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Most recent studies of Martin Luther King, Jr., emphasize the extent to which his ideas were rooted in African-American religious traditions.Departing from King's own autobiographical account and from earlier studies that stressed the importance of King's graduate studies at Crozer Theological Seminary and Boston University, contemporary scholars have focused attention on King's African-American religious roots.Rather than being torn between two mutually exclusive religious traditions, King's uniquely effective transracial leadership was based on his ability to combine elements of African-American and European-American religious traditions.
As he sought to resolve religious doubts that had initially prevented him from accepting his calling, King looked upon European-American theological ideas not as alternatives to traditional black Baptist beliefs but as necessary correctives to those beliefs.
Tracing the evolution of his religious beliefs in a sketch written at Crozer entitled "An Autobiography of Religious Development," King recalled that an initial sense of religious estrangement had unexpectedly and abruptly become apparent at a Sunday morning revival meeting he attended at about the age of seven.
His student papers demonstrate that he adopted European-American theological ideas that ultimately reinforced rather than undermined the African-American social gospel tradition epitomized by his father and grandfather.
Although King's advanced training in theology set him apart from most African-American clergymen, the documentary evidence regarding his formative years suggests that his graduate studies engendered an increased appreciation for his African-American religious roots.
From childhood, King had been uncomfortable with the emotionalism and scriptural literalism that he associated with traditional Baptist liturgy, but he was also familiar with innovative, politically active, and intellectually sophisticated African-American clergymen who had themselves been influenced by European-American theological scholarship.
These clergymen served as role models for King as he mined theological scholarship for nuggets of insight that could enrich his preaching.
He reflected, "I had never given this matter a thought, and even at the time of [my] baptism I was unaware of what was taking place." King admitted that he "joined the church not out of any dynamic conviction, but out of a childhood desire to keep up with my sister." In the same sketch, he wrote that, although he accepted the teachings of his Sunday school teachers until he was about twelve, this uncritical attitude could not last long, for it was contrary to the very nature of my being.
I had always been the questioning and precocious type.
King's recognition that he did not share some of' the religious convictions of other family members might have been emotionally devastating, but his inalienable sense of belonging to the church led him toward reconciliation rather than continued rebellion.
Although his convictions removed him from the kind of fundamentalist faith that placed great importance on emotionalism and a conversion experience, he never considered abandoning his inherited faith.