At the invitation of Nannie Helen Burroughs, president of the Woman's Convention Auxiliary, National Baptist Convention, King spoke at the organization's annual meeting on the theme of the convention, "The Vision of the World Made New."1 He rejects colonialism and imperialism and condemns segregation, noting, “The tragedy is that the Church sanctioned it.” Still he remains hopeful: “Today we stand between two worlds, a world that is gradually passing away and a world that is being born. We stand between the dying old and the emerging new.” Burroughs later wrote King to thank him for sharing with the delegates: “What your message did to their thinking and to their faith is ‘bread cast upon the water’ that will be seen day by day in their good works in their communities.”2
Frequently there appears on the stage of history individuals who have the insight to look beyond the inadequacies of the old order and see the necessity for the new. These are the persons with a sort of divine discontent. They realize that the world as it is is far from the world that it ought to be. They never confuse the “isness” of an old order with the “oughtness” of a new order.3 And so in every age and every generation there are those persons who have envisioned some new order. Plato envisioned it in his Republic as a time when justice would reign throughout society and philosophers would become kings and kings philosophers. Karl Marx envisioned it as the emergence of a classless society in which the proletariant would ultimately conquer the reign of the bourgeoisie. Out of such a vision grew the slogan “From each according to his ability, to each [according to his need?]”4 Edward BeIlamy envisioned it Looking Backward as a time when the inequalities of monopoly capitalism would be blotted out and all men would live on a relatively equal plane with all of the conveniences of Iife.5 The Christian religion envisioned it as the kingdom of God, a time when God would reign supreme in all life, and love, brotherhood and right relationship would be the order of society. In every age men have quested and longed for a new order.
Many centuries ago
there [strikeout illegible] a man by the name of John was in prison on a lonely, obscure island caIled Patmos. In such a situation he was deprived of almost every freedom, but the freedom to think. He thought about many things. He thought about a possible new world and a new social order. He meditated on the need for a change in the old pattern of things. So one day he cried out: “I saw a new heaven and a new earth… I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven.”6
John could talk meaningfuIly about the new Jerusalem because he had experienced the old Jerusalem with its perfunctory ceremonialism, its tragic gulfs between abject poverty and inordinate wealth, its political domination and economic exploitation. John could see this old Jerusalem passing away and the new Jerusalem coming into being.7
John is saying something quite significant here. He realized that the old earth did not represent the earth as it should be. He knew that the conditions of the old Jerusalem did not represent the permanent structure of the universe. The old Jerusalem represented injustice, crushing domination, and the triumph of the forces of darkness. The new Jerusalem reprensented, justice, brotherhood and the triumph of the forces of light. So when John said he saw the new Jerusalem, he was saying in substance that he saw justice conquering injustice, he saw the forces of darkness consumed by the forces of light. Ultimately history brings into being the new order to blot out the tragic reign of the old order.
1. Burroughs to King, 3 August 1954, in Papers 2:282-283.
2. Burroughs to King, 21 September 1954, in Papers 2:295-296; see also Notes on Speech by Martin Luther King, Jr., at Woman's Auxiliary, National Baptist Convention on 9 September 1954, September 1954, in Papers 2:294.
3. Reinhold Niebuhr, Beyond Tragedy: Essays on the Christian Interpretation of History (New York: Charles Scribners' Sons, 1937), pp. 137-138: “The problem of maturity is not only to achieve unity amidst complexity of impulses but to overcome the particular conflict between the IS and the OUGHT of life, between the ideal possibilities to which freedom encourages man and the drive of egoism, which reason sharpens rather than assuages.”
4. Marx, Critique of the Gotha Programme (New York: International Publishers, 1938), p. 10.
5. King refers to Bellamy's Looking Backward 2000-1887, a copy of which Coretta Scott gave to him during the spring of 1952. For his thoughts on the book, see King to Coretta Scott, 18 July 1952, pp. 123-126 in this volume.
6. Cf. Revelation 21:1-2.
7. Cf. Revelation 21:4.
8. King made similar points in notes for a speech he may have delivered in Ghana in March 1957. He chronicled how Western nations have exploited India, China, and Africa while also celebrating freedom. King charged: “With her [injustice?], her segregation and discrimination America is not fit to be the leading power of the world. And if she doesn't [straighten] up God will break the backbone of her power.” He filed these notes in the same homiletic folder as this sermon (King, God's Judgment on Western Civilization, March 1957).
CSKC-INP, Coretta Scott King Collection, In Private Hands, Sermon Files, folder 153