Martin Luther King Jr.’s Prayers
Martin Luther King Jr. (January 15, 1929 – April 4, 1968) was an American Baptist minister and activist who became the most visible spokesperson and leader in the civil rights movement from 1954 until his assassination in 1968. Born in Atlanta, King is best known for advancing civil rights through nonviolence and civil disobedience, tactics his Christian beliefs and the nonviolent activism of Mahatma Gandhi helped inspire.
“THOU, DEAR GOD”: PRAYERS THAT OPEN HEARTS AND SPIRITS
Throughout his life, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., turned to prayer for his own spiritual fulfillment while also delivering prayers to the public as a way to inspire and reaffirm a quest for peace and social justice. “Thou, Dear God” is the first and only collection of prayers by Dr. King.
Arranged thematically for all seasons of life—including prayers for spiritual guidance, special occasions, and times of adversity and trial—each section is introduced by minister and scholar Lewis V. Baldwin. From the private words King recited as a seminarian and graduate student to the powerful public sermons he delivered as a preacher and civil rights leader, these prayers will prick the conscience, stimulate the intellect, and rekindle the spirit.
“Many of us are eager to learn all we can about Dr. King. There are many books about his work and his thought, but ‘Thou, Dear God’ provides a unique and needed window into his spiritual life.”—Brian D. McLaren, public theologian, blogger, activist and author of numerous books including A New Kind of Christian
“If you want to know the source of his dream and his courage, understand what he lived for and why he was willing to die for it, eavesdrop on King’s conversations with God.” –The Rev. Dr. James Alexander Forbes, Jr. Senior Minister Emeritus of The Riverside Church and President of the Healing of the Nations Foundation
“The prayers of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. carefully compiled in ‘Thou, Dear God’ speak to the journey and challenges of a prophetic spirit in the midst of turbulent circumstances. One of the most catalytic voices in history takes us on a personal tour that through the power of prayer reconciled sanctification with service, covenant with community and righteousness with justice. Martin Luther King Jr. had conversations with God. As a result, the world will never be the same again. ” –Reverend Samuel Rodriguez, President, National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference & Hispanic Evangelical Association
Selections from the chapter, “Prayers for Social Justice”
“In the Moment of Difficult Decision”
Eternal God out of whose mind this great cosmic universe we bless thee. Help us to seek that which is high, noble and Good. Help us in the moment of difficult decision. Help us to work with renewed vigor for a warless world, a better distribution of wealth, and a brotherhood that transcends race or color.
(This prayer was recited at the end of King’s message “Civilization’s Great Need,” which may have been delivered during the summer of 1949 while he was serving with his father, Martin Luther King, Sr., at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church as an associate minister. He was still a student at Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, Pennsylvania. One also detects King’s early concern for the elimination of racism, poverty, and war, world problems that he, years later as a civil rights leader, would call “the giant triplets.”)
“Free at Last! Free at Last!”
God grant that right here in America and all over this world, we will choose the high way; a way in which men will live together as brothers. A way in which the nations of the world will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks. A way in which every man will respect the dignity and worth of all human personality. A way in which every nation will allow justice to run down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream. A way in which men will do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with God. A way in which men will be able to stand up, and in the midst of oppression, in the midst of darkness and agony, they will be able to stand there and love their enemies, bless those persons that curse them, pray for those individuals that despitefully use them. And this is the way that will bring us once more into that society which we think of as the brotherhood of man. This will be that day when white people, colored people, whether they are brown or whether they are yellow or whether they are black, will join together and stretch out with their arms and be able to cry out: “Free at last! Free at last! Great God Almighty, we are free at last!”
(A statement that takes the form of a prayer at the end of King’s speech “Some Things We Must Do,” delivered at the Second Annual Institute on Nonviolence and Social Change at the Holt Street Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, on December 5, 1957. Clearly, the prayer reflects King’s vision of a global beloved community, thus refuting claims that the civil rights leader’s thought and activities did not take on international significance until after he received the Nobel Peace Prize in December 1964. King’s heavy reliance on Old and New Testament passages and images are most evident here, as he quotes Isaiah 2:4, Amos 5:24, Micah 6:8, Matthew 5:44, and Luke 6:27–28.12)
“A New Day of Justice and Brotherhood and Peace”
God grant that we will be participants in this newness and this magnificent development. If we will but do it, we will bring about a new day of justice and brotherhood and peace. And that day the morning stars will sing together and the sons of God will shout for joy. God bless you.
(One of King’s very last public prayers, recited at the end of his sermon “Remaining Awake through a Great Revolution.” This sermon was preached at the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C., on March 31, 1968, five days before King was assassinated. King paraphrases Job 38:6–7.)
The Higher Principle of Love
God grant that the resources that you have will be used to do that, the great resources of education, the resources of wealth, and that we will be able to move into this new world, a world in which men will live together as brothers; a world in which men will no longer take necessities from the masses to give luxuries to the classes. A world in which men will throw down the sword and live by the higher principle of love. The time when we shall be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man’s inhumanity to man into the bright and glittering daylight of freedom and justice. That there will be the time we will be able to stand before the universe and say with joy—The kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and our Christ! And he shall reign forever and ever! Hallelujah!
(A prayer recited after King’s address, “The Birth of a New Age,” at the 50th anniversary convention of the Alpha Phi Fraternity, Buffalo, N.Y., 1956.)
Forgive Us for What We Could Have Been but Failed to Be
O thou Eternal God, out of whose absolute power and infinite intelligence the whole universe has come into being. We humbly confess that we have not loved thee with our hearts, souls and minds, and we have not loved our neighbor as Christ loved us. We have all too often lived by our selfish impulses rather than by the life of sacrificial love as revealed by Christ. We often give in order to receive, we love our friends and hate our enemies, we go the first mile but dare not travel the second, we forgive but dare not to forget. And so as we look within ourselves we are confronted with the appalling fact that the history of our lives us the history of an eternal revolt against thee. But thou, O God, have mercy upon us. Forgive us for what we could have been but failed to be. Give us the intelligence to know thy will. Give us the courage to do thy will. Give us the devotion to love thy will. In the name and spirit of Jesus we pray. Amen
(One of the prayers that King recited during his radio broadcasts from Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga., 1953.)
Help Us to Work with Renewed Vigor
Most gracious and all wise God, before whose face the generations rise and fall; Thou in whom we live, and move, and have our being. We thank thee (for) all of thy good and gracious gifts, for life and for health; for food and for raiment; for the beauties of nature and human nature. We come before thee painfully aware of our inadequacies and shortcomings. We realize that we stand surrounded with
the mountains of love and we deliberately dwell in the valley of hate. We stand amid the forces of truth and deliberately lie. We are forever offered the high road and yet we choose to travel the low road. For these sins O God forgive. Break the spell of that
which blinds our minds. Purify our hearts that we may see thee. O God in these turbulent days when fear and doubt are mounting high give us broad visions, penetrating eyes, and power of endurance. Help us to work with renewed vigor for a warless world, for a better distribution of wealth and for a brotherhood that transcends race or color. In the name and spirit of Jesus we pray. Amen
(This prayer was delivered on September 6, 1953. as part of King’s broadcast from Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Ga..)
I Can’t Face It Alone
Lord, I am here taking a stand for what I believe is right. But now I am afraid. The people are looking to me for leadership, and if I stand before them without strength and courage, they too will falter. I am at the end of my powers. I have nothing left. I’ve come to the point where I can’t face it alone.
(After receiving a telephone call from a white racist who threatened his life, his home, and his family, King said this prayer in the kitchen of his residence at 309 South Jackson Street in Montgomery, Ala., on January 28, 1956.)
Help Me to See That I’m Just a Symbol of a Movement
O God, help me to see myself in my true perspective. Help me, O God, to see that I’m just a symbol of a movement. Help me to see that I’m the victim of what the Germans call a zeitgeist and that something was getting ready to happen in history. And that a boycott would have taken place in Montgomery, Alabama, it I had never come to Alabama. Help me to realize that I am because of the forces of history and because of the fifty thousand Negroes of Alabama who will never get their names in the papers and in the headlines. O God, help me to see that where I stand today, I stand because others helped me to stand there and because the forces of history projected me there. And this moment would have come in history even if M.L.King had never been born.
In unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life
O God, the Creator and Preserver of all mankind; in whom to dwell is to find peace and security; toward whom to turn is to find life and life eternal, we humbly beseech Thee for all sorts and conditions of men; that thou wouldst be pleased to make thy ways known unto them, Thy saving health unto all nations. We also pray for Thy holy Church universal; that it may be so guided and governed by Thy Spirit, that all who profess and call themselves Christians may be led into the way of truth, and hold the faith in unity of spirit, in the bond of peace, and in righteousness of life. Finally, we commend to Thy Fatherly goodness all those who are in any way afflicted or distressed in mind or body. Give them patience under the suffering and power of endurance. This we ask in the name of Jesus. Amen. (p. 57)
To make a creative contribution to this world
O God, we thank you for the lives of great saints and prophets in the past, who have revealed to us that we can stand up amid the problems and difficulties and trials of life and not give in. We thank you for our foreparents, who’ve given us something in the midst of the darkness of exploitation and oppression to keep going. Grant that we will go on with the proper faith and the proper determination of will, so that we will be able to make a creative contribution to this world. In the name and spirit of Jesus we pray. (p. 97)
Increase the number of persons of good will and moral sensitivity.
O God, make us willing to do your will, come what may. Increase the number of persons of good will and moral sensitivity. Give us renewed confidence in nonviolence and the way of love as taught by Christ. Amen. (p. 119)
God, help us as individuals and as a world to hear it now before it is too late: “Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and God’s justice and all these other things shall be added unto you.”
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
God grant that as we go out and face life with all of its decisions, as we face the bitter cup which we will inevitably face from day to day, God grant that we will learn this one thing and that is, to make the transition from “this cup” to “nevertheless.”
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
O God, we thank you for the fact that you have inspired men and women in all nations and in all cultures. We call you different names: some call you Allah; some call you Elohim; some call you Jehovah; some call you Brahma; some call you the Unmoved Mover. But we know that these are all names for one and the same God. Grant that we will follow you and become so committed to your way and your kingdom that we will be able to establish in our lives and in this world a brother and sisterhood, that we will be able to establish here a kingdom of understanding, where men and women will live together as brothers and sisters and respect the dignity and worth of every human being. In the name and spirit of Jesus. Amen.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
God, give us strength of body to keep walking for freedom. God, give us strength to remain nonviolent, even though we may face death.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
God, grant that we wage the struggle with dignity and discipline. May all who suffer oppression in this world reject the self-defeating method of retaliatory violence and choose the method that seeks to redeem.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
God, remove all bitterness from my heart and give me the strength and courage to face any disaster that comes my way.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Eternal God, out of whose mind this great cosmic universe, we bless you. Help us to seek that which is high, noble and good. Help us in the moment of difficult decision. Help us to work with renewed vigor for a warless world, a better distribution of wealth, and a brother/sisterhood that transcends race or color.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
God, we thank you for the inspiration of Jesus. Grant that we will love you with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and love our neighbors as we love ourselves, even our enemy neighbors. And we ask you, God, in these days of emotional tension, when the problems of the world are gigantic in extent and chaotic in detail, to be with us in our going out and our coming in, in our rising up and in our lying down, in our moments of joy and in our moments of sorrow, until the day when there shall be no sunset and no dawn. Amen.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
A Prayer for the Church from The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr
We thank you for your church, founded upon your Word, that challenges us to do more than sing and pray, but go out and work as though the very answer to our prayers depended on us and not upon you. Help us to realize that humanity was created to shine like the stars and live on through all eternity. Keep us, we pray, in perfect peace. Help us to walk together, pray together, sing together, and live together until that day when all God’s children — Black, White, Red, Brown and Yellow — will rejoice in one common band of humanity in the reign of our Lord and of our God, we pray. Amen.
The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
Our God is Able
At the center of the Christian faith is the conviction that there is a God of power who is able to do exceedingly abundant things in nature and in history. This conviction is stressed over and over again in the Old and New Testaments. The God whom we worship is not a weak and incompetent God. God is able to beat back gigantic waves of opposition and to bring low prodigious mountains of evil. This ringing testimony of the Christian faith is that God is able.
There are those who seek to convince us that only humanity is able. Their attempts to substitute a human centered universe for a God centered universe is not new. It had its modern beginnings in the Renaissance and subsequently in the Age of Reason, when some people gradually came to feel that God was an unnecessary item on the agenda of life. In these periods others questioned whether God was any longer relevant. The laboratory began to replace the church, and the scientist became a substitute for the prophet. Not a few joined Swinburne in singing a new anthem: “Glory to Man in the highest! For Man is the master of all things.”
The devotees of this topless religion of humanity point to the spectacular advances of modern science as justification of their faith. Science and technology have enlarged our human bodies. The telescope and television have enlarged our eyes. The telephone, radio and microphone have strengthened our voice and ears. The automobile and airplane have lengthened our legs. The wonder drugs have prolonged our lives. Have not these amazing achievements assured us that only humanity is able?
But alas! Something has shaken the faith of those who have made the scientific laboratory “the new cathedral of our hopes.” The instruments which yesterday were worshipped today threaten to plunge all of us into the abyss environmental catastrophe. Humanity threatens to destroy the world in which we all live. Unless we are guided by God’s creative spirit, our new found scientific power will become a devastating Frankenstein monster that will bring destruction to us all.
At times other forces cause us to question the ableness of God. The stark and colossal reality of evil in the world – what Keats calls “the giant agony of the world;” ruthless floods and tornadoes that wipe away people as though they were weeds in an open field; ills like insanity plaguing some individuals from birth, the madness of war – why do these things occur if God is able to prevent them?
This problem, namely, the problem of evil, has always plagued the human mind. Of course much of the evil we experience is caused by our own folly, ignorance and also by the misuse of our God given freedom.
Beyond this I can only say that there is and always will be a penumbra of mystery surrounding God. What appears at the moment to be evil may have a purpose that our finite minds are incapable of comprehending. So in spite of the presence of evil and the doubts that lurk in our minds, we shall not surrender the conviction that our God is able.
Let us notice, first, that God is able to sustain the vast scope of the physical universe. Here again we are tempted to feel that humanity is the true master of the physical universe. Our jet propelled aircraft compress into minutes distances that formerly required weeks of tortuous effort. Our space ships carry astronauts through outer space at fantastic speeds. Is not God being replaced in the mastery of the cosmic order?
But before we are consumed too greatly by human arrogance, let us take a broader look at the universe. Will we not soon discover that our fastest rockets seem barely to be moving in comparison to the movement of the stars and planets? Think about the fact, for instance, that earth is circling the sun so fast that the fastest jet would be left sixty-six thousand miles behind in the first hour of a space race. In the past seven minutes we have been hurled more than eight thousand miles through space. Or consider the sun. Our earth moves around this cosmic ball of fire once each year, traveling 584,000,000 miles at the rate of 66,700 miles per hour. By this time tomorrow we shall be 1,600,000 miles from where we are now. Six months from now we shall be on the other side of the sun — and in a year from now we shall have swung completely around it and back to where we are right now. So when we behold the expanse of outer space, in which we are compelled to measure stellar distance in light years and in which heavenly bodies travel at incredible speeds, we are forced to look beyond humanity and affirm anew that God is able.
Let us notice that God is able to subdue all the powers of evil. In affirming that God is able to conquer evil, we admit the reality of evil. Christianity has never dismissed evil as illusory, or an error of the mortal mind. It reckons with evil as a force that has objective reality. But Christianity contends that evil contains the seeds of its own destruction. History is the story of evil forces that advance with seemingly irresistible power only to be crushed by the battering rams of the forces of justice. There is a law in the moral world – a silent, invisible, imperative, akin to the laws in the physical world – which reminds us that life will work only in a certain way. The Hitlers and the Mussolinis have their day, and for a certain period they may wield great power, but soon they are cut down like the grass and wither as the green herb.
In his graphic account of the battle of Waterloo in Les Miserables, Victor Hugo wrote: “Was it possible that Napoleon should win this battle? We answer, no. Why? Because of Wellington? Because of the valor of his opponents? No. Because of God. … Napoleon had been impeached before the Infinite, and his fall was decreed. He vexed God. Waterloo was not a battle; it was a change of front of the universe.” In a real sense, Waterloo symbolizes the doom of every Napoleon and is an eternal reminder to a generation drunk with military power that in the long run of history might does not make right and the power of the sword cannot conquer the power of the spirit.
Once an evil system, known as colonialism, swept across Africa and Asia. But then the quiet, invisible law began to operate. The wind of change began to blow. The powerful colonial empires began to disintegrate like stacks of cards, and new, independent nations began to emerge like refreshing oases in deserts sweltering under the heat of injustice. In a period of less than fifteen years, independence swept through Asia and Africa like an irresistible tidal wave, releasing more than 1,500,000 people from the crippling manacles of colonialism.
More recently a similar fate swept away the empire of Soviet communism, freeing nation after nation in Eastern Europe.
In our own nation, another unjust and evil system, known as slavery, for nearly one hundred years inflicted black people with a sense of inferiority, deprived them of their personhood, and denied them their God given rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Slavery was the shame of America. But as on the world scale, so in our nation, the wind of change began to blow. One event followed another to bring an end to slavery and the system of segregation that was created in its aftermath. Once long ago people justified slavery by quoting the scriptures; today we know with certainty that discrimination and racism are wrong. The only question remaining is how long their pernicious effects will continue to cripple our democracy.
These great changes are not mere political and sociological shifts. They represent the passing of systems that were born in injustice, nurtured in inequality, and reared in exploitation. They represent the inevitable decay of any system based upon principles that are not in harmony with the moral laws of the universe. When in future generations people look back upon these turbulent, tension packed days, they will see God working through history for our salvation. They will see that God is able to conquer the evils of history.
God’s control is never usurped. If at times we despair because of the relatively slow progress being made in ending racial discrimination, let us gain new heart in the fact that God is able. In our sometimes difficult and often lonesome walk up freedom’s road, we do not walk alone. God walks with us. God has placed within the very structures of the universe certain absolute moral laws. We can neither defy nor break them. If we disobey them, they will break us. The forces of evil may temporarily conquer truth, but truth will ultimately conquer its conqueror. Our God is able. James Russell Lowell was right:
“Truth forever on the scaffold, Wrong forever on the throne,
Yet that scaffold sways the future, and, behind the dim unknown,
Standeth God within the shadow, keeping watch above his own.”
Let us notice finally that God is able to give us interior resources to confront the trials and difficulties of life. Each of us faces circumstances in life which compel us to carry heavy burdens or sorrow. Adversity assails us with hurricane force. Glowing sunrises are transformed into darkest night. Our highest hopes are blasted and our noblest dreams are shattered.
Christianity has never overlooked these experiences. They come inevitably. Like the rhythmic alternation in the natural order, life has the glittering sunlight of its summers and the piercing chill of winters. Days of unutterable joy are followed by days of overwhelming sorrow. Life brings periods of flooding and periods of drought. When these dark hours of life emerge, many cry out with Paul Laurence Dunbar:
A crust of bread and a corner to sleep in,
A minute to smile and an hour to weep in,
A pint of joy and a peck of trouble,
And never a laugh but the moans come double;
And that is life!
Admitting the weighty problems and staggering disappointments, Christianity affirms that God is able to give us the power to meet them. God is able to give us the inner equilibrium to stand tall amid the trials and burdens of life. God is able to provide inner peace amid outer storms. This inner stability of faith is Christ’s chief legacy to his disciples. He offers neither material resources nor a magical formula that exempts us from suffering and persecution, but he brings an imperishable gift: “Peace I leave you.” This is the peace which surpasses all human understanding.
At times we may feel that we do not need God, but on the day when the storms of disappointment rage, the winds of disaster blow, and the tidal waves of grief beat against our lives, if we do not have a deep and patient faith our emotional lives will be ripped to shreds. There is so much frustration in the world because we have relied on gods rather than God. We have genuflected before the God of science only to find that it has given us the atomic bomb, producing fears and anxieties that science can never mitigate. We have worshipped the god of pleasure only to discover that thrills platy out and sensations are short lived. We have bowed before the god of money only to learn that there are such things as love and friendship that money cannot buy and that in a world of recessions, stock market crashes, and bad business investments, money is a rather uncertain deity. These transitory gods are not able to save us or bring happiness to the human heart.
Only God is able. It is faith in God that we must rediscover. With this faith we can transform bleak and desolate valleys into sunlit paths of joy and bring new light into the dark caverns of pessimism. Is someone here moving toward the twilight of life and fearful of that which we call death? Why be afraid? God is able. Is someone here on the brink of despair because of the death of a loved one, the breaking of a marriage, of the waywardness of a child? Why despair? God is able to give you the power to endure that which cannot be changed. Is someone here anxious because of bad health? Why be anxious? Come what may, God is able.
As I come to the conclusion of my message, I would wish you to permit me a personal experience. In India Mrs King and I spent a lovely weekend in the State of Karala, the southern most point of that vast continent. While there we visited the beautiful beach on Cape Comorin, which is called “Land’s End,” because this is actually where the land of India comes to an end. Nothing stretches before you except the broad expanse of rolling waters. This beautiful spot is a point at which meet three great bodies of water, The Indian Ocean, the Arabian Sea, and the Bay of Bengal. Seated on a huge rock that slightly protrudes into the ocean, we were enthralled by the vastness of the ocean and its terrifying immensities. As the waves unfolded in almost rhythmic succession, and crashed against the base of the rock in which we were seated, an oceanic music brought sweetness to the ear. To the west we saw the magnificent sun, a great cosmic ball of fire, as it appeared to sink into the very ocean itself. Just as it was almost lost from sight, Mrs King touched me and said, “Look, Martin, Isn’t that beautiful!” I looked around and saw the moon, another ball of scintillating beauty. As the sun appeared to be sinking into the ocean, the moon appeared to be rising from the ocean. When the sun finally passed completely beyond sight, darkness engulfed the earth, but in the east the radiant light of the rising moon shone supreme.
To my wife I said, “This is an analogy of what often happens in life.” We have experiences when the light of day vanishes, leaving us in some dark and desolate midnight – moments when our highest hopes are turned into shambles of despair or when we are the victims of some tragic injustice and some terrible exploitation. During such moments our spirits are almost overcome by gloom and despair, and we feel that there is no light anywhere. But ever and again, we look toward the east and discover that there is another light which shines even in the darkness, and “the spear of frustration” is transformed “into a shaft of light.”
This would be an unbearable world were God to have only a single light, but we may be consoled that God has two lights: a light to guide us in the brightness of the day when hopes are fulfilled and circumstances are favorable, and a light that guides us in the darkness of the midnight when we are thwarted and the slumbering giants of gloom and hopelessness rise in our souls. And so we know that God is able to give us the interior resources to face the darkness as well as the light.
Let this affirmation be our ringing cry. It will give us courage to face the uncertainties of the future. It will give our tired feet new strength as we continue our forward stride toward the city of freedom. When our days become dreary with low hovering clouds and our nights become even darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a great benign Power in the universe whose name is God, and God is able to make a way out of no way, and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows. This is our hope for becoming better people. This is our mandate for seeking to make a better world. Amen!
A Sermon by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. edited for today by Charles Henderson
Loving Your Enemies
November 17 1957
Oh God, help us in our lives and in all of our attitudes, to work out this controlling force of love, this controlling power that can solve every problem that we confront in all areas. Oh, we talk about politics; we talk about the problems facing our atomic civilization. Grant that all men will come together and discover that as we solve the crisis and solve these problems—the international problems, the problems of atomic energy, the problems of nuclear energy, and yes, even the race problem—let us join together in a great fellowship of love and bow down at the feet of Jesus. Give us this strong determination. In the name and spirit of this Christ, we pray. Amen.