Central to King’s approach to preaching and religion was the concept of a personal and knowable God. King described God in his sermon, “Living Under the Tensions of Modern Life,” as “a personal God, who’s concerned about us, who is our Father, who is our Redeemer. And this sense of religion and of this divine companionship says to us … that we are not lost in a universe fighting for goodness and for justice and love all by ourselves” (Papers 6:268). King’s belief in God as a higher being invested with a personality had its foundation in the theological school of personalism, which, according to King, represented the “theory that the clue to the meaning of ultimate reality is found in personality” (King, 100).
King’s personalism developed and matured during his doctoral work at Boston University with Edgar Brightman and L. Harold DeWolf, two proponents of personalist theory. In his dissertation King firmly rejected the notion of an abstract God, writing, “The religious man has always recognized two fundamental religious values. One is fellowship with God, the other is trust in his goodness. Both of these imply the personality of God” (Papers 2:512). King retreated from any notion that God was, as theologian Karl Barth described, “‘wholly other.’ God is not a process projected somewhere [in] the lofty blue. God is not a divine hermit hiding himself in a cosmic cave.… God is forever present with us” (Papers 6:97). To King, God was a personality who could be encountered, comprehensible to any individual and present throughout the universe. King scorned Barth’s “disdain for the very use of the word experience in a religious context,” and contended that “the very idea of God is an outgrowth of experience” (Papers 1:231; 233; 234).
King preached that the knowable God maintained a personal interest in each human soul and was most discernable through personal experience and biblical stories of Jesus’ life. In an April 1960 Christian Century article on his “personal trials,” King referred to his stabbing by Izola Curry and persistent death threats, writing: “The suffering and agonizing moments through which I have passed over the last few years have also drawn me closer to God. More than ever before I am convinced of the reality of a personal God” (Papers 5:444).
According to King, Jesus’ example in the Bible provided Christians with a personal life path: “God has set us a plan for the building of the soul: the life of Christ as it is revealed in the New Testament” (Papers 6:85). In a 1952 Christmas sermon King addressed “the Christlikeness of God,” and asserted that Jesus “brought God nearer to earth” (Papers 6:129).
Reflecting on the impact that personalism had on his ministry and life, King maintained that his acceptance of personalist theology gave him “metaphysical and philosophical grounding for the idea of a personal God, and it gave me a metaphysical basis for the dignity and worth of all human personality” (King, 100).
Introduction, in Papers 2:1–37.
Introduction, in Papers 6:8–9.
King, After Christmas, What?, 28 December 1952, in Papers 6:128–129.
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, “Living Under the Tensions of Modern Life,” Sermon Delivered at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, September 1956, in Papers 6:262–270.
King, “Mastering Our Evil Selves” / “Mastering Ourselves,” 5 June 1949, in Papers 6:94–97.
King, “The Place of Reason and Experience in Finding God,” 13 September 1949–23 November 1949, in Papers 1:230–236.
King, Sermon Sketches, 30 November 1948–16 February 1949, in Papers 6:85.
King, Stride Toward Freedom, 1958.
King, “Suffering and Faith,” 27 April 1960, in Papers 5:443–444.