The high-stakes U.S. Senate race in Georgia catapulted the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church back into the spotlight. For 135 years, the church played a vital role in the fight against racism and the civil rights movement. It was the spiritual home of the civil rights leader, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
It is now the home of the state’s first Black senator – the Rev. Raphael Warnock, the senior pastor at the church.
As a scholar of African American religion and Christian theology, I believe it is important to understand how the Ebenezer Baptist Church has been a seat of Black power and organizing for generations in Atlanta.
‘Stone of help’
Ebenezer Baptist Church, a predominantly African American congregation, was founded in 1886, nearly 20 years after the end of the Civil War. The pastor, Rev. John Andrew Parker, served as Ebenezer’s first pastor from 1886 to 1894. Little is known about Parker and Ebenezer’s early years. But according to historian Benjamin C. Ridgeway, Parker organized the church in a small building located on Airline Avenue in Atlanta.
The name Ebenezer, meaning “stone of help,” comes from the Hebrew Bible. In the First Book of Samuel, the Israelites are said to have gathered in the town of Mizpah to offer burnt offerings to God. When their enemies, the Philistines, received notice that the Israelites were in Mizpah, they sent forces to attack them.
With God’s help, the Philistines were eventually defeated. Prophet Samuel then named a large stone “Ebenezer” to remind the Israelites of God’s intervention in their battle against the Philistine army.
As historians Roswell F. Jackson and Rosalyn M. Patterson observed in their 1989 article, “The selection of the name Ebenezer, ‘Stone of help,’ was profoundly prophetic.” In their view, Ebenezer’s name proved fitting to describe the role the church would come to have in the subsequent civil rights movement.
Growth of the church
The Rev. Adam Daniel Williams, the maternal grandfather of King, served as second pastor from 1894 to 1931. Williams led the Ebenezer Church into the 20th century as a religious community mobilized to fight the segregationist policies plaguing the African American community in the state of Georgia.
By 1913, the church had grown from 13 to nearly 750 members. Williams developed a distinct form of the social gospel, which emphasized the importance of African Americans owning businesses and taking social action against racial and economic injustice in their local communities.
Known for his powerful preaching, impressive organizing and leadership skills, Williams led several initiatives, including boycotts against a local Atlanta newspaper, “The Georgian,” which was known for using racist language against African Americans.
In 1906, Williams led a fight to end the white primary system which prohibited African Americans from voting in the Georgia primaries. In 1917, Williams helped establish the Atlanta chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the NAACP.
A year later, he was elected as branch president of the Atlanta chapter of the NAACP, and, within five months of his tenure, the chapter’s membership grew to 1,400.
As religious historian Lewis Baldwin remarks in his book “The Voice of Conscience,” “Clearly, Williams used the [Ebenezer] church as a power base and rallying point for such activities, an approach that would also be used by [Martin Luther] King, Sr. and King, Jr.”
Working for social change
Following Williams’ death in 1931, the Rev. Martin Luther King Sr., Ebenezer’s assistant pastor and Williams’ son-in-law, became the church’s third pastor. During his 40-year tenure as pastor, “Daddy” King, as he was affectionately known, led Ebenezer with a mixture of evangelical faith and progressive social action.
Finding warrant for social action in the Christian scriptures, King Sr. challenged other Black churches to embrace the social gospel – a late 19th-century Protestant movement that emphasized the application of the Christian message to the social and moral concerns of society.
Moreover, King Sr. led marches and rallies to protest discriminatory and segregationist policies in the city of Atlanta, including the desegregation of the Atlanta Police Department and the Atlanta Board of Education. In the first 15 years of King Sr.‘s pastorate at Ebenezer, church membership grew to 3,700.
MLK’s spiritual home
Ebenezer came into the global spotlight when Martin Luther King Jr. accepted the call to join his father as co-pastor in 1960. Before then, King had pastored Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama from 1954 to 1959.
During his tenure at Dexter Avenue, King served as president of the Montgomery Improvement Association, the organization which successfully led the Montgomery Bus Boycott from Dec. 5, 1955 to Dec. 20, 1956. In 1959, King resigned from his position as pastor at Dexter Avenue to serve alongside his father as well as serve as president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which is also based in Atlanta.
From the pulpit of Ebenezer, King preached some of his more memorable sermons. In one of his sermons published in a collection titled “The Strength to Love,” King describes racial prejudice as indicative of “softmindedness,” a person’s tendency to uncritically adhere to unsupportable beliefs.
In the same sermon, titled “A Tough Mind and a Tender Heart,” King argued, “Race prejudice is based on groundless fears, suspicions, and misunderstandings.” To overcome this, King argued that human beings must cultivate both a tough mind and a tender heart, a joining of a critical mind with a concern for fellow human beings.
This message reverberates in contemporary movements for racial equity and justice, including the Black Lives Matter movement. While many BLM members are not affiliated with any organized religion, the movement emphasizes the importance of spiritual wellness for African Americans as they fight for Black liberation.
Since its inception, Ebenezer Baptist Church has been an institution in which evangelical fervor and progressive social activism joined to foster societal change.
This year, the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented the spiritual home of King from hosting the annual commemorative service in honor of the slain civil rights leader, which usually draws 1,700 attendees. But attention to the church has been renewed following the election of Pastor Warnock to the U.S. Senate.
One cannot appreciate the importance of MLK Day without understanding the tradition that formed one of America’s most influential civil rights leaders.
For African-Americans who grew up with the legacy of segregation, disfranchisement, lynching, and violence, retreat from social struggle was unthinkable. Martin Luther King Jr., however, learned from some important mentors how to integrate spiritual growth and social transformation.
Born in 1899, Thurman was 30 years older than King, the same age, in fact, as King’s father. Through his sermons and teaching at Howard University and Boston University, he influenced intellectually and spiritually an entire generation that became the leadership of the civil rights movement.
Among his most significant contributions was bringing the ideas of nonviolence to the movement. It was Thurman’s trip to India in 1935, where he met Mahatma Gandhi, that was greatly influential in incorporating the principles of nonviolence in the African-American freedom struggle.
At the close of the meeting, which was long highlighted by Thurman as a central event of his life, Gandhi reportedly told Thurman that “it may be through the Negroes that the unadulterated message of nonviolence will be delivered to the world.” King and others remembered and repeated that phrase during the early years of the civil rights movement in the 1950s.
Thurman and King were both steeped in the black Baptist tradition. Both thought long about how to apply their church experiences and theological training into challenging the white supremacist ideology of segregation. However, initially their encounters were brief.
Thurman had served as dean of Marsh Chapel at Boston University from 1953 to 1965. King was a student there when Thurman first assumed his position in Boston and heard the renowned minister deliver some addresses. A few years later, King invited Thurman to speak at his first pulpit at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.
Their most serious personal encounter – the one that gave Thurman his opportunity to influence King personally, and help prepare him for struggles to come – came as a result of a tragedy.
A crucial meeting in hospital
On Sept. 20, 1958, a mentally disturbed African-American woman named Izola Ware Curry came to a book signing in upper Manhattan. There, King was signing copies of his new book, “Stride Toward Freedom: The Montgomery Story.” Curry moved to the front of the signing line, took out a sharp-edged letter opener and stabbed the 29-year-old minister, who had just vaulted to national prominence through his leadership of the Montgomery bus boycott.
King barely survived. Doctors later told King that, if he had sneezed, he easily could have died. Of course, King later received a fatal gunshot wound in April 1968. Curry lived her days in a mental institution, to the age of 97.
It was while recuperating in the hospital afterward, that King received a visit from Thurman. While there, Thurman gave the same advice he gave to countless others over decades: that King should take the unexpected, if tragic, opportunity, to meditate on his life and its purposes, and only then move forward.
Thurman urged King to extend his rest period by two weeks. It would, as he said, give King “time away from the immediate pressure of the movement” and to “rest his body and mind with healing detachment.” Thurman worried that “the movement had become more than an organization; it had become an organism with a life of its own,” which potentially could swallow up King.
King and Thurman were never personally close. But Thurman left a profound intellectual and spiritual influence on King. King, for example, reportedly carried his own well-thumbed copy of Thurman’s best-known book, “Jesus and the Disinherited,” in his pocket during the long and epic struggle of the Montgomery bus boycott.
In his sermons during the 1950s and 1960s, King quoted and paraphrased Thurman extensively. Drawing from Thurman’s views, King understood Jesus as friend and ally of the dispossessed – to a group of Jewish followers in ancient Palestine, and to African-Americans under slavery and segregation. That was precisely why Jesus was so central to African-American religious history.
Thurman was not an activist, as King was, nor one to take up specific social and political causes to transform a country. He was a private man and an intellectual. He saw spiritual cultivation as a necessary accompaniment to social activism.
As Walter Fluker, editor of the Howard Thurman Papers Project, has explained, the private mystic and the public activist found common ground in understanding that spirituality is necessarily linked to social transformation. Private spiritual cultivation could prepare the way for deeper public commitments for social change. King himself, according to one biographer, came to feel that the stabbing and enforced convalescence was “part of God’s plan to prepare him for some larger work” in the struggle against southern segregation and American white supremacy.
In a larger sense, the discipline of nonviolence required a spiritual commitment and discipline that came, for many, through self-examination, meditation and prayer. This was the message Thurman transmitted to the larger civil rights movement. Thurman combined, in the words of historian Martin Marty, the “inner life, the life of passion, the life of fire, with the external life, the life of politics.”
Spiritual retreat and activism
King’s stabbing was a bizarre and tragic event, but in some sense it gave him the period of reflection and inner cultivation needed for the chaotic coming days of the civil rights struggle. The prison cell in Birmingham, Alabama, where in mid-1963 King penned his classic “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” also accidentally but critically provided much the same spiritual retreat for reflections that helped transform America.
The relationship of Thurman’s mysticism and King’s activism provides a fascinating model for how spiritual and social transformation can work together in a person’s life. And in society more generally.
The constant drumbeat of negative news stories about violence, from the rioters who stormed the Capitol to the latest neighborhood or school shooting, is all so unnerving. Some people find that they’ve become numb to most of it, except the most shocking of stories. As people of faith, many of us find ways to peacefully address issues of violence that plague our communities. Dr. Melvin E. Banks, the founder of UMI (Urban Ministries, Inc.), has biblically based, two-minute podcast shorts that cover injustice, gang violence, drug dealers, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We’ve pulled them from Dr. Banks’ daily radio program called Daily Direction, which covers a variety of topics.
Four years after the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., the novelist James Baldwin would write on the pages of Esquire magazine, “Since Martin’s death, in Memphis, and that tremendous day in Atlanta, something has altered in me, something has gone away.”
Baldwin wrote about how “the act of faith” – that is, his belief that the movement would change white Americans and ultimately America – maintained him through the years of the black freedom movement, through marches and petitions and torturous setbacks.
After King’s death, Baldwin found it hard to keep that faith.
Nearly two weeks after King’s funeral, in April of 1968, King’s confidant and former strategist Wyatt Tee Walker tried to renew this faith. Drawing on a tradition of black faith, Walker encouraged a grieving community to embrace hope even in the face of despair.
Black public faith has a storied place in American life.
The black church has been a place of fellowship and affirmation from colonial America to modern day, empowering individuals to undertake public acts to transform politics and society.
The 19th-century National Negro Convention movement, which ran from 1831 to 1864, demonstrated this black faith in action. Its leaders advocated for the abolition of slavery and full citizenship for African Americans. One activist reflected years later that the “colored conventions” were “almost as frequent as church meetings.”
These practices on Sunday morning, he noted served to “recharge the worshipers’ energy” so they could deal with the “rigors and racism of ‘a cruel, cruel world’ from Monday though Saturday.”
It was this faith that empowered many African Americans to maintain their faith in the possibilities of democracy while facing entrenched white opposition to their civil rights. Marches, sit-ins, demonstrations and mass meetings were all public displays of black faith.
Deftly navigating the tension between hope and despair, Walker based his message on the response of the Hebrew prophet Elisha in the Book of Kings who faced crisis and despair with an invading Syrian army, widespread famine and people ready to give up.
Drawing inspiration from the faith of the community, Elisha encouraged the community to keep faith in their nation.
Horizon of hope
Elisha’s example powered Walker’s message. At Princeton, Walker encouraged the black seminarians not to countenance a nostalgia for the past. In moments of deep discouragement, Walker said, distressed people tend to retreat into a romanticized past.
“In the jargon of the street,” Walker said, “it sounds like this: ‘Child, don’t you wish it was like it was back in the good old days… .”
“And yet,” he declared, “not by any wishing or hoping or praying or anything else can we find any day when things were better. There was no such day!”
Walker proceeded to caution his audience against maintaining the status quo. Walker proclaimed, “Whatever dream of life it is we envision for our children, ourselves, our community, our church, we will never bring it to our fingertips unless it begins first with some initial risk.”
For Walker, challenging the status quo was a fundamental aspect of existence.
“The elemental character of life is one that is moving and dynamic,” he said.
Walker closed his sermon by urging the audience to embrace hope-filled struggle. But he did not deny the desperate reality.
Instead, in the face of despair, he urged the young seminarians to take a risk of faith and build a future that has not been. For Walker, that meant “doing, trying, moving toward things which have never been tried before.”
Hope in democracy
The lasting testament of black public faith is its affirmation of new possibilities during moments of deep doubt. Rather than relying on a myth of the past or upholding the status quo, Walker offered the seminarians at Princeton a new vision of a political community.
“What I’m saying to you,” Walker declared, “is that I have the ultimate faith that we are going to find a tranquility with justice in this nation, in this world. We must! And it is conceivable it could happen in our time.”
The name Martin Luther King Jr. is iconic in the United States. President Barack Obama mentioned King in both his Democratic National Convention nomination acceptance and victory speeches in 2008, when he said,
“[King] brought Americans from every corner of this land to stand together on a Mall in Washington, before Lincoln’s Memorial…to speak of his dream.”
Indeed, much of King’s legacy lives on in such arresting oral performances. They made him a global figure.
King’s preaching used the power of language to interpret the gospel in the context of black misery and Christian hope. He directed people to life-giving resources and spoke provocatively of a present and active divine interventionist who summons preachers to name reality in places where pain, oppression and neglect abound.
In other words, King used a prophetic voice in his preaching – the hopeful voice that begins in prayer and attends to human tragedy.
So what led to the rise of the black preacher and shaped King’s prophetic voice?
First, let’s look at some of the social, cultural and political challenges that gave birth to the black religious leader, specifically those who assumed political roles with the community’s blessing and beyond the church proper.
In slave society, black preachers played an important role in the community: they acted as seers interpreting the significance of events; as pastors calling for unity and solidarity; and as messianic figures provoking the first stirrings of resentment against oppressors.
The religious revivalism or the Great Awakening of the 18th century brought to America a Bible-centered brand of Christianity – evangelicalism – that dominated the religious landscape by the early 19th century. Evangelicals emphasized a “personal relationship” with God through Jesus Christ.
This new movement made Christianity more accessible, livelier, without overtaxing educational demands. Africans converted to Christianity in large numbers during the revivals and most became Baptists and Methodists. With fewer educational restrictions placed on them, black preachers emerged in the period as preachers and teachers, despite their slave status.
Africans viewed the revivals as a way to reclaim some of the remnants of African culture in a strange new world. They incorporated and adopted religious symbols into a new cultural system with relative ease.
Rise of the black cleric-politician
Despite the development of black preachers and the significant social and religious advancements of blacks during this period of revival, Reconstruction – the process of rebuilding the South soon after the Civil War – posed numerous challenges for white slaveholders who resented the political advancement of newly freed Africans.
As independent black churches proliferated in Reconstruction America, black ministers preached to their own. Some became bivocational. It was not out of the norm to find pastors who led congregations on Sunday and held jobs as schoolteachers and administrators during the work week.
Others held important political positions. Altogether, 16 African Americans served in the U.S. Congress during Reconstruction. For example, South Carolina’s House of Representatives’ Richard Harvey Cain, who attended Wilberforce University, the first private black American university, served in the 43rd and 45th Congresses and as pastor of a series of African Methodist churches.
Others, such as former slave and Methodist minister and educator Hiram Rhoades Revels and Henry McNeal Turner, shared similar profiles. Revels was a preacher who became America’s first African American senator. Turner was appointed chaplain in the Union Army by President Abraham Lincoln.
To address the myriad problems and concerns of blacks in this era, black preachers discovered that congregations expected them not only to guide worship but also to be the community’s lead informant in the public square.
Such tide-swelling events, in multiplier effect, ushered in the largest internal movement of people on American soil, the Great “Black” Migration. Between 1916 and 1918, an average of 500 Southern migrants a day departed the South. More than 1.5 million relocated to Northern communities between 1916 and 1940.
A watershed, the Great Migration brought about contrasting expectations concerning the mission and identity of the African American church. The infrastructure of Northern black churches were unprepared to deal with the migration’s distressing effects. Its suddenness and size overwhelmed preexisting operations.
The immense suffering brought on by the Great Migration and the racial hatred they had escaped drove many clergy to reflect more deeply on the meaning of freedom and oppression. Black preachers refused to believe that the Christian gospel and discrimination were compatible.
However, black preachers seldom modified their preaching strategies. Rather than establishing centers for black self-improvement focused on job training, home economics classes and libraries, nearly all Southern preachers who came North continued to offer priestly sermons. These sermons exalted the virtues of humility, good will and patience, as they had in the South.
Setting the prophetic tradition
Three clergy outliers – one a woman – initiated change. These three pastors were particularly inventive in the way they approached their preaching task.
Bishop Ransom’s discontentment arose while preaching to Chicago’s “silk-stocking church” Bethel A.M.E. – the elite church – which had no desire to welcome the poor and jobless masses that came to the North. He left and began the Institutional Church and Social Settlement, which combined worship and social services.
Randolph and Powell synthesized their roles as preachers and social reformers. Randolph brought into her prophetic vision her tasks as preacher, missionary, organizer, suffragist and pastor. Powell became pastor at the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. In that role, he led the congregation to establish a community house and nursing home to meet the political, religious and social needs of blacks.
Shaping of King’s vision
The preaching tradition that these early clergy fashioned would have profound impact on King’s moral and ethical vision. They linked the vision of Jesus Christ as stated in the Bible of bringing good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind and proclaiming liberty to the captives, with the Hebrew prophet’s mandate of speaking truth to power.
Similar to how they responded to the complex challenges brought on by the Great Migration of the early 20th century, King brought prophetic interpretation to brutal racism, Jim Crow segregation and poverty in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Indeed, King’s prophetic vision ultimately invited his martyrdom. But through the prophetic preaching tradition already well established by his time, King brought people of every tribe, class and creed closer toward forming “God’s beloved community” – an anchor of love and hope for humankind.
As a result King’s words and work are still relevant. I study the civil rights movement and the field of peace geographies. Peace geographies thinks about how different groups of people approach and work toward building the kind of peaceful society King worked to create. Americans faced similar crises related to the broader civil rights struggles in the 1960s.
So, what can the past tell us about healing the nation? Specifically, how can we address divisions along race, class and political lines?
Martin Luther King Jr.‘s understanding of the role of love in engaging individuals and communities in conflict is crucial today. For King, love was not sentimental. It demanded that individuals tell their oppressors what they were doing was wrong.
King spent his public career working toward ending segregation and fighting racial discrimination. For many people the pinnacle of this work occurred in Washington, D.C., when he delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
Less well-known and often ignored is his later work on behalf of poor people. In fact, when King was assassinated in Memphis he was in the midst of building toward a national march on Washington, D.C., that would have brought together tens of thousands of economically disenfranchised people to advocate for policies that would reduce poverty. This effort – known as the “Poor People’s Campaign” – aimed to dramatically shift national priorities to address the health and welfare of working people.
Scholars such as Derek Alderman, Paul Kingsbury and Owen Dwyer how King’s work can be applied in today’s context. They argue that calling attention to the civil rights movement, can “change the way students understand themselves in relation to the larger project of civil rights.” And in understanding the civil rights movement, students and the broader public can see its contemporary significance.
Idea of love
King focused on the role of love as key to building healthy communities and the ways in which love can and should be at the center of our social interactions.
King’s final book, “Where Do We Go From Here: Chaos or Community?” published in the year before his assassination, provides his most expansive vision of an inclusive, diverse and economically equitable U.S. nation. For King, love is a key part of creating communities that work for everyone and not just the few at the expense of the many.
Love was not a mushy or easily dismissed emotion, but was central to the kind of community he envisioned. King made distinctions between three forms of love which are key to the human experience: “eros,” “philia” and most importantly “agape.”
For King, eros is a form of love that is most closely associated with desire, while philia is often the love that is experienced between very good friends or family. These visions are different from agape.
Agape, which was at the center of the movement he was building, was the moral imperative to engage with one’s oppressor in a way that showed the oppressor the ways their actions dehumanize and detract from society. He said,
“In speaking of love we are not referring to some sentimental emotion. It would be nonsense to urge men to love their oppressors in an affectionate sense[…] When we speak of loving those who oppose us […] we speak of a love which is expressed in the Greek word Agape. Agape means nothing sentimental or basically affectionate; it means understanding, redeeming goodwill for all men, an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return.”
King further defined agape when he argued at the University of California at Berkeley that the concept of agape “stands at the center of the movement we are to carry on in the Southland.” It was a love that demanded that one stand up for oneself and tells those who oppress that what they were doing was wrong.
Why this matters now
In the face of violence directed at minority communities and of deepening political divisions in the country, King’s words and philosophy are perhaps more critical for us today than at any point in the recent past.
As King noted, all persons exist in an interrelated community and all are dependent on each other. By connecting love to community, King argued there were opportunities to build a more just and economically sustainable society which respected difference. As he said,
“Agape is a willingness to go to any length to restore community… Therefore if I respond to hate with a reciprocal hate I do nothing but intensify the cleavages of a broken community.”
King outlined a vision in which we are compelled to work toward making our communities inclusive. They reflect the broad values of equality and democracy. Through an engagement with one another as its foundation, agape provides opportunities to work toward common goals.
Building a community today
At a time when the nation feels so divided, there is a need to bring back King’s vision of agape-fueled community building and begin a difficult conversation about where we are as a nation and where we want to go. It would move us past simply seeing the other side as being wholly motivated by hate.
Engaging in a conversation through agape signals a willingness to restore broken communities and to approach differences with an open mind.