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"Science Surpasses the Social Order"

King, Martin Luther, Jr.
February 20, 1951 to May 4, 1951
Martin Luther King, Jr. - Education
Martin Luther King, Jr. - Political and Social Views


In this essay, probably written for Kenneth L. Smith’s Christianity and Society course at Crozer, King explores the tensions between religion and science in the atomic era.1 He argues for greater world cooperation and a shared ethical code.

August 6, 1945, the date that the first atomic bomb was dropped on Japan, marked the end of an age already passe, and the beginning of a new world era, the atomic age.

During the five years in which scientists harnessed the power of the atom as a weapon of war, man's scientific progress leaped forward at least 500 years. The tragic situation now faced by mankind is that man's social order has not leaped the 500 years parellel with science.2 This is a supreme example of what the sociologists call “cultural lag.”3 Man's social progress has failed to keep abreast with his scientific progress. Unless man by his will can bridge the gap, he is doomed to destruction.

Many, therefore, stand looking at the world's calamity as at a gigantic spectacle, feeling that the problem is well-nigh insoluble. I do not see how we can take that position, however, if we perceive what the gist of the world's problem really is: a lack of world brotherhood. I am convinced that if our civilization is to survive, we must rise from the narrow horizon of clashing nationalism to the wide horizon of world cooperation. No longer can we be content with a national ethical code, but instead we must have an international ethical code. This is truly what Mr. Wendall Wilkie called “one world,” and we can readily make an addition to that prase by saying, one world or none.4 World brotherhood is no longer a beautiful ideal, but an absolute necessity for civilization's survival. We must come to see that all humanity is so interwoven in a single process that whatever affects the man in Russia also affects the man in America. As Prime Minister Attlee said, “we cannot make a heaven in our country and leave a hell outside.”5 We had better realize that before it is to late.6 We must erase the centuries of waiting and quickly achieve that world brotherhood. This is our great opportunity. This is our only hope.7

1. In Smith's course, students were required to deliver oral reports and give two-page summaries to each member of the class. King kept a copy of a paper titled “The Ethical Implications of the Atomic Bomb,” probably written by a fellow student on an assigned topic in the section of the course called Christianity and the International Order (“The ethical implications of the atomic bomb,” Paper for Christianity and Society, and Smith, Syllabus, Christianity and Society, both dated 20 February-4 May 1951).

2. King's misspelling of the word “parallel” was corrected.

3. For this course, Smith assigned The Christian Response to the Atomic Crisis, which discussed “the ‘lag’ of ethics behind technics” (Edward Leroy Long, The Christian Response to the Atomic Crisis [Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1950], p. 39).

4. Wendell L. Wilkie, the Republican nominee for president in 1940, decisively lost the election to Franklin Delano Roosevelt and later authored the book One World (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1943). The Christian Response to the Atomic Crisis contained a chapter discussing Wilkie's One World and Dexter Master and Katharine Way's One World or None (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1946). The words “Wendall” and “Wilkie” were circled and crossed out and an “h” was inserted into the word “prase.”

5. In his address to the joint session of the U.S. Congress on 13 November 1945, British prime minister Clement Attlee (1883-1967) described the Labour Party's views on foreign policy, saying, “We believe that we cannot make a heaven in our own country and leave a hell outside and we believe this not only from the moral basis of our movement which is founded on the brotherhood of man, without distinction of race or creed, but also from an entirely practical standpoint” (Address of the Prime Minister of Great Britain, 71st Cong., 1st sess., Congressional Record 91 [13 November 1945]: 10623).

6. An additional “o” was added to the word “to.”

7. King's last name was written on the verso of the document.


CSKC-INP, Coretta Scott King Collection, In Private Hands, Sermon file, folder 36, “Sermon Notes.”