A theologian who had a major influence on Martin Luther King’s religious ideas, Paul Tillich is considered one of the foremost thinkers of Protestantism. In response to Tillich’s death in October 1965, King commented: “He helped us to speak of God’s action in history in terms which adequately expressed both the faith and the intellect of modern man” (King, October 1965).
Paul Tillich was born on 20 August 1886, in the province of Brandenburg, Germany, to Johannes Tillich, a Lutheran pastor, and his wife, Wilhelmina Mathilde. He studied at a number of German universities before obtaining his PhD at Breslau in 1911. In 1912 he was ordained as a pastor of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Brandenburg. After serving as a chaplain in the German Army during World War I, he taught theology at the Universities of Berlin, Marburg, Dresden, Leipzig, and Frankfurt. Removed from his Frankfurt post due to his public support of leftist intellectuals and Jews during the early Nazi regime, Tillich accepted Reinhold Niebuhr’s invitation to teach at Union Theological Seminary in New York. Tillich served on the faculty as a professor of philosophical theology from 1933 until his retirement in 1955, and went on to join the faculty at Harvard University. In 1962 he accepted a post as the Nuveen Professor of Theology at the University of Chicago, where he remained until his death.
King first encountered Tillich’s writings as a student at Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University, but he did not substantively study Tillich’s work until choosing his dissertation topic, “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” in early 1953. In his dissertation, King expressed disagreement with both men’s disavowal of personalism and criticized Tillich’s abstract notion of God as “little more than a sub-personal reservoir of power” and “a pure absolute devoid of consciousness and life” (Papers 2:534). King did, however, praise both men’s “cry against the humanism of our generation … that has had all too much faith in man and all too little faith in God” (Papers 2:519).
King later credited Tillich’s work as a major influence on his religious thinking, having convinced him that “existentialism, in spite of the fact that it had become all too fashionable, had grasped certain basic truths about man and his condition that could not be permanently overlooked” (Papers 5:421). He frequently used Tillich’s cautioning view that “sin is separation” to illustrate the inherently evil nature of segregation in speeches in his later years (King, “The Negro Is Your Brother”). Commenting on Tillich’s view of God in this context of modern alienation, King observed: “His Christian existentialism gave us a system of meaning and purpose for our lives in an age when war and doubt seriously threatened all that we had come to hold dear” (King, October 1965).
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, “The Negro Is Your Brother,” Atlantic Monthly 212 (August 1963): 78–81; 86–88.
King, “Pilgrimage to Nonviolence,” 13 April 1960, in Papers 5:419–425.
King, Statement on the death of Paul Tillich, October 1965, MLKJP-GAMK.
Macleod, Paul Tillich, 1973.
Pauck and Pauck, Paul Tillich, 1976.
Tillich, My Search for Absolutes, 1967.