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"Mastering Our Evil Selves" / "Mastering Ourselves"

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


As he often did throughout his career, King uses psychology and race relations to illustrate his sermon.1 Exploring the internal struggle between good and evil, he cites the actions of the typical white southerner: “He goes to church every Sunday. He worships the same God we worship. He will send thousands of dollars to Africa and China for the missionary effort. Yet at the same time He will spend thousands of dollars in an attempt to keep the Negro segregated and discriminated.”

{Why is it that from the same lips that truth falls lies also fall? Why is it that from the same mother's heart that is overflowing with love is also overflowing with hate}

A few day ago the New York times carried the story of a man who under the influence of achohol had lost control of his automobile killing an and had run on the sidewalk of one of the main streets of New York, killing instantly two little boys coming from school. He was being held in the city jail without trial fine until his trial. The article futher stated that this man was an outstanding citizen of his community and also a Christian gentleman, in fact he was a decon in his local church. This article immediately brought a pullingly element in my mind. Why was it that would a man, who had had such a [strikeout illegible] good reputation in his community, would let the element of evil overtake him. Why is it that good people are sometimes worse than the worst people and bad people sometimes better than the best people? Modern psychology attempts to get at this problem by saying that man is a duel personality. It sees man as a bundle of contradictions, contraries, and conflicts. To some psychologists the conflict is between the conscious and the unconscious mind; other pschologists sees it as a tension between ego and environment; to others it is the results of a duel between instinct and ideals.

There is a modern school of theology that which argues that the conflict resulted from the fall of man. They argue that in the beginning man was mad in the image of God, but soon he rebelled against God which brought about the fall.2 And in the great fall the image of God was somewhat efaced, leaving man with a make-up that was predominantly evil. They argue that this conflict is a result of this evil nature that is in man forever fighting against the element of good that is left in him. Actually I dont know what causes the conflict. But I do know that there is a conflict. There is something paradoxical and contradictory about human nature. (In Memoriam Dea. J. W. Johnson)3

Let me hasten to say that this isn't an original discovery with modern psychology and modern theology for it must be remembered that the human race has always been aware of conflict. Plato, has seen the personality speaking figratively, discribed the personality as a charioteer driving two head-strong steeds, each wanting to go in different directions.4 Listen to Ovid the Latin poet, “I see and approve the better things of life but the evil things I follow.”5 Goethe once said there was enough material in him to make both a rogue and a gentleman.6 Our text for the morning brings out this conflict quite clearly, Listen to the Apostle Paul as he decla “The good that I would I do not: but the evil which I would not that I do.”7 This is Apostle writing in his epistle to the Romans. Whether Paul was speaking here of a conflict that had [come?] in his personal experience we do not know. But we do know that this is a paradigm of life. When we would want to do good there seems to be something telling us to do evil. When we would want to do evil there seems to be something telling us to do good.

This element of conflict is presents itself in all areas of life. We find it on the international scene. I think most of the peoples of the world want peace. That is the unrelenting the cry the world over. Yet at the same time we do everything contrary to peace.

On the national scene this conflict is evident in the area of racial prejudice. The average white southerner is not bad. He goes to church every Sunday. He worships the same God we worship. He will send thousands of dollars to Africa and China for the missionary effort. Yet at the same time He will spend thousands of dollars in an attempt to keep the Negro segregated and discriminated Yes, we must admit that there is something contradictory and paradoxical about human nature. {Cassady's Quarterly}

But the question immediately arises, can this situation be mastered? Are we capable of doing something to [minimize?] this conflict or is it something that will forever remain in the life of individuals? In other words, can we master ourselves? To this question I would say, certainly, we can partially master ourselves

For the next few moment I would like to point out certain ways that we can rid ourselves of this duel personality and come to the point that we actually master ourselves.

First we must go through a process of self analyzation. In this process we must ascertain what our weaknesses are. No one can ever make improvements unless he knows the points at which he is weakest. Before the wise psysician gives a patient medicine he finds out where the sickness lies. This process of self analyzation is of primary importance, for it the open door which leads to the room of improvement.

Second, after the individual has found his weakness through this process of self analyzation he must admit that it is a weakness. To often do we rationalize for our sins by convicing ourselves that they are both healthy and normal. (It is at this very point that the eminent Catholic scholar Monsinor Sheen critizise many modern psychitrists, in his recent book, Peace Of Soul).8 One of the tragedies of human nature is that man has the power to adjust his mind to believe anything that he wants to He has the power to convince himself that the wrong is right, (William James) that the false is true, that the low is high, and that the bad is good.9 So, if we do not admit that our weaknesses are weaknesses the whole whole process of self analyzation has no meaning.

Now that we have found our weaknesses we come to the point of getting rid of them. What proceedures should we use? What steps should we take?

Before answering this question completely we must place it in a negative framework. We never get rid of our weaknesses by repressing them. This is the ringing cry of the psychitrists. Repressed desires only lead to greater frustration and in the final analysis the problem isn't solved.

First, we must use the method of substitution. That is, we must find one good thing that we like to do as well as we like the evil thing, and every time we are persuaded to do the evil thing the good will overwelm it. This mean that we must not concentrate on the eradication of evil, but on the developing of Virtue. To cast an evil habit out without replacing it by a good one is a purposeless procedure.

Secondly, we must find some profitable way to use our leisure time. We must learn to appreciate good books and learn to love great music. I'm not speaking of the type of popular books that we to often read nor the type of trashy music that we to often learn to love. But I am hear speaking of the type of books that have stood throughout the ages and the music that grew out of hearts and souls of men. When we have reached this stage our lives will become well-rounded. And then we will no longer desire the evil things of life for our mind will be lost in those thing which are high and noble.

Finally, we may master our evil selves by developing a continuous prayer and devotional life. Through this process the soul of man will become united with the life of God. Yes this is possible. [Man?] can know God. This has been the ringing cry of the mystic throughout the ages. God is not “wholly other.” God is not a process projected somewhere the lofty blue. God is not a divine hermit hiding himself in a cosmic cave. But God is forever present with us. The God of religion is the God of of life. He somehow trancends the world, yet at the same time he is immanent in the world. And so by identifing ourselves with this knowable God our wills will somehow become his will. We will no longer think of our selfish desires. We will somehow rise above evil thoughts. We will no longer possess two personalities but only one. We will be true, because God is truth; we will be just, because God is justice; we will love, because God is love; we will be good, because God is goodness; we will be wise, because God is wisdom.

My friends, there is an evil way opened to you and there is a good way open to you in the final analysis you must desid which way your soul will go. God grant that you will choose your good self thereby mastering your evil self. Rember the words of John Oxenham.


1. King's announced sermon topic for 5 June 1949 at Ebenezer was “Mastering Our Evil Selves” (“Ebenezer to Hear Father, Son Sunday,” Atlanta Daily World, 4 June 1949). In folder 110 of King's sermon files (which is titled “Mastering Our Evil Selves”), this document carries two titles: “Mastering Our Evil Selves” and “Mastering Ourselves.”

2 King refers to neo-orthodoxy or crisis theology. Genesis 1:26-27 and Genesis 3.

3. J. W. Johnson was a deacon at Ebenezer.

4. Plato Phaedrus 246a-247c.

5. Ovid Metamorphoses 7.20.

6. Fulton J. Sheen, Peace of Soul (New York: Whittlesey House, 1949), p. 36: “Goethe regretted that God had made only one man of him when there was enough material in him for both a rogue and a gentleman.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749-1832) was a German poet, novelist, and playwright.

7. Romans 7:19.

8. See Sheen, Peace of Soul, p. 73.

9. King refers to William James (1842-1910), whose essay “The Will To Believe” (1897) explores the role of the will in human thought, existence, and religion.

10. King probably refers to Oxenham 's poem “The Ways” (1916), as he does in the sermon “Creating the Abundant Life,” Sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church (26 September 1954, p. 191 in this volume).


CSKC-INP, Coretta Scott King Collection, In Private Hands, Sermon file, folder 110, “Mastering Our Evil Selves.”