Devotional - Second Baptist Church and the Ministry Formation of Martin Luther King, Jr.


By Pastor Matt Burden


My church is celebrating its 175th Anniversary this year (the celebration event itself is just a couple weeks away, on 9/23-24), and as part of our commemoration, I’ve been doing some research into the church’s history. One of the most interesting stories that I uncovered has to do with a former pastor of ours, George W. Davis (here in Calais from 1932 to 1935). He was remembered by the church for a peculiar theological conviction: the idea that nonviolent protest was the most appropriate Christian countermeasure to social injustice. Apparently the youth group at our church knew that he was passionately devoted to this idea of nonviolence, so whenever they wanted to get him off on an entertaining tangent, they would bring up the subject. The church’s records of him end there, save to note that he went on from Calais to take up a professorship at Crozer Theological Seminary.

With a little bit of research, I picked up his trail from there. It turns out that one of his ministry students at Crozer was a young man named Martin Luther King, Jr. The deeper I dug, the stronger the ties between these two men appeared. King loved to study under Prof. Davis, taking nearly a third of his total credits with him. It was from Prof. Davis that King was first seriously forced to consider nonviolent protest as a powerful and legitimate Christian response to social injustice. Davis guided King through the troubled debates between different schools of Christian theology and helped introduce him to the nonviolent methodology of Gandhi. Further, Davis and King kept up a longstanding relationship even after King's departure from Crozer, exchanging letters back and forth for decades afterwards. In short, the historians who commented on this relationship credited George W. Davis with introducing King to almost all of the major fields of King's later ministry philosophy. This man, who had shared in ministry with us right here in Calais, Maine, went on to become the main theological mentor for Rev. Dr. King. (A good source for Davis’ connections with King, if you’re interested, can be found in Kenneth Smith’s scholarly study of King’s philosophical influences, Search for the Beloved Community, in which the entire opening chapter is devoted to George W. Davis.)

Naturally, Second Baptist Church can't take any credit for the man that King became, but we can take pride in such an intimate association with his theological journey. And who knows? It may be that some of the conversations that the young Rev. Davis had with the Baptist youth group here in Calais served to solidify, confirm, and add zeal to his convictions. It may be that God used the prayers, questions, insights, and encouragements of our church to empower Davis for his further service, where his theological work, through the labors of his most famous student, ended up shaping an entire nation. 

Why the history lesson? It’s not just to point out a notable connection to one of America’s greatest heroes, a connection that our town can be justly proud of. It’s also an encouraging thought for those of us trying to follow God’s way, but so often feeling limited or ineffective in our efforts for good. It's easy to think sometimes that simple, ordinary people like us can't really be used to accomplish anything grand for the Kingdom of God. But Second Baptist’s indirect role in the formation of Martin Luther King's mind and heart is a powerful example to the contrary. God can use anyone, even in small, simple ways, to do mighty things for his Kingdom. A word of encouragement, a conversation about God's grace, a prayer for the work of the Gospel--any of these things might plant just a single seed, but from that seed God may choose to raise up a forest of blessing. So be faithful in all the little things, because God can use us--even our small and little-known efforts--to change the world forever.