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False Gods We Worship

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Author: King, Martin Luther, Jr.

Date: July 5, 1953 to July 19, 1953

Location: Atlanta, Ga. ?

Genre: Sermon

Topic: Martin Luther King, Jr. - Career in Ministry


In July 1953, while King assisted his father at Ebenezer for the fifth consecutive summer; Atlanta's WERD, the first black-owned radio station in the United States, began broadcasting “messages” from Ebenezer and featured King as the speaker.1 The brevity of these typed manuscripts and the dates written thereon suggest that he wrote them for the WERD broadcasts.2 King filed these sermons together in a folder that he titled “False Gods We Worship.”3 In “The False God of Science,” King challenges humanity's overdependence on the promises of science by revealing its shortcomings: “The god of science which we so devoutly worshipped has brought about the possibility of universal annihilation.” In “The False God of Nationalism,” he argues that God and nationalism are “incompatible” and asks, “Will we continue to serve the false god of racial prejudice or will we serve the God who made of one blood all men to dwell upon the face of the earth.” In his concluding sermon of the series, King reflects on “the tragic consequences which develop when men worship the almighty dollar.” Using language that would reappear often in his oratory, he asserts that his listeners must choose between “the transitory god of money which is here today and gone tomorrow” and “the eternal God of the universe who is the same yesterday, today and forever.”

"The False God of Science"

5 July 1953

Dr. William Ernest Hecking has said that all life is divided into work and worship; that which we do for ourselves and that which we let the higher than ourselves do.4 Certainly worship is as natural to man as the rising of the sun is to the cosmic order. Men always have worshipped and men always will worship. There is the ever present danger, however, that man will direct his worship drive into false channels. It is not so {much} disbelief as false belief that is the danger confronting religion. It is not so much downright atheism as strong, determined polytheism which impedes the progress of religion. The scripture furnishes numerous examples of this ever present tendency of man to substitute false gods for the One true God. {Judges 2:12}5

When we move from the pages of the Bible to the scene of the modern world, we find this same tendency present in even greater proportions. On every hand modern man has turned from the One true God of the universe to the worship of false gods round about him. These false gods that modern men worship are numerous in number. I want to deal with three of them. Because of limited time, I will deal with only one of these false gods this morning. The other two will be discussed on the following two Sundays.

Let us notice this morning how modern man has made a god of science. It was quite easy for modern man to put his ultimate faith in science because science had brought about such remarkable advances, such tangible and amazing victories. He realized that man through his scientific genius had dwarfed distances and placed time in chains. He noticed the new comforts that had been brought about by science, from the vast improvements in communication to the elimination of many dread plagues and diseases. And so after noticing these astounding successes modern man ushered in a new god and a new religion. Individual scientist became the high priests, chemical and biological instrumants became sacramental agencies through which the invisible grace of the scientific god became visibly manifested, and scientific laboratories became the sanctuaries. And so modern man dutifully worshipped at the shrine of the god of science.

But today we are confronted with the tragic fact that the god of science which we so devoutly worshipped has brought about the possibility of universal annihilation, and so man today stands on the brink of atomic destruction aghast, panic-stricken and petrified. He realizes now that his greatest need is not science which is power, but wisdom which is control.

Doubtless some one has been saying, but is it not right to devote ourselves to scientific adventure? Is not science important for the progress of civilization? To this I would answer yes. No person of sound intelligence could minimize science. It is not science in itself that I am condemning, {but it is the tendency of projecting it to the status of God that I am condemning.} We must come to see that science only furnishes us with the means by which we live, but never with the spiritual ends for which we live. And so we must turn back and give our ultimate devotion to the God who integrates the whole of life, to the God in whom we live and move and have our being, to the God who has been our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter from the stormy blast, and our eternal home.6

Preached July 5, 1953

"The False God of Nationalism"

12 July 1953

Last Sunday I spoke on the false god of science. This morning I would like to speak of another false god which seems to be receiving even greater devotion than the god of science—namely the god of nationalism.. If time permitted, I would trace the history of this new religion, unravel the strands that, woven together, have produced it. In its present form it is a modern phenomenon developing from the eighteenth century on, but that it is now dominant in the world is clear.7 Our age is one in which men have turned away from the eternal God of the universe, and decided to worship at the shrine of the god of nationalism.

We are all familiar with the creed of this new religion. It affirms that each nation is an absolute sovereign unit acknowledging no control save its own independent will.8 The watchword of this new religion is: “My country right or wrong.” This new religion has its familiar prophets and preachers. In Germany it was preached by Hitler. In Italy it was preached by Mussilini. And in America it is being preached by the McCarthy's and the Jenners, the advocators of white supremacy, and the America first movements.9 Strangely enough all of these nationalistic preachers have an amazing amount of homilectical skill, so much so that the number of their converts has risen to astronomical proportions.

The preachers of this new religion are so convinced of its supremacy that they are determined to persecute anyone who does not accept its tenets. And so today many sincere lovers of democracy and believers of the christian principle are being scorned and persecuted because they will not worship the god of nationalism. We live in an age when it is almost heresy to affirm the brotherhood of man. And so the new god marches on.

Yet, we all know of the great tragedies that have resulted from the worship of this false god of nationalism. More than anything else nationalism makes for war. And so long as this dogma obtains, men and nations will be plunged into the meshes of war. War, that dread force that leaves men physically handicapped and psychologically upset. War, that leaves our nations with orphans and widows. War, that piles our national debts higher than mountains of gold. War, that causes our moral standards to disintegrate. Such is the tragic consequence of nationalism.

If we are to avoid the drudgery of war; if we are to avoid being plunged across the abyss of atomic destruction, we must transcend the narrow confines of nationalism. Nationalism must give way to internationalism. This does not mean that we must not love our native lands. No other nation can mean to us what our nation means. Here are the roots of our heritage.10 So it is not the total concept of nationalism that I am condeming; it is nationalism perverted into chauvinism and isolationism that I am condemning. One cannot worship this false god of nationalism and the God of christianity at the same time. The two are incompatible and all the dialectics of the logicians cannot make them exist together. We must choose whom we will serve.11 Will we continue to serve the false god that places absolute national sovereignty first or will we serve the God in whom there is no east nor west?12 Will we continue to serve the false god of imperialistic greed or will we serve the God who makes love the key which unlocks the door of peace and security. Will we continue to serve the false god of racial prejudice or will we serve the God who made of one blood all men to dwell upon the face of the earth.13

Today we need prophetic voices willing to cry out against the false god of nationalism. I realize that such a venture might bring about the possibility of being called many undesirable names. But speak we must if we are to acknowledge the sovereignty. {of God.} Against the claims of the false god nationalism we must affirm the supremacy of the eternal God of the universe, the Father of all mankind. This is the God we must worship if we are to sail through the tempestuous seas of confusion to the harbor of peace.

Preached July 12, 1953

"The False God of Money"

19 July 1953

For the last two Sundays we have given a series of messages on the false gods we worship. This afternoon we conclude this series with a discussion of the false god of money. I consciously reserved this discussion for the last because the worship of the false god of money has had a much longer history and at many points is far more prevalent than the worship of other false gods. Every age has had those individuals who falsely elevated the economic means by which they lived to the status of ends for which they lived.

We have been attempting to stress throughout this series that a man's God is not his theory about God, picked up on the surface of his mind because he happens to live in the twentieth century, but a man's real God is that to which he gives his ultimate devotion, that unifying loyalty which draws his life together and gives it centrality and singleness of aim.

As soon as the matter is so stated, it becomes clear that millions today have made a god of money. Daily within our lives, altars smoke with sacrifices to this idol god. We attribute to the almighty dollar an omnipotence equal to that of the eternal God of the universe. We are always on the verge of rewriting the Scriptures to read, “Seek ye first money and its power and all these other things will be added unto you,” or “Money is my light and my salvation, what shall I fear.”14

The temptation to worship this money god is one that faces us all. To resist it we need to take high ground. This god of money is forever standing before us saying, “Worship me, I'll be your god. I'll teach you how to get rich quick; I'll teach you the shrewd methods of exploitation; I'll show you how to get a cadillac car or a Buick convertible with little effort. Just worship me.” Oh how many have responded to the call of this god of money. Millions today are dutifully worshipping at the shrine of the god of money.

We do not have to look very far to see the tragic consequences which develop when men worship the almighty dollar. First it causes men to be more concerned about making a living than making a life. This is the danger forever threatening our capitalistic economy which places so much emphasis on the profit motive under more or less competitive conditions. There is the danger in such a system that men will become so involved in the money getting process that they will unconsciously forget to pursue those great eternal values which make life worth living. When men arrive at the point of making money a God they become more concerned with what they can get out of society than with what they can give to society in terms of service. How many individuals do we find entering important professions more concerned about the money they can make than the service they can render? How many young people do we find entering colleges and universities more concerned with gaining methods and techniques for making money than gaining methods and techniques for living a worth while life? When men bow down and worship at the shrine of money they are being deprived of their most precious endowment—the possibility of living life in its fullness and its endless beauty.

Another tragic attitude which the worship of money leads to is that of selfishness. The individual who really worships money will seek to get it at any cost. It might come through exploitation, cheating, or even robbery; the how is unimportant. The aim is to get rich. The person who accepts this philosophy has no concern for the welfare of others. Other people become mere depersonalized means by which he exploits his economic ends.

A third tragedy that results from the deification of money is that it causes men to surrender their ideals. Who can doubt that the mad desire of gaining money and the fear of losing it are our chief breeders of moral cowardice and corruption. When men worship money they will compromise with honour and principle, keep silent when they should speakout, and engage in sharp practices that are morally degrading and socially pernicious; for money, mothers will constrain their daughters into loveless marriages; for money, public officials will sanction crime; for money, men will live their lives in the deep valleys of racketeering and gambling; for money, there are those who will sell their bodies and corrupt their souls. What will men not do for money when it becomes an object of worship? “The love of money,” as Paul said to Timothy, “is the root of all evil.”15

Doubtless some one has been saying, but are you minimizing the importance of money? Are you saying that we must not pursue economic goals? To which I would answer, of course not. No one can really minimize the importance of money. Even if he minimizes money in theory, he cannot do it in fact, for it is necessary for survival itself. Without it men are deprived not only of luxuries, but also of necessities. So it would be sheer nonsense to attempt to minimize the importance of money. It is not the possession of money that I am condemning; rather it is the inordinate worship of it that I am condemning. Money in its proper place is a worthwhile and necessary instrument for a well rounded life; but when it is projected to the status of a god it becomes a power that corrupts and an instrument of exploitation. Man is more than a dog to be satisfied with a few economic bones. Man is a child of God born to have communion with that which transcends the material. Man cannot live by bread alone.16

So long as we worship this false god of money, we will not be true worshippers of the One eternal God. Would today there were another Elijah to summons the peoples of the earth to meet him on the crest of some Mount Carmel, confronting them there with the choice between their baals and the true God. For still that ancient word might well ring across this modern world: “How long go ye limping between two sides? If the Lord be God, follow Him; but if Baal, then follow him.”17 So today man does stand between the god of money and the eternal God of the universe. Choose which ye will serve.18 Will you serve the transitory god of money which is here today and gone tomorrow or will you serve the eternal God of the universe who is the same yesterday, today and forever.19 Will you serve the god who is with us only in moments of prosperity or will you serve the God who walks with us through the valley of the shadow of death and causes us to fear no evil.20 Will you serve the god whose power is limited to stacking up stocks and bonds or will you serve the God whose creative power stacked up the gigantic mountains as if to kiss the skies and set forth the stars to bedect the heavens like swinging lanterns of eternity. Choose ye this day whom ye shall serve, the god of money or the eternal God of the universe.

Preached July 19, 1953.

1. “Ebenezer Begins WERD Broadcast Sunday Morning,” Atlanta Daily World, 4 July 1953.

2. King dated these three manuscripts 5, 12, and 19 July 1953, respectively, while the Atlanta Daily World announced different topics for the services at Ebenezer on those same Sundays (“‘When God Seems to Deceive Us,’ Rev. M. L. King, Jr.'s Subject,” Atlanta Daily World, 4 July 1953; “‘Transformed Non-Conformists’” to Be King Jr.’s Topic,” Atlanta Daily World, 11 July 1953; “Mrs. Burney, ‘Women’s Day’ Speaker at Ebenezer Sunday,” Atlanta Daily World, 18 July 1953).

3. On the inside of the folder containing these sermons, King noted that he also preached the “False Gods” series at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in January 1955. At that time, he included the sermon False God of Pleasure in the series (King, January 1955, p. 206 in this volume). He filed a sermon titled On Worshiping False Gods, which incorporated ideas espoused in these shorter addresses in the folder as well (King, January 1955, pp. 203-206 in this volume).

4. Harry Emerson Fosdick used similar language in his sermon “Why Worship?” (in Fosdick, Successful Christian Living: Sermons on Christianity Today (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1937), pp. 173-174: "Professor Hocking is right in saying that all man's life can be reduced to two aspects, work and worship—what we do ourselves, and what we let the higher than ourselves do to us.” Fosdick may be referring to the tenor of William Ernest Hocking's The Meaning of God in Human Experience, which deals with the subject of work (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1912). Fosdick was a Baptist preacher who served as pastor at the nondenominational Riverside Church in New York from 1925 until 1946 and was one of liberal Protestantism's most influential figures. King kept a copy of Successful Christian Living in his personal library and annotated it.

5. “And they forsook the Lord God of their fathers, which brought them out of the land of Egypt, and followed other gods, of the gods of the people that were round about them, and bowed themselves unto them, and provoked the Lord to anger.”

6. Acts 17:28. King quotes from Isaac Watts's hymn “O God, Our Help in Ages Past” (1719).

7. Fosdick, “Christianity's Supreme Rival,” in The Hope of the World (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1933), p. 159: “Were there time, one might trace the history of this dogma, unravel the strands that, woven together, have produced it. In its present form it is a modern phenomenon developing from the eighteenth century on, but that it is now dominant in the world is clear.” King annotated a copy of The Hope of the World and kept it in his personal library.

8. Fosdick, The Hope of the World, p. 158: “First, that each nation is a sovereign unit acknowledging no control save its own independent will.”

9. Republican U.S. senator Joseph R. McCarthy (1908–1957), a noted exponent of Cold War anti-communism, accused the Truman administration and the military of harboring communists. His Republican Senate colleague William Ezra Jenner (1908–1985) supported McCarthy’s early efforts. The America First Committee, founded in 1940, was an influential isolationist group that disbanded four days after the 7 December 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor.

10. Fosdick, The Hope of the World, p. 157: “No other nation can mean to us what our nation means. Here are the roots of our heritage.”

11. Joshua 24: 15.

12. King evokes john Oxenham's hymn “In Christ There Is No East or West” (1908).

13. Acts 17:26.

14. King parodies Matthew 6:33 and Psalm 27:1.

15. 1 Timothy 6:10.

16. This phrase is found in both the Hebrew Bible and New Testament; for example, see Deuteronomy 8:3 and Matthew 4:4.

17. 1 Kings 18:21.

18. Joshua 24:15.

19. Hebrews 13:8.

20. Psalm 23:4.

Source: CSKC, INP: Coretta Scott King Collection, In Private Hands, Sermon file, folder 18: "False Gods We Worship."

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