davis’ classroom that King was introduced to the work of theologians such as Walter Rauschenbusch, a proponent of the social gospel, and Edgar Brightman, an advocate of personalism and King’s advisor at Boston University. King took more than one quarter of his courses at Crozer with Davis, who served as his academic advisor there. In a 1950 evaluation of King, Davis commented on his “exceptional intellectual ability” and predicted that King “should make an excellent minister or teacher” (Papers 1:334).
After King’s graduation in 1951, the two men enjoyed a collegiality that endured until the end of Davis’ life. While studying for his doctorate at Boston University, King fondly remembered Davis’ classroom as being “saturated with a warm evangelical liberalism” (Papers 2:223). In 1953, King wrote to Davis that “theologically speaking, I find myself still holding to the liberal position.” He admitted that he had become “more sympathetic towards the neo-orthodox position” because it provided “a necessary corrective for a liberalism that became all too shallow and too easily capitulated to modern culture” (Papers 2:223–224). In 1958, Davis sent a copy of his book Existentialism and Theology (1957) to King with the inscription: “With my warm compliments and with cherished memories of our days together as professor and student, friend and friend, on Crozer campus and in my home” (Papers 4:528). Although King’s theological beliefs continued to evolve after his years at Crozer, he remained committed to certain aspects of the liberal theology first introduced to him by Davis.
Courses at Crozer Theological Seminary, in Papers 1:48.
Davis, Crozer Theological Seminary Placement Committee: Confidential Evaluation of Martin Luther King, Jr., 15 November 1950, in Papers 1:334.
Davis to King, 17 October 1958, in Papers 4:512.
King, “The Place of Reason and Experience in Finding God,” 13 September 1949–23 November 1949, in Papers 1:230–236.
King to Davis, 1 December 1953, in Papers 2:223–224.
King to Davis, 8 November 1958, in Papers 4:528–529.
Smith and Zepp, Search for the Beloved Community, 1974.