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Episcopal Church and Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Episcopal Church and Letter from a Birmingham Jail

Alongside Augustine’s Confessions and Julian of Norwich’s Revelations of Divine Love, I’d make the case that “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, stands as a modern classic of spiritual writing.  Dr. King responds to several critics within the church, and urges the entire church to unite on the side of justice and equality for all people. 

If you have never read it, the whole text is available here.  

The letter comes out of a specific context.  Eight white Alabama clergymen had issued a statement, calling on Dr. King to cease demonstrating in Birmingham.  The statement suggested that demonstrations were provoking hatred and violence, and that the proper way to deal with concerns was through the courts.  Their call was for moderation.  (The full statement is here. )

It is striking to note that both the Episcopal diocesan bishop, and the bishop-coadjutor of Alabama signed the statement.  The diocesan bishop of Alabama, CCJ Carpenter, was even seen by many at the time as being liberal with regard to race relations.  His son recalls that time in history here. 

In Dr. King’s “Letter”, however, moderation and further waiting on the courts, were not good options, especially for people of faith.  He asserted the now-familiar phrase that ‘justice too long delayed is justice denied’ and further, that when the church stood ambivalent in the face of injustice, she forfeit her true identity.  

He says:

There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.  

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today’s church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

Words to remember. 


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I have to take issue with what my friend Doug Carpenter says about his father, Bishop Charles C.J. Carpenter. In no way could Bp Carpenter be called liberal on race. The best that could be said about him is that he did nothing, and that’s exactly what Dr. King said about him. Please read chapter 7 (“The Carpenter of Birmingham…”) of my book, “Bishops, Bourbons, and Big Mules: A History of the Episcopal Church in Alabama” (Univ of Ala Press, 2013) for a balanced account of Bp Carpenter’s role in the civil rights movement.

[Editor’s note: Thanks for the comment. Please sign your name next time.]

Ronald Caldwell

No one could seriously call Bishop Carpenter a liberal. He himself would have been taken aback. He was an Old Southerner who was a product of his environment. However, his episcopacy is much more complicated than one might imagine at first glance. I recommend to everyone Barry Vaughn’s brand new book, BISHOPS, BOURBONS, AND BIG MULES: A HISTORY OF THE EPISCOPAL CHURCH IN ALABAMA. At any rate, Alabama was not beyond redemption. It was a cosponsor of the move to place Blessed Jonathan Myrick Daniels on the Church’s official list of martyrs. And every August in Hayneville, Alabama, hundreds of white and black Alabamians gather in the sweltering heat to remember him and the many others who died for human rights in this state. Ron Caldwell, Jacksonville AL.

Christopher Johnson

It’s not all bad. In the early 1950’s, before my family moved there, my home town of Webster Groves, Missouri closed the municipal swimming pool for two summers rather than let blacks and whites swim together at the same time. The city’s church leaders, including Emmanuel Episcopal’s rector at the time, James Lichliter, took the lead in getting that humiliation removed.

John B. Chilton

Thank you, Arthur. Bit more detail here:

Arthur K. Sudler

Bishop Carpenter forced black priest Robert E. DuBose out of the Diocese of Alabama. Fr. DuBose was welcomed into the Diocese of Pennsylvania where he later was called as the 15th rector of Absalom Jones’ African Episcopal Church of St. Thomas.

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