Book Review: ‘The Seminarian: Martin Luther King Jr. Comes of Age’ by Patrick Parr

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In this age of the blockbuster superhero movie, audiences have come to expect the hero’s origin story. Why does he wear that cape? Where did she learn to fight like that? Why do they hide behind those secret identities?

Many recent superhero movies shuffle through the origin narrative as quickly as possible. Every so often, though, films will invest the time necessary to transform their protagonists from one-dimensional archetypes into flesh-and-blood human beings.

Most biographies of Martin Luther King Jr. have focused on King the civil rights icon, spotlighting his role from the Montgomery bus boycott onward. In The Seminarian, Patrick Parr instead gives us an extended look at the formative years of the preacher’s postgraduate education at Crozer Theological Seminary near Chester, Pennsylvania, then a small, liberal-minded school of fewer than 100 students (less than a quarter of whom were black).

Parr is a wonderful guide through this pivotal season of King’s intellectual development, spiritual formation, and youthful angst. We feel the young seminarian’s anxiety as he arrives at a predominantly white school, we witness his encounters with the North’s less flamboyant but equally treacherous brand of racism, and we experience the heartbreak of his short-lived romance with a white student.

From the vantage point of a Northern city, the Atlanta-born King began to reflect on the racial injustices of the Deep South and the cleansing potential of a liberal religious activism. This was King’s first extended time in the majority-white world, and he felt obligated not to perpetuate stereotypes associated with Southern Negroes. Consequently, he worked hard to prove to his white professors and classmates that he belonged. He was always early to class, immaculately groomed, and thoroughly prepared. Writes Parr, “He affected a ‘grimly serious’ demeanor.”

Gradually, King became a warmer, more spirited presence about campus. As his natural oratorical gifts emerged, students packed the lecture hall whenever King was scheduled to speak. He was eventually elected president of the student body. At the height of his popularity, he carved out time from his studies for weekend parties, played cards and billiards (two pastimes that had been off-limits as a preacher’s kid), and took up cigarettes. But none of this impeded his academic prowess, and the goal of breaking down legal barriers to Negro rights was never far from his mind.

It’s fascinating to see King wrestling with what he would be as a preacher and an intellectual. Though he arrived at Crozer wanting to escape his black Southern Baptist heritage, he continually found it springing up from within. At the same time, he struggled to smoothly incorporate his newfound passion for Northern liberal intellectualism into his sermons. One black pastor was clear in pointing out King’s deficiencies— and “snobbishness”—as a preacher, noting that he failed to understand “the demands of ministering effectively to the average Negro congregation.” Still another critique described his preaching as “more style than content.”

“Audiences wouldn’t complain later in King’s life, when he used such rhetorical flourishes to promote the noble cause of civil rights,” Parr writes. “But all too often at Crozer, they were embellishments without a larger purpose.” In time, though, King learned how to make the different pieces work together. Parr shows us the evolution of a Christian visionary in training.

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Source: Christianity Today