The Pagan Faith of Martin Luther King Jr.

Once a year the nation celebrates the life of Martin Luther King Jr., a rare individual whose social achievements not only changed history but changed the consciousness of humanity. As a Baptist minister, it’s a given that his faith was a major influence on his views. Yet King’s Christianity was actually very radical, even for current standards, more at home with the theology of certain ancient mystics and heretics.

In his paper A Study in Mithraism, King wrote that Christianity was a natural extension of the Greco/Roman Mystery Religions:

It is not at all surprising in view of the wide and growing influence of these religions that when the disciples in Antioch and elsewhere preached a crucified and risen Jesus they should be regarded as the heralds of another Mystery Religion, and that Jesus himself should be taken for the divine Lord of the cult through whose death and resurrection salvation was to be had.

The Mystery Religions were secretive organizations that sought inner transformation and direct contact with the divine through mystical rituals usually surrounding a dying and rising deity. Members of these cults were generally those who found no spiritual rewards in the mainstream religions the Greco/Roman matrix. Some examples were the mysteries of Orpheus, Dionysus and Isis. The Mystery Religions were eventually wiped out by Christianity.

In The Influence of Mystery Religions on Christianity, King writes about the influence of Mystery Religions on Christianity:

It is at this point that we are able to see why knowledge of these cults is important for any serious New Testament study. It is well-nigh impossible to grasp Christianity through and through without knowledge of these cults. That there were striking similarities between the developing church and these religions cannot be denied.

In the same paper, King wrote that Paganism itself was a direct influence on the Bible:

To discuss Christianity without mentioning other religions would be like discussing the greatness of the Atlantic Ocean without the slightest mention of the many tributaries that keep it flowing.

King further stated that Christianity should be indebted to Pagan mythology as it gave Christianity a more “profound and spiritual meaning.”

Throughout his writings, King understood that the Bible was constructed from ancient mythologies, which the Mystery Schools saw as coded, soul-liberating messages and not just fables as they are understood today. In Light on the Old Testament from the Ancient Near East, King wrote that the Hebrew authors were “producing from Babylonian mythology an almost verbatim story.” He also compared the Bible stories to the narratives found in Egyptian and Sumerian culture.

His thoughts clearly reveal a person who saw Christianity as a part of the continual flow of humanity’s collective consciousness in search for universal individuation. One example is found in King’s The Influence of Mystery Religions on Christianity:

The staggering question that now arises is, what will be the next stage of man’s religious progress? Is Christianity the crowning achievement in the development of religious thought or will there be another religion more advanced?’  King further writes that the purpose of the any true Church was to ‘produce living witnesses and testimonies to the power of God in human experience.

King’s view on the importance of humanity’s direct relationship with God is also supported in his paper Is the Church the Hope of the World?:

No theology is needed to tell us that love is the law of life and to disobey it means to suffer the consequences; we see it every day in human experience.

Although King, from his early days in college to his twilight as an activist, would evolve theologically — struggling with the Virgin Birth or the Resurrection of Jesus, the purpose of the church and the importance of faith — the themes of divine experience and continuous spiritual exploration through all available means would remain. Christianity was just the clothing given to him by his culture, but the wisdom of the ages is what he truly came to embrace.

This makes King a direct descendant of those who participated in the Mystery Religions. In The Influence of Mystery Religions on Christianity, King himself stated that one of the most renowned Mystery Religions was Gnosticism itself.

The notion of “the truth shall set you free” has varied meaning in Christianity. In Gnosticism, truth sets one free from all manner of ignorance, regardless of the cost and pain it brings. The seemingly traditional Baptist minister embodied and lived this to the utmost. King’s continuous search for deeper realities underneath religion and myth, as well as his endless reevaluation of his purpose as a free being, transformed him into the kind of individual with the potential to transform the world.

In fact, King realized his potential and transformed the world, although his own personal transformation was cut short by the hatred of the very kind of person he wanted to free.

King’s natural mysticism and universal philosophy, characteristics of those who belonged to the Mystery Schools of old, was perhaps more public than most would believe, as he expressed in I See the Promised Land, his last ever speech:

As you know, if I were standing at the beginning of time, with the possibility of general and panoramic view of the whole human history up to now, and the Almighty said to me, “Martin Luther King, which age would you like to live in?” – I would take my mental flight by Egypt through, or rather across the Red Sea, through the wilderness on toward the Promised Land. And in spite of its magnificence, I wouldn’t stop there. I would move on by Greece, and take my mind to Mount Olympus. And I would see Plato, Aristotle, Socrates, Euripides and Aristophanes assembled around the Parthenon as they discussed the great and eternal issue of reality.

Along with the Gnostics and those who dared question the ruling establishments of history, King would have been right at home in that vision.

Yes, once a year the world celebrates the life of Martin Luther King Jr., but in an eternal dream, King is at home with all those great mystics who spent their lives teaching others not only that the truth would set them free but how to reach their full potential with that freedom.

 

Resources:

I See the Promised Land Speech by Martin Luther King Jr.

The Influence of Mystery Religions on Christianity by Martin Luther King Jr.

A Study of Mithraism by Martin Luther King Jr.

Was Dr. Martin Luther King a Christian? By Sister Tracey

Martin Luther King Jr.’s Works Exposed by David J. Stewart

 

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5 Responses

  1. Tim says:

    Great article Miguel “It is well-nigh impossible to grasp Christianity through and through without knowledge of these cults.” That seems to be a really bold statement, especially for a theologian in the 50s or 60s.

    I think it’s very interesting King struggled with the virgin birth and resurrection. As I’m sure you’re well aware, many of the earliest groups, such as the Ebionites, Cerinthians, and Carpocratians (and even the Western Valentinians) all probably rejected (or were oblivious of) it.

  2. Vanessa says:

    Shared! Love this Miguel, beautiful 🙂

  3. Rafi Simonton says:

    I did not know about this aspect of M L King’s writing. Thanks for that.

    But these questions were not totally unheard of among theologians of the past. Several excerpts of what became known as Gnostic gospels have long been known, for example the “Hymn of Jesus” that G R S Mead worked on, the Jung Codex, and a few sections of the Gospel of Thomas. Then the big discoveries– the (Jewish) Essene writings at Qumran 1947, and the Gnostic gospels at Nag Hammadi 1945. Notice also that among the cache there were works of Greek philosophy as well as parts of the Corpus Hermeticum. These finds sparked debate, which at the time was mostly among obscure academics.

    There have also been many studies of the influences of pagan culture. By which I mean both in the sense of the classical (Egyptian, Greek, Roman) and as adaptations from indigenous northern European and Mediterranean cultures. See as an example Warner Jaeger’s Early Christianity and Greek Paideia, written in 1961.

    The early Christians weren’t unaware of the influences. Justin Martyr, ca 140, who taught in Rome, was a trained philosopher. From him the 1st explanations of the idea of Logos. Clement of Alexandra ca 200, wrote explicitly in terms of Hellenistic philosophy. Implicitly about Jewish esotericism and various forms of Gnosticism. The Byzantine Basil the Great and other Cappadocians ca 350, as heirs to the ancient Greeks, were understandably also positive in their use of philosophy.

    As for questioning the virgin birth and the resurrection… Not all Christians are the type of fearful person who cannot abide uncertainty or ambiguity. Many who are theologians or members of religious orders (Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Anglican) do wrestle with this stuff. Besides, why take these mythologies literally? Then again, why the need to reject them unless there is some reluctance to consider anything not rationalistic or materialistic?

    Then the Big Question: “What will be the next stage in man’s religious progress?” I think the forms of high weirdness testified to by the various people interviewed on Aeon Byte radio are previews. My own explorations began with several intense mystical experiences decades ago. Fortunately, I’m from the Pacific Northwest, where it is not unusual to be raised without religion. I did not have to force my encounters into any predetermined framework. But I sure did my best to find somewhere that fit. I studied among the eastern Orthodox and the Roman Catholics, many of whom I respect and for whom I still feel deep affection. But ultimately, I found that they did not know how to get to the experiential, explaining that as reserved to grace. As for neo-Gnostics, they do have some interesting ideas, but I have deep reservations about the various churches. Nor do I see much evidence that they know much more than the consensus traditions.

    Check out customer reviews on sites like Amazon regarding books on Gnosticism. Comments indicating that there is a deep need for a how-to, ways that people can find their own do-it-yourself spirituality. That’s where I think we’re heading. I’m convinced that we all have potential; the divine within. It’s not merely bestowed passively. For the last ten years, I’ve been working on a way to do this. Helpful to know that the root meaning of education, from the Latin educare, means to draw out.

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