Annotations on a Letter that Changed the World from a Birmingham Jail

Annotations on a Letter that Changed the World from a Birmingham Jail
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Lillback, Peter A.


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Why I Published My Annotations by Peter Lillback

Several years ago, I read the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s Letter From Birmingham Jail and was deeply moved by his gripping story of the unrelenting struggle and heartrending sufferings of African-Americans to achieve the human and civil rights most Americans take for granted. As I’ve read and reread Dr. King’s masterpiece, my appreciation for his vast scholarship and mastery of various theological and philosophical viewpoints has only deepened. For his letter was a prison epistle penned to answer the criticisms of fellow clergymen while he endured the great distress of incarceration. In spite of his circumstances, his letter is characterized by grace and truth and the acumen of an accomplished pastor-scholar.

In this fiftieth anniversary year of his epic letter, I publish my annotations on his work seeking to show the extensive sources of his thought and to elucidate his message. My hope is that my study will enable us all to better understand Dr. King, whether we agree or disagree with the message and tactics he chose to use to confront the injustices of racial segregation. I believe this deepening understanding is important for people of all races and all creeds not merely because Dr. King is the only minister for whom a national American holiday has been established, but also because his perspectives on the public nature of theology are becoming ever more relevant to historic Christians as we observe the steady erosion of our First Amendment liberties of conscience that have hitherto been the hallmark of American liberty.

Publisher's Description

Displaying the power and rhetoric of a reformer's sermon, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter From Birmingham Jail was penned on scraps of paper, without any reference materials, in a barren jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama, in April of 1963. As a little known, yet unfathomably profound epistle amplifying theological truth and the historical significance of America's civil and religious liberties, the breadth of knowledge, the penetrating insight, and the grasp of historical thinkers and their specific words revealed in this letter are nothing less than a testimony to genius. Now fully annotated and footnoted by historian and bestselling author Dr. Peter Lillback, Letter From Birmingham Jail takes its place as one of America's most valuable and noteworthy manifestos of not only the civil rights movement, but also of our nation's ceaseless journey to preserve its enduring freedoms.

About the Author

Peter A. Lillback is president of Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA. He also serves as the president of The Providence Forum. Previously he served as pastor of Proclamation Presbyterian Church in Bryn Mawr, PA.

Book Details

163 Pages
Publisher: Providence Forum Press
Publication Date: April 2013
ISBN 13: 9780984765416

“I first read Dr. King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail" as a freshman in high school. I have a vivid memory of being struck by his suggestion that perhaps the world is in "dire need of creative extremists" for love and the extension of justice, by those who would follow the biblical prophet Amos, Martin Luther, John Bunyan, Abraham Lincoln, and most importantly, the Lord Jesus Christ. The articulate vision and call to action contained in Dr. King's "Letter from Birmingham Jail"—for justice and love, for non-violent social activism, and for the involvement of all in seeing racial harmony and justice come in increasing measure in our world—remain a timely, challenging and important message for the 21st century. Many have read the letter. I earnestly pray this reprinting, along with helpful outline and index of significant quotations, will play a part to draw us again to the vision expressed by Dr. King, reflecting the vision of God himself for shalom in the world.”
- Professor Michael B. Kelly, Assistant Professor of Old Testament, Westminster Theological Seminary

“Americans have benefited from the faith and fortitude of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but often at a comfortable distance from the moral conscience and courage that were required to secure these benefits. From a dim and dusty jail cell, Dr. King challenged the leaders of the faith community as the custodians of Biblical Truth. His powerful thesis declared that when such leaders are void of the will to confront injustice with direct action, they have abandoned their Christian responsiblity.

“Dr. Peter Lillback, preeminent scholar, theologian, and historian, reminds us that Dr. King was not simply a great, gifted thinker. He was also an exceptional theologian and historian. Annotations on a Letter That Changed the World from a Birmingham Jail is an amazing exhibition of this fact.”
- Rev. Dr. Herbert H. Lusk, II, Pastor, Greater Exodus Baptist Church, Philadelphia, PA, Founder and CEO, People For People, Inc., Former Philadelphia Eagles Running Back

“In making Annotations on a Letter That Changed the World from a Birmingham Jail available with his incisive editorial comments, Dr. Peter Lillback has rendered a great service to those around the world who seek reconciliation of people of all races. His intelligent approach provides added learning to issues of race long dividing humankind. This is a must read for Heads of State world wide, University and College leaders, State and Local governments, students and all those who have a yearning for peace and reconciliation. We are indebted to Dr. Lillback for an unselfish act of service.”
- Rev. Dr. W. Wilson Goode Sr., Mayor of Philadelphia, 1984-1992

Letter from Birmingham Jail is inspiring and one of a kind. There is little doubt that Martin Luther King Jr. was a spiritual giant. His Letter not only deals with theology, it encompasses ethics, law, history, society, and literary artistry. It is always a part of my philosophy of religion classes.

“Its many well-chosen phrases echo in the mind: “freedom is never voluntarily given,” “the cup of endurance runs over,” “flowing with floods of blood,” his metaphorical comparison of the church as either a thermometer or thermostat, and sister Pollard’s memorably incorrect grammar, “My feets is tired, but my soul is rested.” He was both an eyewitness and one who suffered the demeaning cruelty delivered to the Blacks. To the moderate white church his message was “wake-up.” His Letter is Christianity in action.

“Dr. Lillback’s insightful citations and annotations add significance to the origin and meaning of the Letter. It is of value to see the slight changes made between the original and “polished” versions. Who would guess that this profound writing began on the margins of a newspaper? In the twenty-first century, who would know that Birmingham, aka “Bombingham,” was the most segregated city in America, or that there were 48 unsolved bombings between 1948 and 1957? Who would know that “Bull” Connors had perpetuated segregation for twenty-two years as the sheriff?

“This document should be read and reread by every pastor and Christian without exception, especially those who say that social and political issues are not their talking points.”
- Bruce Weber, STD, PhD, Adjunct Instructor, Brandman/Chapman University