During his third year of doctoral work at Boston University, Martin Luther King wrote Crozer Theological Seminary’s George Davis, his former advisor, about his progress in graduate school. He disclosed that he had begun to research his dissertation and that the late Edgar Brightman, his first mentor at Boston, and his current dissertation advisor, L. Harold DeWolf, were both “quite impressed” with his course work. “So far, my Dissertation title is: ‘A comparison of the conception of God in the thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.’ I am finding the study quite fascinating. If there are no basic interruptions, I hope to complete it by the end of the coming summer” (Papers 2:224). Davis commended King on selecting “an excellent dissertation topic” and expressed his confidence that King would “do a good piece of work with it” (Papers 2:225).
King passed his final doctoral examination in February 1954, and his dissertation outline was approved by Boston University’s graduate school on 9 April, shortly before he accepted the call to pastor Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. King’s letter of acceptance to Dexter’s congregation specified that he be “granted an allowance of time to complete my work at Boston University,” though he would be “able to fill the pulpit at least once or twice per month.” He also asked that the church cover his expenses during the completion of his dissertation, “including traveling expenses” (Papers 2:260).
King chose to focus his dissertation research on Tillich and Wieman due to their status as influential religious thinkers and as representatives of divergent views on the nature of God. King’s comparison of Tillich’s and Wieman’s concepts of God reflected his adherence to personalism, which proceeds from the belief that God possesses a personality and can therefore have a relationship with human beings. King’s analysis of Tillich’s and Wieman’s theological concepts as “unsatisfactory” and “inadequate as philosophical and religious world-views” followed from his belief that God was a living force, “responsive to the deepest yearnings of the human heart; this God both evokes and answers prayer” (Papers 2:532; 533; 512). He found that both Wieman and Tillich rejected the conception of a personal God, which resulted in “a rejection of the rationality, goodness, and love of God in the full sense of the words. An impersonal ‘being-itself’ or ‘creative event’ cannot be rational or good, for these attributes are of personality” (Papers 2:506). In the end, King pointed out the two theologians’ views of God are not “basically sound” because they “render real religious experience impossible” (Papers 2:532).
Recent scholarship by the Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers Project of the King Institute has revealed that as a student at Crozer and Boston, King frequently appropriated the words of other writers without proper attribution. Volumes I and II of The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., have demonstrated that while his bibliographies contained the authors and books that he drew on in his own compositions, his papers often lacked the footnotes and quotation marks that identified his use of these sources in his text. His habit of plagiarizing others’ work, intentionally or not, can be found in the various drafts of his dissertation. King borrowed from several secondary sources without proper citation, including a dissertation written by fellow Crozer student Jack Boozer for DeWolf three years earlier, and a review of Tillich’s Systematic Theology written by one of King’s former professors.
King’s professors did not detect this pattern in his scholarship. After King submitted the first draft of his dissertation, DeWolf filed a report observing that he had sent his specific criticisms, “most of them formal or minor,” to the candidate. DeWolf reminded King to submit an abstract of the dissertation “early” to allow proper time for revision and to clearly set forth his thesis statement (Papers 2:333). That said, DeWolf projected that the finished version would be an “excellent and useful scholarly achievement” (Papers 2:334). S. Paul Schilling, the dissertation’s second reader, approved the draft as well.
King turned in the final version of his dissertation by the 15 April 1955 deadline, returning to Boston for his oral defense. Graduate faculty at Boston University voted to confer the PhD on King in May 1955; however, due to financial difficulties and Coretta Scott King’s pregnancy, he was unable to attend graduation.
Carson et al., “Martin Luther King, Jr., as Scholar: A Reexamination of His Theological Writings,” Journal of American History 78 (June 1991): 93–105.
Davis to King, 7 December 1953, in Papers 2:225–226.
DeWolf, First Reader’s Report, 26 February 1955, in Papers 2:333–334.
Introduction, in Papers 1:49–50.
Introduction, in Papers 2:22–26.
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 to Davis, 1 December 1953, in Papers 2:223–224.
King to Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, 14 April 1954, in Papers 2:260.
King Papers Project, “The Student Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr.: A Summary Statement on Research,” Journal of American History 78 (June 1991): 23–31.
Schilling, Second Reader’s Report, 26 February 1955, in Papers 2:334–335.