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  • The Influence of Personalism on Harkness and King, Their Pacifism, and Their Persistence
  • Natalya A. Cherry (bio)

I. Introduction

As it is the hallmark of liberal theologies to take their critics seriously and learn from the criticisms offered, it is important to acknowledge a valid potential criticism of this article at its outset. Rufus Burrow, in God and Human Dignity: The Personalism, Theology, and Ethics of Martin Luther King, Jr., observed that scholarship on King demonstrates a tendency on the part of white scholars to try to use the work of Boston Personalists to claim outsized influence on King.1 Perhaps these tendencies reflect an effort by white scholars to cling to the coattails of King’s massive popularity or to mask our own complicity in white supremacy. This paper therefore refrains from claiming that Georgia Harkness, the first woman appointed a theology professor in an American theological school, had a major, direct influence on King. Rather it identifies Personalist-influenced models of God common to Harkness and King—as a result of their both having studied under Borden Parker Bowne’s student Edgar S. Brightman—that appear to undergird their commitments to nonviolence. It respectfully considers their influences and their models of God, the confluences of their commitments, and the outlook for nonviolence at the ends of their lives, as well as for the present and future, over 55 and 49 years since their respective deaths.

II. Evidences of Influences

Two pieces of textual evidence demonstrate Harkness’s and King’s mutual respect for one another and offer some insight into their experiences with Boston Personalism. One is an epistolary exchange between the two that includes a letter from King, in which he acknowledged his familiarity with Harkness’s [End Page 57] work.2 Though he did not mention it in this letter, the other piece of textual evidence is his brief reference to an article by Harkness in the third chapter of his doctoral dissertation3 completed at Boston University.4 [End Page 58]

The first, epistolary evidence results from the fact that King had received a letter from Harkness as he recuperated from a very nearly successful, apparent assassination attempt carried out on September 20, 1958. The letter from Harkness was dated ten days later, incidentally the same day he publicly forgave his attacker, who was later found to be criminally insane. In her letter, Harkness wished him well, expressed admiration for his work in the civil rights movement and specifically offered her appreciation for his recently published book about the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Stride Toward Freedom. A book-signing for it, in fact, had put him in the path of his attacker in Harlem that September day. In the opening of her letter, Harkness had taken pains to identify herself to him, to which King replied,

You needed not take the extra paragraph to introduce yourself to me. I have known you for several years through your writings. When I was a student in theological seminary . . .I had the great privilege of reading some of your books and articles. When I went to Boston University for my doctoral studies, I naturally heard your name many times, for Boston University, as you know, is very proud of you and never forgets to mention that you are one of its graduates. I have long admired your Christian witness and your sound theology. I hope it will be possible for us to meet personally in the not-too-distant future.5

While there does not appear to be a record of whether this hope of meeting in person was ever fulfilled, nor of which of Harkness’s “books and articles” King had read in seminary, there is clear record—in the other textual evidence mentioned above—of his encounter with her work while he studied at Boston.

There, his dissertation, “A Comparison of the Conceptions of God in the Thinking of Paul Tillich and Henry Nelson Wieman,” referred his readers to an article Harkness had published in 1938, entitled “The Abyss and the Given.”6 The reference emerges in King’s third chapter, on “Tillich’s conception of God,” where he eventually would describe love and justice as inextricably...

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