There was a Baptist fire in Martin Luther King Jr.'s preaching style, but often his ideas were closer to what Unitarians believe. I heard Clayborne Carson...

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There was a Baptist fire in Martin Luther King Jr.’s preaching style, but often his ideas were closer to what Unitarians believe.

I heard Clayborne Carson say that a couple of months ago at a conference. Carson has been examining King’s life for years as head of the Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project at Stanford University. As a young man in seminary, King struggled with his faith. He didn’t believe being born again was crucial to being Christian. He questioned the virgin birth.

I asked the Rev. Samuel McKinney, pastor of Mount Zion Baptist Church in Seattle, about King’s skepticism.

McKinney was a classmate of King’s at Morehouse College and, like King, has a doctorate in divinity.

You come to a secure faith through honest doubt, McKinney said.

But you have to come to grips with that doubt, and he believes King did that.

King’s ideas might seem a departure from black church tradition, but in important ways they are part of that tradition.

The Bible speaks of slaves being obedient to their masters, but black preachers chose to focus on the part where Moses said let my people go.

Morehouse and other traditionally black colleges founded after slavery often had faculty who were trained in the Ivy League colleges of New England, McKinney said. They brought an intellectual tradition to their teaching, and they held onto a belief in the role of the church in setting people free.

So did King.

“He helped to resurrect a tradition among black ministers essential to salvation,” McKinney said.

There is more to salvation than going to heaven, McKinney said. Having a right relationship to everyone on Earth is part of it, too.

King was always questioning, not just religion, but himself and society.

We might not be mired in Iraq if the rest of us questioned more.

McKinney recalls stopping in Atlanta in 1965 and having dinner at King’s home.

King would get people going on a controversial topic and sit back, enjoying the ensuing discussion.

“For a nonviolent person, he really liked to stir up a debate,” McKinney said.

He enjoyed raising prickly questions, but he knew that his challenges to society were a dangerous thing. That evening, King told his friends he was going to be killed.

He’d gone too far to turn around, McKinney said. But he knew the likely consequence, and so did his wife, Coretta.

This month, the King Project, which has expanded into the Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, publishes its sixth volume on King, titled “Advocate of the Social Gospel.”

McKinney, who walked part of the Selma-to-Montgomery march and was at the March on Washington, said, “He represents the kind of ministry I’m most comfortable with.”

We haven’t reached the promised land of social justice yet. The rest of us could stand to ask more questions.

Jerry Large’s column appears Monday and Thursday. Reach him at 206-464-3346 or