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  • The Roycean Roots of the Beloved Community
  • Gary Herstein

1. Introduction

While it is widely acknowledged that Martin Luther King’s notion of the “Beloved Community” owes the origin of its name to Josiah Royce, what has not been noticed in the literature on the subject is the depth of the connection between King’s and Royce’s conception of such a community. Indeed, there seems to be relatively little literature that even mentions Royce in connection with King. It is my intention in this paper to explore those “Roycean Roots” of King’s conception of the Beloved Community and to press the thesis that those roots go far deeper than has been commonly, or appropriately, acknowledged. However, this is not an argument I can ever hope to “prove,” even within the traditional limits of proof that one finds in historical scholarship. King’s style of writing—which was tuned much more to the spoken word, and a spoken word which was intended for a nonacademic audience with other than scholastic concerns—does not lend itself to that sort of detailed, academically well-founded scholarship of the author’s original ideas and sources. Rather, everything I can present here ultimately amounts to no more than a plausibility argument. My hope, however, is that the plausibility will become so overwhelming, as the details of the similarities are brought out, that in the absence of any evidence to the contrary the claim for the depth of the connection may be accepted as reasonably well established.

Now, as I stated above, there are a few direct mentions of Royce in the literature on King. But with one notable exception, these are always brief and in a variety of ways unsatisfactory. Thus, for example, in John Ansbro’s justifiably well-regarded intellectual biography of Martin Luther King, the connection between Royce and King’s notion of the Beloved Community is given only a single paragraph’s mention, and that in a footnote (Ansbro [End Page 91] 319n152). Ira Zepp makes mention of Royce both in the context of King’s personalism as well as the Beloved Community. But these comments are again cursory and in general less than favorable. For example, Zepp sees Royce as taking a position that is at least somewhat antithetical to King’s personalism. Zepp says that “community for Hegel (and to a great extent for his American disciple, Josiah Royce) did not allow for the individuality of the person. His uniqueness denied, he was absorbed into the all” (Zepp 205–6). Zepp acknowledges Royce as the source of the term “Beloved Community” but then goes on to add that “Due to his own (Royce’s) idealistic, Hegelian orientation, Royce’s Beloved Community is more of a rational construct than King’s more historical and biblical conception” (Zepp 209). As will hopefully become apparent later on in this paper, neither of these claims can be taken as adequately characterizing Royce’s thought on the subject.1

More recently, Rufus Burrow, Jr., has treated the historical question of whether King actually read Royce in more detail (see Burrow, esp. 161+). It is good that Burrow has restored Royce’s name to its proper place in the narrative about the history of a concept as important as the Beloved Community. Burrow exhausts the direct evidence in his discussion and concludes that we can be fairly certain that one or more of the following is probably true: (1) King read Royce directly when dealing with a list of recommended readings for a course he took from his eventual dissertation director, L. Harold De-Wolf (see Ansbro 18, 38+); (2) King saw the idea discussed in E. S. Bright-man’s book Religious Values, which was assigned for a course King took from Brightman in 1951; (3) King heard the idea widely discussed both in seminary at Crozer and at Boston University and knew it to be Royce’s concept; (4) the idea was reinforced and interpreted in the context of the black church by Howard Thurman in ways that clearly appeared later in King’s writing. At the same time, ideas such as those which Brightman articulated in his The Moral Laws (see...


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