Martin Luther King: Arc of the Moral Universe Bends Toward Justice

All too often, researching the origins of well-known quotes leads to a kind of dead end. Famous people are credited with expressions and sayings that were in common use during their time, and those quotes are only attached to, for instance, Churchill or Gandhi, by later generations of admirers. Half the time, the humorous ones have their origins old vaudeville or music hall gags. And many of the serious quotes we investigate here at the Institute can’t be traced to one individual genius author. They seem to fall under the category of “old saying” or “well-known aphorism.”

That doesn’t mean these quotes, and the sentiments behind them, aren’t very important. They usually are very important, and we all know folks who use quotes and sayings as a way to get through difficult passages in their lives. Getting through tough times, and hoping for an eventual resolution of difficulties, by taking comfort in a quote from a well-respected figure seems to work. That’s certainly the feeling that people want to express when they employ the famous quote, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” Certainly President Obama did when he wrote in an article for Time Magazine in 2009:

But as I learned in the shadow of an empty steel plant more than two decades ago, while you can’t necessarily bend history to your will, you can do your part to see that, in the words of Dr. King, it “bends toward justice.” So I hope that you will stand up and do what you can to serve your community, shape our history and enrich both your own life and the lives of others across this country.

We all know that the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King was one of American history’s great orators, and he employed the “arc of the moral universe bends toward justice” idea in some of his speeches. But did Dr. King formulate this idea and image? Is it a Dr. King quote?

No, it isn’t, but Martin Luther King always put the expression in quotations when he wrote it in essays and sermons. And he acknowledged its source, as he did with so many of the ideas he borrowed from other theologians, philosophers, and great thinkers. We tend forget, Buzzkillers, that Dr. King not only studied theology and philosophy in order to become an ordained minister, but he studied for and received a PhD in “systematic theology” from Boston University in 1955. In his work for both his Divinity degree in 1951 and for his PhD, King would have read and analyzed almost all the influential religious writings of recent centuries, particularly that of 19th century American reforming and Transcendentalist theologians.

One of the most important and deep-thinking of these theologians was Theodore Parker (1810-1860). Among other very impressive things, he was the originator of the concept of the arc of the moral universe bending towards justice. Parker was part of a generation of American religious moral thinkers who not only published great sermons that were widely read, but also wrote and argued for the abolition of slavery. Parker, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and Margaret Fuller, were Transcendentalists. They believed that there was an inherent goodness in people and nature, and that selfishness in society and its institutions constantly tried to draw people away from that goodness. The religious side of Transcendentalism included the idea that there was a natural morality in the universe that will always triumph, eventually.

Not surprisingly, these ideas fit in very well with general movements for social reform, such as voting rights for women, and the abolition of slavery. Parker was a strong abolitionist, and he spoke and wrote about it with increasing frequency in the 1850s. The most direct message he sent was that an evil such as slavery could not last much longer. If humans couldn’t find the courage to abolish slavery, God would end it as part of the trajectory of morality in the universe.

In a sermon from the early 1850s entitled, “Of Justice and the Conscience,” Parker wrote,

Everywhere in the world there is a natural law, that is a constant mode of action, which seems to belong to the nature of things, to the constitution of the universe; this fact is universal.

Later in the sermon, Parker expressed the specific idea that the “arc of the moral universe bends toward justice.”

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

I think that the whole paragraph was worth quoting, because it includes the crucial elements of why Parker believed that the arc of the moral universe bent towards justice. “I can divine it by conscience,” he said, which is an almost perfect encapsulation of the Transcendentalist belief that natural intuition rather than empirical thought alone brought true insight.

And Parker was careful to make sure that his readers understood that he included slavery in those things that the arc of the moral universe will find unjust and will make right. The question for Americans in the early 1850s, he said, was how bad divine punishment for slavery would be for the country.

Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.

Theodore Parker, “Of Justice and Conscience,” Ten Sermons of Religion (1853).

Now, one of the things we tend to forget about the 19th century is the impact of the printed word via newspapers, pamphlets, and books, especially once steam-powered printing presses began cranking out stuff in volume. Parker’s published sermons were very popular, and widely read and discussed during his lifetime, especially by people struggling with the great moral and political questions surrounding slavery. Among his readers was an Illinois politician and lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. In fact, Lincoln often used Parker’s ideas and arguments in his own speeches, including the famous “Government of the people, by the people, for the people…” line that used to end the Gettysburg Address in 1863.

So we should credit Reverend Theodore Parker with the “arc of the moral universe bends toward justice” concept and quote. But we should also realize that his work had a major impact on arguably two of the most thoughtful leaders in American history, Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King. Let that sink in. When we think about the wonderful things that Lincoln and Dr. King accomplished, let’s also spare a thought for Theodore Parker, one of the people who inspired both of them.

But even though the “arc of the moral universe bends toward justice” quote isn’t original to Dr. King, I’d like to return to him before the end of this episode. You know, we tend in this culture to reduce great thoughts to digestible sound-bites, and I think sometimes it’s important to go back to the full version of many famous quotations. Sure, the whole Parker extract I read won’t fit on a bumper sticker or an inspirational poster. You won’t see it in your yoga studio. But the full idea, and how Parker fleshed it out, has great value and should be heard more often. That’s one of the things I’d like to do with these Quote or No Quote blog posts.

And that’s why, rather than just play a snippet, I’d like to leave you with a slightly longer extract of the final moments of the speech where Martin Luther King used Theodore Parker’s “arc of the moral universe bends toward justice” idea most fully and famously. While appearing before the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta in August 1967, Dr. King talked about the long, bitter, and often dangerous road toward freedom and justice. In addition to quoting other great thinkers, he used Parker’s idea of the ultimate morality of the universe to envision a time when he and all Americans could look back on the civil rights era and use “a cosmic past tense” to refer to the justice that had been reached. Let’s hope that, somewhere, Theodore Parker was able to hear him.

When our days become dreary with low-hovering clouds of despair, and when our nights become darker than a thousand midnights, let us remember that there is a creative force in this universe working to pull down the gigantic mountains of evil, a power that is able to make a way out of no way and transform dark yesterdays into bright tomorrows.

Let us realize that the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice. Let us realize that William Cullen Bryant is right: “Truth, crushed to earth, will rise again.” Let us go out realizing that the Bible is right: “Be not deceived. God is not mocked. Whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap.” This is our hope for the future, and with this faith we will be able to sing in some not too distant tomorrow, with a cosmic past tense, “We have overcome! We have overcome! Deep in my heart, I did believe we would overcome.”

“Where Do We Go From Here” speech, delivered August 16, 1967 to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in Atlanta.

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  1. Patricia Trutty-Coohill on January 26, 2017 at 12:19 am

    Another beauty. And very consoling now. Thanks. PTC