The Birmingham Epistle: Martin Luther King Jr.'s Epic Challenge to America on Justice, Faith, and Reconciliation

Edward Gilbreath, Olivet Nazarene University

M.A. in Philosophy of History thesis completed in 2012 for Olivet Nazarene University.


On October 31, 1517, when the Catholic monk and scholar Martin Luther hammered his list of 95 theological arguments to the front door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany, he helped usher in many of the important Christian practices we enjoy today. With his decision to stand up for truth as he saw it, Martin Luther changed history.

Just like Luther’s memo nailed to the Wittenberg church door, Martin Luther King Jr.’s jailhouse essay is a document teeming with deep and challenging ideas about truth and faith. More than any other writing or speech by King, “Letter from Birmingham Jail” captures the spiritual and social essence of the man and his mission. In it one can observe all the religious, philosophical, and political ideas and principles that shaped King’s Christian vision.

How did Martin Luther King Jr.’s “reinterpretation” of reality in a racist, fragmented, and troubled 1960s America redefine the civil rights movement? The answer can be found in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” the most comprehensive modern political and theological statement that we have on the intrinsic importance of human equality, social justice, and the church’s call to be an agent of redemptive change in the world. This thesis will present a historical-narrative survey of the events leading to the creation of King’s “Letter” and will examine the cultural, religious, philosophical, and political streams of knowledge that influenced his development of a holistic ethic of peace and justice.