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Scholars universally acknowledge the role that Christian belief played in the social movement engendered by Martin Luther King Jr. Yet few have actually delved into the complexity of King's theology itself. The centrality of one aspect of his theology in particular - imago Dei, the belief that human beings are made in God's image - has been surprisingly overlooked.
In this book, Richard W. Wills Sr. offers a comprehensive analysis of King's appeal for civil rights by investigating his understanding of imago Dei. Wills begins by tracing the evolution of this idea through the history of Christian thought, showing the intellectual sources King drew on in constructing his own beliefs. Wills then demonstrates how King employed this idea in his civil rights work. The belief that we are all made in God's image was crucial, Wills shows, to King's understanding of human nature and equality. While King shared with many of his black church forebears the view that humanity's creation by God was a powerful argument for the equality of all people, he also took the concept much further. For King, being made in God's image meant that human beings have not only the right but also the power to reshape society and to build a "beloved community" on earth. Though explicitly grounded in Christian faith, the doctrine of imago Dei provided King with a theological rationale that was capable of addressing the needs of the community well beyond the walls of churches.
Wills's thorough reconsideration King's thought makes the case for his importance as a theologian. It convincingly demonstrates that the concept of imago Dei formed the heart of his theology and, in turn, that his theology was central to the unfolding of the civil rights movement.
Richard W. Wills Sr. is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology and Ethics at the Samuel DeWitt Proctor School of Theology, Virginia Union University.
"Richard Wills's Martin Luther King Jr. and the Image of God is the most illuminating account to date of the central theological themes in King's life and thought. King emerges as a skillful and synthetic thinker and practitioner who stands in continuity not only with the Hebrew prophets and the radical Jesus but with the seminal theological minds of the Christian tradition. And in reconnecting King to the religious past, Wills offers new ways of appropriating King's legacy as a resource for contemporary religious thought and social activism."
--Charles Marsh, Director of the Project on Lived Theology and Professor of Religious Studies, University of Virginia
"Christian anthropology asks the big questions: Who are we? What ought we to do? What might we become? Martin Luther King raised the same questions-and answered them in ways that have challenged succeeding generations. Richard Wills brings a wealth of data and insight to his portrait of King the theologian. He reminds us that under King's leadership the Movement was bursting not only with political promise but theological meaning as well. This is a carefully nuanced, yet exciting book."
--Richard Lischer, author of The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Word that Moved America
"Richard Wills' eagerly-awaited book offers a truly original perspective on one of the best known religious figures of the past hundred years. It is a helpful introduction to King's religious thought that will reward beginners and specialists alike. It deserves a wide audience."
--Clayborne Carson, Professor of History and Director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute, Stanford University
"It turns out that there is indeed more to say about the theology of our nation's greatest civil rights leader. Wills makes exceptionally good use of the King archives, leaving no stone unturned in the quest for clarifying how King honed a theology in service of racial justice. . . as a fresh reconsideration of the theology of one of America's greatest public figures, this volume is enormously successful."--Horizons