With the recent 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.’s death, many evangelical Christians have been celebrating his life. The Gospel Coalition hosted the MLK50: Gospel Reflections from the Mountaintop conference, lauding his life and work, and calling on the church to reflect on racial unity then and now.
Martin Luther King Jr’s theology was very liberal. In papers he wrote during his time at Crozer Theological Seminary he made his views clear. He said that the evidence for the Virgin Birth is “is too shallow to convince any objective thinker.” He stripped the doctrines of the divine sonship of Christ, the virgin birth and bodily resurrection of all literal meaning, saying, “we [could] argue with all degrees of logic that these doctrines are historically and [philosophically] untenable.” In another paper he wrote:
[A] supernatural plan of salvation, the Trinity, the substitutionary theory of the atonement, and the second coming of Christ are all quite prominent in fundamentalist thinking. Such are the views of the fundamentalist and they reveal that he is oppose[d] to theological adaption to social and cultural change. … Amid change all around he is willing to preserve certain ancient ideas even though they are contrary to science.
He did not believe these doctrines even though the Bible taught them. Instead he rejected them as superstition because they did not fit his notions of modern science. The doctrines he was rejecting are fundamental to Biblical Christianity.
After graduating from college, we do not see a radical change in King’s theology, or a repudiation of his former unorthodox views. Although he did not explicitly preach these liberal beliefs, his messages were still consistent with them. His message would fall under the banner of black liberation theology – he preached a form of Christianity that was reworked to apply to physical freedom of the slaves. The central theme of his Christianity was not Jesus Christ, the son of God coming to earth, it was the deliverance of the Israel from their slavery in Egypt. In his famous “mountaintop” speech, when he was listing the seminal events of history, he mentioned the Exodus, not Christ’s death and resurrection.
Liberation theology is a secularization of Christianity, using the Bible as a framework to speak to people’s longing for freedom. It is an abandonment of the message of the Bible. Instead of applying the full breath of scriptural to the hearers, it constructs a new theology to appeal to your worldly needs. This fits perfect with King’s denial of fundamental beliefs in the supernatural events scripture records. He didn’t need to believe them if he was just repurposing a few events from scripture to construct his own story of the world.
MLK at the University of Minnesota
There is substantial evidence that Martin Luther King Jr.’s private life and character was unworthy of a minister of the Gospel, or even of a Christian. The FBI monitored him for many years, wrongly and unconstitutionally using their surveillance powers to get damaging information to discredit him for political purposes. This monitoring included following him on his travels around the country and placing recording devices in his hotel rooms. The FBI claimed to have evidence, both anecdotal and on audio recording of King committing adulteries on many occasions. They even went to the point of sending him an anonymous letter threatening him with the release of this information and encouraging him to commit suicide. The FBI records on King will remain sealed until at least 2027.
We do not have to take the word of the FBI to believe that MLK was not a man who lived a righteous life. Dr. Ralph Abernathy, a close friend of King’s, admitted as much in his book, And the Walls Came Tumbling Down. He wrote that even the night before his assassination, King had committed adultery with multiple women. The consensus among historians is that Martin Luther King Jr. was repeatedly unfaithful to his wife.
It is right to commend and remember King for what he got right, including the equality of all nationalities and non violent protests against injustice. But we must not ignore his failings. As with any other historical figure, we must be honest about King, complementing and emulating what he did well, and condemning him where he was wrong. Christians must not forget, in their rush to crown him their hero, that he lived a wicked life and denied the very basics of orthodox Christianity. It is deceptive and wrong for evangelical Christians to claim King as a brother in Christ, when all the evidence suggests that he was not.
All was deathly silent in the small village of Kamiah, in what would one day be the state of Idaho. A neat white chapel testified that the Gospel of Jesus Christ had come to Idaho territory. The fir trees and silent mountains stood around the house of worship as people stood in quiet groups, talking, praying, and pointing to a little house framed with simple boards and roofed with cedar. Inside that house, a man was dying.
This man was Henry Harmon Spalding, the beloved pastor of the Nez Perce Indians. He was on his deathbed, and the people he loved were gathered around, awaiting the end. Slowly, a tall Indian rode into the clearing around the church and made his way toward the house. This was Chief Timothy, once a savage, but now a Christian. Let us follow him into the house and observe the scene.
Columbia River, Oregon
Inside the house we find an old man propped up in a bed. His beard flows down to his chest, and his eyes are sunken and hollow. He knows eternity is near. But when his eyes see Timothy, they brighten and sparkle with the gleam of renewed vigor. Timothy was Spalding’s first convert to the Gospel, and he has proven faithful. The old missionary and the old chief look at one another in silence, for there are no words to express their thoughts.
It is said, that in the final days of life, the mind rushes back to early memories. The sight of old Timothy has brought back a flood of memories to the veteran missionary. He remembered the distant village on the east side of the continent where he had been born, an illegitimate child. He remembered his own conversion to the Gospel, and the first time that he as a young man had heard about the people that lived west of the Rocky Mountains. He remembered the young lady, Eliza Hart, who had agreed to become his wife and cross an unknown continent at his side. Eliza was waiting for him in heaven, and Henry would see her soon.
As Henry continued his remembrance, he remembered the day, forty years earlier, when he and his fellow missionary, Marcus Whitman, and their wives had left all they had known to bring the Book of God to the Indians of the Northwest. He remembered his first sight of the rugged mountains, the first grizzly bear, the first hostile Indian. Many troubles had been weathered and many hardships endured in his long pilgrimage on earth.
He carried some scars in his body as well as in his soul. It is not an easy thing to be a pioneer missionary in a hostile land. But Henry had always risen to every challenge. When most of his comrades had died or gone home, Henry Spalding had stayed.
A friend who knew him well once said that he was “inured to hardship from infancy.” The veteran missionary had been chased by bears, thrown by horses, hunted by savages, and distrusted by his own companions. Even his fellow-laborer, Marcus Whitman, had often misunderstood and slandered him. Working closely together on a foreign field is always hard, and differences of opinion can divide good men. The drive and zeal of Henry Spalding made him clash with anyone whom he considered as lacking zeal. Marcus Whitman sometimes viewed Henry as proud, uncompromising, and cantankerous.
But when Marcus’ daughter Alice Clarissa drowned in a creek, Henry made a hard 120-mile trip through the mountains to comfort his grieving friends. Beneath his rough beard, sunburned face, and fiery eyes there was a soft heart. Henry mingled his tears with those of Marcus and Narcissa as he preached the funeral of the little girl from the tender text, “Is it well with the child? It is well” (II Kings 4:26).
So firm was his love to the Whitmans that Spalding entrusted his own eldest daughter to their care, and the girl had been with the Whitmans on the fateful day of their martyrdom at the hands of the Cayuse in November of 1847.
Henry and his wife Eliza were threatened with death numerous times, but the Lord had delivered them to carry on the work. Their own mission compound, called Lapwai, was protected by converted natives like Chief Timothy who would not let hostile hands touch their beloved teacher.
While Marcus and Narcissa Whitman went to an early martyrdom and reward, the Spaldings were left on earth to continue the task of taming the west with the Bible and the hoe. After losing his beloved wife Eliza in 1852, Henry continued, “steadfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord” (I Corinthians 15:58). Over his long and faithful ministry in the Northwest, he lived to personally baptize over 1,000 converts. His ministry extended beyond the Nez Perce tribe to embrace the neighboring tribes of the Cayuse, the Spokane, the Walla Walla, the Yakima, and the Couer d’Alene.
Henry had lived to see the wilderness of Oregon reach the status of statehood. By the time of his death, the transcontinental railroad had been laid. The mountains over which he had once walked on foot beside a mule were now crossed by trains. On his last trip east in 1871, the old missionary had gazed in wonder as the landscape slid past the window of his comfortable railcar. On this trip to the east, the old missionary was hailed by large crowds wherever he went. He was welcomed by august bodies of statesmen and stood before the U. S. Senate as well as the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. He always preached to crowded churches, telling the people the fascinating story of the mission work in the Northwest and the blood of martyrs that had hallowed that ground. Spalding pled that the work was not over, and that the west could not be won with the railroad, barbed wire, and the Winchester rifle, but that the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and that alone, could tame the wild frontier. The U. S. Senate applauded his efforts and all the famous newspapers sang the praises of the old missionary.
But Henry Spalding would not bask in personal glory. He set his face toward the western sun and returned to his old station at Lapwai, wanting to die at his post of duty. Indeed, his last years were some of his most fruitful, as he began to train a host of young Nez Perce pastors and teachers who would continue his work.
Even at the age of 70, old Spalding worked as hard as ever. That year, he travelled more than 1,500 miles on horseback. He lived with the Indians, slept on the hard ground, ate their food, and taught them the Book of God. He gave the Nez Perce a written language and translated large portions of Scripture for his beloved people. He also taught them to sing, and Henry loved nothing better than to sit in that white frame church and hear the sweet songs of Zion being sung by his converts.
Gentle singing now called the old man out of his memories. The loved ones about his bed were singing a favorite hymn, a hymn loved by his wife Eliza, now awaiting him in glory, “The delightful day will come, When my dear Lord will bring me home, And I shall see his face.”
The Site of Spalding’s Mission
Near Henry was his well-worn Bible and his journal. The last entry of that journal was written with a shaky hand, telling of the baptism of several natives from the Umatilla tribe. Interestingly, the final two natives, a warrior and his wife, who were baptized by Spalding took the Christian names Marcus and Narcissa Whitman. Under this baptismal record, the final words of Henry’s journal were these, “Bless the Lord, oh my soul.”
Over the dying missionary, Chief Timothy stood reverently, his dark cheeks wet with tears. He had joined in the singing, and now he opened his copy of the Gospel of Matthew, translated by Henry into the Nez Perce language, and offered his pastor a few words of comfort from the Book of Books. The old chief then joined his hand with the hand of the old missionary and gave his teacher these final words of parting:
You are my great interpreter. You was sent by God to me and to this people, to teach us life, the Word of God. You are going first. God only is good and great. Jesus alone gives life. Now don’t be concerned. I will never turn back. My wife will never turn back. This people will never turn back.
With these words echoing in his heart, Henry Harmon Spalding finished his earthly pilgrimage and entered the eternal rest that is reserved for the people of God. He was buried at Lapwai, his old mission station, under a grove of trees, and his grave is carefully maintained by a grateful people to this very day. He had committed the truth to faithful men, men who would teach others also.
The churches that Henry Spalding started still stand today, and there are Nez Perce pastors alive and preaching today in the Northwest who gratefully trace their heritage to his influence. Nez Perce National Park now marks the place where Henry Harmon Spalding lived and labored.
“Blessed are the dead which die in the Lord from henceforth: Yea, saith the Spirit, that they may rest from their labors; and their works do follow them” (Revelation 14:13).
The prairie near the site of Spalding’s work
Henry Harmon Spalding by Clifford Drury Marcus and Narcissa Whitman and the Opening of Old Oregon by Clifford Drury
A sickly boy made his way slowly through the streets of Columbia, South Carolina. Few would have predicted any kind of future for him. He was short and thin. His eyes were half-obscured by heavy lids that drooped noticeably. His skin was a sickly yellowish color. Everyone believed that he would die young. Some people jokingly said that he looked to be “twenty years old” when he was born. Young James had what was called “consumption” in the early 1800s, a wasting disease we now call tuberculosis. Sometimes he would cough up blood as he sat up late at night poring over his books.
Few would predict that this sickly boy would one day become a mighty champion of truth. His pen would deal blows against rationalism, Unitarianism, abolitionism, communism, statism, and every other error that dared threaten the truth he loved so dearly. But all of this was not yet. A small twenty-five-cent book he would buy in a small bookshop would change the course of this boy’s destiny.
James had become an orphan at the tender age of eight. A kind planter, out of respect to the boy’s parents, had decided to fund his education. James had come from his small rural village on the Pedee River to be educated at Columbia College. One thing soon became clear. Behind those droopy eyelids were eyes that glowed with an earnest search for truth. All that James read, he remembered. And he had read much.
South Carolina College in Columbia
James was considered to be the most brilliant student at Columbia College, and could quote the ancient Greek poets in the original with ease. He was also skilled in debate, in philosophy, and in English literature. However, in spite of all his learning, the boy was empty. His pious mother had committed him long ago to God, but he had been raised by an intellectual patron, and reason had gradually pushed out faith.
But one evening in Columbia, the hand of God drew young James to a bookstore. A twenty-five cent book caught his eye. It was simply titled “Confession of Faith.” The boy carried it back to his small room. It is needless to say that the book was the “Westminster Confession.” James was riveted by its contents. The hours of the night slipped by. James opened his Bible, eagerly looking up every Scripture that the Confession referenced. After long hours of study, the light of dawn began to dispel the darkness of night. Just as surely, the Light of Divine Revelation had dispelled the darkness of human reason.
James Henley Thornwell was a changed man from that moment forward. Brilliant prospects were offered to the promising student. Positions as a professor in philosophy, opportunities in law, business, and politics were all offered and rejected. Thornwell set his course for the Gospel ministry. Turning from Aristotle and Plato as philosophers, he fixed his eyes upon Christ, the fountain of true wisdom. Abandoning Locke as a teacher of natural law, he took up Moses as the source of revealed law. Thornwell would later write:
The speculations of Aristotle break down just where a higher light was needed to guide him. He tracked truth through the court and sanctuary to the mystic veil which he was not permitted to lift. . . A single line of Moses would have saved a world of perplexity.”
Thornwell laid aside prospects of brilliant advancement to take a humble pastorate in an obscure town in rural South Carolina. There he met and married the daughter of one of his church members, and Nancy Witherspoon truly proved the truth of the verse, “a prudent wife is from the Lord.” The Thornwells raised seven children to love and serve Christ.
Thornwell’s faithful preaching and fidelity to the truth soon led to other assignments. He became pastor of the Presbyterian church in Columbia, where he wielded a powerful influence over both church and state. He eventually became the president of the very college where he had once stumbled blindly after truth. At the helm of Columbia College and later the Seminary, he endeavored to point every young man under his influence to the rock of eternal truth.
As his friends predicted, Thornwell did not live a long life. He never reached the age of fifty. But in thirty years of ministry, he became a valiant and uncompromising champion of truth. He became a champion for many causes that were then and still now are unpopular. We will briefly discuss some of the positions that Thornwell took. He was a gracious but polemic writer and was not afraid to attack some cherished opinions.
Thornwell argued that seminary boards were not authorized in the Word of God. In a sharp but gentlemanly debate, he argued with Dr. Charles Hodge of Princeton that the education of ministers should be directly under church authority. He said, “I believe that the Boards will eventually prove our masters unless they are crushed in their infancy.”
Thornwell openly asserted that dancing was a shameful and licentious practice and that Christians should never be seen on a dancing floor. He said,
Just think of dancing soberly, and at the least, it cannot but appear ridiculous. And yet, like most follies, it is fatally contagious; and men freely engage in it without being aware of its enormity. It is an insult to God.
Thornwell saw the danger of German rationalism. Even while Princeton was accepting some of the tenants of higher criticism, Thornwell warned:
I am sorry to see that rationalism is making such progress in this country. If God spares my life, I intend to deal some harder blows than I have yet done . . . Upon the subject of the inspiration of the Scriptures and the authority of the Bible, we shall have some desperate battles to fight with false brethren before the enemy is subdued.
Thornwell argued that the War Between the States would radically change this country, and that the struggle was a desperate battle for orthodoxy in the church and order in the state.
The parties in this conflict are not merely abolitionists and slaveholders—they are atheists, socialists, communists, red republicans, jacobins on the one side, and the friends of order and regulated freedom on the other. In one word, the world is the battleground—Christianity and atheism the combatants, and the progress of humanity at stake.
Thornwell died in 1862 and, like the prophet Isaiah, never lived to see the grim realities of his warning. He wrote a pamphlet which he called “Our Danger and Our Duty.” The danger he feared was much more pernicious than the external invasion of enemy troops, and the duty he advocated was much more sweeping than even the bravest and most heroic armed resistance. Thornwell warned that only a return to the law of God would bring success to any people.
Thornwell suggested that the following amendment be presented to the Confederate Congress. It never was. Oh to God that some nation on this earth would take up these words and make them a glorious reality:
We the people of the Confederate States, distinctly acknowledge our responsibility to God and the supremacy of His Son, Jesus Christ, as King of kings and Lord of lords; and hereby ordain that no law shall be passed by the Congress of these Confederate States inconsistent with the will of God, as revealed in the Holy Scriptures.
The Life and Letters of J. H. Thornwell by B. M. Palmer Preachers With Power by Douglas Kelly Lectures on the South by Joe Morecraft Our Danger and Our Duty by J. H. Thornwell
This is the grave of one of the most influential men in 19th Century America. He was Secretary of War, Senator, Vice President, Secretary of State, and was one of the ‘Great Triumvirate’. One of the most significant parts of his career was when he led the SC states rights movement against the federal tariffs of 1828 and 1832. This was called the Nullification Crisis, and almost triggered the invasion of SC by President Jackson. Henry Clay (also one of the great triumvirate) negotiated the compromise of 1833 and kept the peace… but the tensions between North and South continued to run high, and it was less than 30 years later that war became unavoidable.
This lady is who we have to thank for the existence of Mt. Vernon… In 1853 it was going to be raised to the ground and Ann Pamela Cunningham founded the Mount Vernon Ladies Association to save it from ruin. These ladies raised $250,000, purchased it, and continue to maintain it to this day.