Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Christian Life

[1] Martin Luther King, Jr. was the most celebrated and honored African American in the latter half of the 20th century. Streets named after him and scholarships bearing his name have immortalized the contributions of this Nobel-Peace-Prize-winning, American Christian minister. Moreover, a national holiday was established to celebrate King’s birthday as a way of signaling his influence on American life. Many people around the world struggling for freedom have embraced King’s understanding of nonviolent, direct action and his vision of the beloved community.

[2] Since King’s death there have been innumerable analyses of his legacy. Some of these analyses are grounded in biblical imagery such as “dreamer” or “prophet.” Still other analyses have emerged from King’s academic training as a systematic theologian. These analyses present to us a highly educated, complex and skilled Christian minister who followed the African American tradition of trained pastors. King was a dreamer, a prophet, a systematic theologian, and a Christian minister. However, all of these have their beginnings in his early development as a Christian.

[3] The main contention of this essay is that what King has to say about the Christian life is located in his description of his religious development. Moreover, elements necessary for a complete Christian life are described in a sermon King preached on numerous occasions, “The Dimensions of a Complete Life.”1 The contents of these two original documents constitute what I believe King has to say about the Christian life today.

Environmental Influences
[4] Early in King’s seminary career, he articulated the importance of environmental influences on the development of a person’s life. Writing in “An Autobiography of Religious Development,” King says, “It is impossible to get at the roots of one’s religious attitudes without taking in account the psychological and historical factors that play upon the individual.”2 King goes on to identify his context; home, community, church, and several incidents of racism. In various ways these factors shaped how King understood what it meant to be a loving person and a Christian.

[5] King was born in 1929 on the cusp of the Great Depression. Although King grew up in that era, he did not experience poverty. His parents made sure that he and his siblings had all of the necessities they needed in life. King attributed this to a father who put his family first and who knew “the art of saving and budgeting. He never wastes his money at the expense of his family. He has always had sense enough not to live beyond his means. So for this reason, he has been able to provide us with the basic necessities of life with little strain.”3 While King was born into essentially a middle class family, he was aware of poverty and its devastating effect on members of the African American community.

[6] King’s autobiography reveals the importance of his family and his development as a Christian. The King family was an intimate family that also included his mother’s mother. “I was born in a very congenial home situation,” King remembered, and the relationship between his mother and father was such that “I can hardly remember a time that they argued… or had any great fallout.”4 Moreover, King grew to love his maternal grandmother who lived in the family home and shared stories with him and his siblings.5 It is no wonder that love would later become a normative ethical principle in King’s public ministry and vision of the Beloved Community.

[7] King was born into a family that was steeped in the black religious tradition of the South. King’s heritage included ministers who served as pastors of the influential Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. They were part of the African American religious stream that emphasized both the priestly and prophetic tasks of the Christian ministry and mission of the church. The church was the central institution that provided the moral values and leadership for the pursuit of justice for African American people. King was introduced to this type of understanding of religion.

[8] This type of religious heritage makes it exciting for one to grow up in the church. This was certainly true of King. “Religion has just been something that I grew up in,” says King. Becoming a member of the church was inevitable. On the other hand, it was something he did to keep up with his sister. It was only a matter of time before he would join Ebenezer. As King says in his “Autobiography,” “The church has always been a second home to me.”6 The family and church were one to King. This was especially true in his discussion about experiencing “conversion,” a process one experiences before joining the church. King explains that he never experienced a conversion per se; however, he does say, “Conversion for me has been the gradual intaking of the noble ideals set forth in my family and my environment, and I must admit that this intaking has been largly unconscious.”7 In other words, the church and family were essentially one institution in shaping King’s understanding of the Christian life. What was taught at home was similar to what was taught at church. Both nurtured King’s faith and understanding of moral values and what it meant to be a Christian and how to live a Christian life. Now we move to King’s public expression of what he understood to be dimensions of the Christian life.

Dimensions of the Christian Life
[9] King was very much in demand as a speaker and as a preacher throughout his public career as a Christian minister. One of the sermons that King preached regularly after he was ordained was titled “Dimensions of a Complete Life.” Calling upon Revelation 21: 16: “The length and the breadth and the height of it are equal.” King says that for life to be complete, it is necessary for it to have length, breadth, and height. Equating life to a triangle that is equal on all sides, he said that length is the individual, breadth is other persons, and height is humankind’s reach for or grounding in God. The complete life for the Christian must include all three working together. Let us look at each of these dimensions briefly.

[10] Length. One of the basic drives of the human is pursuing his or her self-interest. Here individuals seek to discover what they want to do with their lives. King makes an interesting connection that may be of special interest to the readers of the Journal of Lutheran Ethics. King says the individual discovers “what he is made for. After he discovers his calling he should set out to do it with all of the strength and power in his being.” King goes on to say that one should do it as if God called the person to do it at this particular time in history.8 A critical contribution King would make about the Christian life is that each Christian should discover his or her vocation (vocatio). King’s own discovery of his calling is instructive here. “My call to the ministry was not a miraculous or supernatural something, on the contrary it was an inner urge calling me to serve humanity.”9 With the ELCA’s emphasis on the “priesthood of all believers” and a person’s calling to a specific roster in the ELCA, King’s experience may be useful, especially among communities of color.

[11] Breadth. The second dimension is related to our service of God’s people. The guiding principle here is that all of humanity is tied together. King said it this way, “We are all involved in a single process, that we are all somehow caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. Therefore whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”10 The Christian life today would have to be concerned about those who are unable to get health care, those who are suffering from diseases, and the health disparities suffered by communities of color. The Good Samaritan story is the example for King of how the Christian is to serve humanity without concern for self. A meaningful life, according to King, includes this type of service. “Love your neighbor as you love yourself. You are commanded to do that.”11 Agape love becomes the operative principle because now the individual has gone beyond length or individual self-interest and is practicing breadth of life.

[12] Height. Once one has mastered the length and the breadth of life the complete life must connect with God, the height of life. I believe King would say that our era is no different than the era Christians faced in the 1950s. Materialism and new knowledge have become gods of our lives. They are where we have, in some instances, placed our faith. King would go on to say, “All of our new knowledge, all of our new developments, cannot diminish [God’s] being one iota.”12 This new knowledge would only reveal humankind’s deep need to have God in his or her life. King’s point, then, is that the height of life resides in humankind loving God with our whole being. Our faith must be in the God who is to bring joy to our hearts.

[13] What does the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. have to say about the Christian life today? I have attempted to show that Dr. King would say, in the first instance, know one’s self. That is, know the environmental factors that have shaped one’s self because they are critical in understanding one’s religious or faith development. Second, Dr. King would say that the Christian life is three-dimensional. It is length – pursuing one’s calling (vocatio) as if God called one to do it at that particular time in history. It is breadth – being concerned about the other; that is service and recognizing that all of humanity is tied together. It is height – being grounded in God. Our life cannot be complete without loving God totally and having faith in God. The Christian life will be complete and in this sense will be fresh and dynamic and contribute to the transformation of society.


1. This sermon was first published in the book The Measure of a Man (Philadelphia: The Christian Education Press, 1959), 19-34. I will be using this version of the sermon in this article. This sermon was also published as “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life” in Martin Luther King, Jr., Strength to Love (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1963), 67-77.

2. Martin Luther King, Jr., “An Autobiography of Religious Development,” The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Volume I: CALLED TO SERVE January 1929-June 1951. Clayborne Carson, Senior Editor. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992), 360-361.

3. Ibid., 360.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid., 359.

6. Ibid., 361.

7. Ibid.

8. King, “Dimensions,” 22-23.

9. King, “Autobiography,” 363.

10. King, “Dimensions,” 27-28.

11. Ibid., 33.

12. Ibid., 32.

Richard J. Perry

Richard J. Perry, Jr. is Associate Professor of Church and Society and Urban Ministry at the Lutheran School of Theology at Chicago. Dr. Perry is a member of the Advisory Council for the Journal of Lutheran Ethics, represents the Lutheran Ethicists Network on the Theological Roundtable, and serves as convener of the Conference of International Black Lutherans (CIBL, USA).