In America during the early 19th century, the waves of the Great Awakening resulted in Christians (particularly in the Northeast) to call for the abolition of slavery in the U.S. And during the 1960, the Bible and biblical themes were once again the basis for much of the Civil Rights Movement. Kevin Smith writes about the Bible’s centrality to the Civil Rights Movement at the Ethics And Religious Liberty website.
A prime example of popular civil rights rhetoric is Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech delivered on August 28, 1963. The speech reflected King’s criticisms and hopes for America set in the language of the prophets of the Old Testament. For example, he said satisfaction would not come until “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream” (Amos 5:24). This was familiar language in the Bible-literate America of that day.
King spoke from a conviction of the truth of scripture but he must have certainly understood that it was a truth respected by most. Even if people didn’t attend church, there was a level of respect given to the Bible.
In his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” written April 16, 1963, Dr. King resorted to biblical examples as a defense when he is accused of being an extremist for participating in demonstrations, sit-ins, and boycotts. He asked whether Jesus was an extremist when he said, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). He also cited the prophet Amos and the apostle Paul, asking whether their words and actions were not also “extreme.”
While he could have appealed to the Declaration of Independence, King used the words of true freedom spoken weekly in churches, words from the same book deeply regarded by both whites and blacks. The Bible put everyone on common ground.
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