The only instructor to award Martin Luther King, Jr., an A as an undergraduate at Morehouse College, George D. Kelsey was a theologian and educator who helped to convince King that a career in ministry would enable him to address issues of social justice and racial reform.
Kelsey was born in 1910 in Columbus, Georgia. He received his AB from Morehouse College (1934), his BD from Andover Newton Theological School (1937), and his PhD from Yale University (1946). Kelsey joined the Morehouse faculty in 1938 as professor of Religion and Philosophy and served as director of the School of Religion from 1945 to 1948. An ordained minister in the American Baptist Convention, he became associate director in the field department of the Federal Council of Churches in 1948 and retained the position until 1952, after the organization became the National Council of the Churches of Christ in 1950. Kelsey joined the faculty of Drew University in 1951, a post he held until his retirement in 1976.
During King’s junior year at Morehouse, his burgeoning sociopolitical views intersected with Kelsey’s social gospel approach when King enrolled in his Bible course. To King’s father, Kelsey was a teacher who “saw the pulpit as a place both for drama, in the old-fashioned, country Baptist sense, and for the articulation of philosophies that address the problems of society” (Papers 1:42). The younger King, uncertain about pursuing ministry as a vocation, was greatly impressed by Kelsey’s use of higher biblical criticism in addressing theological issues.
King enjoyed his undergraduate studies in the social sciences and had been leaning toward a career in law or medicine; however, the ministry became a more tangible choice when he learned from Kelsey “that behind the legends and myths of the Book were many profound truths which one could not escape” (Papers 1:362). King had questioned “whether religion, with its emotionalism in Negro churches, could be intellectually respectable as well as emotionally satisfying,” but Kelsey encouraged King to synthesize the religious notions of his upbringing with the secular education he received (Papers 1:44). He saw that King “stood out in class not simply academically, but in the sense that he absorbed Jesus’ teachings with his whole being” (Papers 1:155). In his letter recommending King for admission to Crozer Theological Seminary, Kelsey noted this shift in King’s academic performance and described him as “being quite serious about the ministry and as having a call rather than a professional urge” (Papers 1:155).
King continued his close relationship with Kelsey beyond his college years, and Kelsey continued to provide King with financial and moral support during the Montgomery bus boycott. Kelsey believed King was “conducting activities in the finest Mosaic and prophetic tradition” (Papers 3:146). King sent Kelsey an early draft of a chapter of Stride Toward Freedom, trusting Kelsey’s scholarship and asserting he would not like to have any of it published without Kelsey’s “critical suggestions” (Papers 4:391). Upon announcement of King’s 1964 Nobel Peace Prize, Kelsey sent King a heartfelt congratulation. The Kelseys and the Kings remained family friends, with Kelsey inviting Martin and Coretta to stay with him and his wife whenever King traveled north.
Introduction, in Papers 1:42–44.
Kelsey to Charles E. Batten, 12 March 1948, in Papers 1:155.
Kelsey to King, 28 February 1956, in Papers 3:146.
King, “An Autobiography of Religious Development,” 12 September 1950–22 November 1950, in Papers 1:359–363.
King to Kelsey, 31 March 1958, in Papers 4:391–392.
William Peters, “Our Weapon Is Love,” Redbook, August 1956, 42–43, 71–73.