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Tillich's Theological Influence on Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968)

Martin Luther King Jr. (from here)

Articles by Tsz him, Lai and Dan Hauge.

Article by Tsz Him, Lai

Apparrently, Paul Tillich did not have the biggest impact on Martin Luther King Jr.'s life and theology. Scholars have already highlighted that George W. Davis, Walter Rauschenbusch, Mahatma Gandhi, Howard Thurman, Reinhold Niebuhr and Boston University have all played a significant role in King's story. [1] It seems like there is no room for Tillich on this list. However, the role of Tillich has been underestimated. We can find Tillich's thought in King's theology.

King's decision to study a Ph.D. at the School of Theology of Boston University was not surprising. At that time, Boston University was one of the few universities who welcomed Black students, and they had a strong tradition in the philosophy of personalism. Professors Edgar Sheffield Brightman and L. Harold DeWolf were one of the leading scholars in the United States. King, without question, studied with them and developed his philosophy of personalism. King's doctoral dissertation is entitled “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.” In his thesis, King examines Tillich's idea of God as “Being-itself” and questions the reason for seeing God as impersonal. King, in another writing, advocates the idea of God as personal:

[Personalism] it gave me metaphysical and philosophical grounding for the idea of a personal God, and it gave me a metaphysical basis for the dignity and worth of all human personality.[2]

Although King rejects Tillich's idea of God, he does not object Tillich's entire philosophy. When he was studying at Boston, he read countless writings by Tillich in English and German, especially Tillich's books published in English such as The Courage to Be, Love, Power, and Justice, Systematic Theology I, and The Shaking of the Foundations[3]. King acknowledges that Tillich had a significant impact on his idea of existentialism:

When I finally engaged in a serious study of the writings of Paul Tillich, I became convinced that existentialism, in spite of the fact that it had become all too fashionable, had grasped basic truths about man and his condition that could not overlook.[4]

Two themes of Tillich’s existentialist theology are clearly seen in the thought of King. King applies the concepts of freedom and estrangement to the liberation of Black Americans. Tillich writes that “man is man because he has freedom.”[5] Freedom, in Tillich’s point of view, is the component of individual as a being, not a thing. Freedom means a will of making decisions. A person with freedom bears the responsibility to make decisions. “My destiny is the basis of my freedom; my freedom participates in shaping my destiny.” [6] King interprets the idea of freedom in the context of racial segregation: “Segregation is morally wrong because it deprives man of freedom, that quality which makes him a man. The very character of the life of man demands freedom.”[7] King argues that Black American is a thing only but not a being. They do not have freedom to make their destiny because of racial segregation.

Estrangement is an important theme in Tillich's existentialist theology. He relates estrangement to individuals' spiritual separation from God, the ground, and source of all being: “the state of existence is the state of estrangement. Man is estranged from the ground of his being, from other beings, and from himself. The transition from essence to existence results in personal guilt and universal tragedy.” [8] King uses this same idea in his Black American context: “Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Is not segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?” [9]From the above discussion, one can see that King absorbs the existentialist theology of Tillich and uses his ideas to analyze the situation of Black Americans. In addition, Tillich and King both construct their social ethics with a love-justice relationship model and hold a socialist political ideology. The academy must engage in further research to investigate what role of Tillich play in King's theology.


[1] The Kenneth L. Smith and Ira G. Zepp, Search for the Beloved Community: The Thinking of Martin Luther King Jr. (Valley Forge, Pa: Judson Pr, 1998).

[2] The Martin Luther King, Stride toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story, Reprint edition (Boston, Mass: Beacon Press, 2014), 88

[3] The “Bibliography, ‘A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman’ | The Martin Luther King, Jr., Research and Education Institute,”

[4] Martin Luther King Jr, Strength to Love, Gift edition (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010), 167.

[5] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. 1 (Chicago, Ill.: University Of Chicago Press, 1973), 182.

[6] ibid, 185., 167.

[7]  Dr Martin Luther King Jr, Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, 1St Edition (Boston, MA: Beacon Press, 2010), 103.

[8] Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology, Vol. 2: Existence and the Christ, Pbk. Ed edition (Chicago, Ill.: University of Chicago Press, 1975), 44-45.

[9]  Martin Luther King Jr, Why We Can't Wait (New York, NY: Signet, 2000), 83.

Article by Dan Hauge

The influence of Paul Tillich's thought on Martin Luther King, Jr. was not determinative, as King diverged from him in significant ways regarding his conceptual view of God. Tillich's thought did, however, provide broad contours for understanding the human condition and the nature of the theological task which proved influential for King in developing his conceptual framework for the struggle for civil rights. King first encountered Tillich's writings while studying at Crozer Theological Seminary in Pennsylvania, and more extensively as a Ph.D. student at Boston University from 1951-55. At this time, Tillich was growing in popularity and influence in the United States-the first volume of his Systematic Theology was published the year King began his doctoral work, with his most popular volume, The Courage to Be, published the following year in 1952.

King engaged in depth with Tillich's understanding of God is his doctoral dissertation, entitled “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman.” In it, he outlines the methodologies of both thinkers (paying close attention to Tillich's method of correlation), and compares and contrasts Wieman's religious naturalism derived from the scientific method with Tillich's understand of God as the ‘ground of being’ or ‘being-itself’ as expounded in his Systematic Theology.

King's dissertation presents a mostly negative evaluation of Tillich's conception of God, and largely reflects the school of thought known as “Boston personalism,” which held that “the clue to the meaning of ultimate reality is found in personality” (Watley: 32). Several prominent figures in the personalist movement taught at Boston University, including Borden Parker Bowne, Albert C. Knudson, and King's doctoral advisor L. Harold DeWolf,-and indeed King chose the school in large part due to his attraction to this theological perspective (King Institute Encyclopedia).

King drew heavily from such personalist thinkers in his response to Tillich, often without appropriate citation. His flawed practices involved extensive use of notes in such a way that “Large sections of the expository chapters are verbatim transcriptions of these notecards” (Papers: 340), without quotation marks or attribution of the secondary sources. While the plagiarism in the dissertation is substantial and highly unethical, it does not significantly inhibit us from ascertaining King's authentic response to Tillich's theology, as his sources clearly influence and reveal his own perspective.

In the final evaluative section of the dissertation, King expresses serious disagreement with Tillich's insistence that speaking of God as a person was “the basest blasphemy,” while acknowledging Tillich's view that “God is the ground of everything personal and that he carries within himself the ontological power of personality” (King, 1955: 508). King felt that Tillich’s expression of God as ‘supra-personal’ was unsatisfactory; maintaining that “‘being-itself’ … is little more than a sub-personal reservoir of power … a pure absolute devoid of consciousness and life” (511). He believed that articulating God as the ‘ground of personality’ ended up relegating God to an impersonal force, which he deemed an inadequate basis for the fellowship and communion with God so crucial to his understanding of worship. “True fellowship and communion can exist only between beings who know each other and take a volitional attitude toward each other” (512).

King also believed that Tillich's view of God as ‘being-itself’ left no basis upon which to speak of God’s goodness. “There can be no goodness in the true ethical sense without freedom and intelligence. Only a personal being can be good”(513). This critique is extended to a similarly negative assessment on Tillich's account of love. For King, Tillich's understanding of God as love “is not love in the full sense of the word. Love, for Tillich, is just the dialectical union of opposites” (Ibid). He found Tillich's conception of God as the ground of goodness to be too abstract, leaving no guarantee that God would not have to be equally understood as the ground of evil (526). Whether or not these views reflect a thoroughly nuanced understanding of Tillich's thought, they reveal much about King's own theological perspective and concerns.

William D. Watley, in his book Roots of Resistance: The Nonviolent Ethic of Martin Luther King, Jr., maintains that King's resistance to Tillich's understanding of God owes just as much to the formative influence of the black church as to his attraction to personalism, if not more so. “In traditional black religious thought,” Watley writes, “God is a being with personality, who can be loved as well as rejected, praised and worshiped as well as denied. When forces of dehumanization and oppression are confronted daily … blacks must have a God who personally cares for them, who hears their cries, understands their sorrows, and assures them of divine presence and help in times of need and distress“ (Watley: 42). Watley also emphasizes how this personal understanding of God has persevered in the face of suffering and oppression, able “to balance and hold in tension the suffering of black people in one hand and God’s goodness and omnipotence in the other” (41). It should be noted that these emphases are not universally representative of black religious thought. However, King evidently found the vision of God provided by this tradition sufficiently generative for his life, activism, and mission, to the point that he did not perceive Tillich's view as a necessary corrective.

Despite these differences, King nevertheless found great value in many dimensions of Tillich's theology, and often referred approvingly to his ideas. In the dissertation he responds approvingly to Tillich's claim that “Only God warrants man's ultimate concern,” as well as his conception that “For any preliminary concern to be elevated to ultimacy is … the height of idolatry” (King, 1955: 517). While King did not want to include the notion of God's personality as a ‘preliminary concern,’ he nevertheless affirmed this overall framing of idolatry. King also draws from Tillich's notion of sin as separation and estrangement in his famous “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” as he makes his case that segregation is an inherent evil not to be tolerated: “Paul Tillich has said that sin is separation. Isn't segregation an existential expression of man's tragic separation, an expression of his awful estrangement, his terrible sinfulness?” (King, 1963)

Finally, after Paul Tillich's death in 1965, King wrote down words of condolence and appreciation which reveal the breadth and reach of Tillich's thought. “Few men in our time have so captured the essence of our culture and the problem of mankind so well as Paul Tillich. He helped us to speak of God's action in history in terms which adequately expressed both the faith and the intellect of modern man. His Christian existentialism gave us a system of meaning and purpose for our lives in an age when war and doubt seriously threatened all that we had come to hold dear” (King, 1965). The aspects of Tillich’s influence that King chooses to emphasize here-his analysis of the human condition, and his ability to speak to the “faith and the intellect of modern man” to provide “meaning and purpose”-do not indicate that King substantially revised his own understanding of God to be more in line with Tillich's. But King's words do indicate just how broad Tillich's influence was, and how strongly many of his ideas resonated with King's own deep concern for justice.

The influence of Tillich on King provides an interesting example of how the theological system of one highly influential thinker could provide a conceptual framework and a great deal of inspiration to another significant figure's lifelong project of activism and struggle for justice, even as he significantly diverged from certain core elements of that system. It hopefully demonstrates how similar goals toward human flourishing can be pursued with passion and vigor by those who differ on how to best describe the theological basis for those goals, or even the nature of the very cosmos we live in.


King, Martin Luther, Jr., “The Negro is Your Brother.” Atlantic Monthly, August 1963.

______. Statement on death of Tillich. October 1965. The King Center.

______. “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman” (1955). In The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr. Volume II: Rediscovering Precious Values, July 1951-November 1955, edited by Clayborne Carson, Ralph Luker, Penny A. Russell, and Peter Holloran, 339-544. Berkely: University of California Press, 1994.

The King Institute. “Paul Tillich.” Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Global Freedom Struggle.

Watley, William D. Roots of Resistance: The Nonviolent Ethic of Martin Luther King, Jr. Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 1985.

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