King’s call: accepting the challenge to enter ministry

By the Rev. Jerrod Hugenot

In the summer of 1959, Joan Thatcher, publicity officer for the American Baptist Convention (now known as American Baptist Churches USA) was seeking material for “Life Service Sunday.” This initiative was intended to encourage churches to place special Sunday worship emphasis on church vocations. The publicity office sought testimony and insight from notable people who epitomized a life lived in service to Christ and the church.

Thatcher reached out to a minister who, in the late 1950s, was enjoying a rising profile and a good number of American Baptist connections: The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. She sent a letter to Atlanta, asking King to write about his call to ministry.

As part of her request, Thatcher noted, “Apparently many of our young people still feel that, unless they see a burning bush or a blinding light on the road Damascus, they haven’t been called.”

King wrote back:

My call to the ministry was neither dramatic nor spectacular. It came neither by some miraculous vision nor by some blinding light experience on the road of life. Moreover, it did not come as a sudden realization. Rather, it was a response to an inner urge that gradually came upon me. This urge expressed itself in a desire to serve God and humanity, and the feeling that my talent and my commitment could best be expressed through the ministry. At first I planned to be a physician; then I turned my attention in the direction of law. But as I passed through the preparation stages of these two professions, I still felt within that undying urge to serve God and humanity through the ministry. During my senior year in college, I finally decided to accept the challenge to enter the ministry. I came to see that God had placed a responsibility upon my shoulders and the more I tried to escape it the more frustrated I would become. A few months after preaching my first sermon I entered theological seminary. This, in brief, is an account of my call and pilgrimage to the ministry.

These words about “call” were shared across the denomination as part of the 1960 Life Service initiative. We read these words today, thanks to the careful archiving of the King Papers, held at Stanford (Calif.) University, and made available online for everyone to access.

We look upon these words from 1960 with the benefit of hindsight, knowing what significance King would take on for the Civil Rights Movement, his greatest public speeches yet to be seared into the minds of generations to come. In this moment of reflection, King recalls a shifting of vocations, uncertain until he was certain about his life’s path. It was not in the clarity of a singular moment.

I am reminded of Jürgen Moltmann, who reflected on his life and career as a theologian and observed, “The road emerged only as I walked it.”

King came to the realization, yet it was not ultimately a one-time event that overwhelmed. Instead, he found his call to ministry a “response to an inner urge that gradually came upon me.” He had to hear it, live with it, perhaps run from it, and then embrace it. And, as any pastor will admit, he had to continue to embrace it through thick and thin.

The Rev. Jerrod Hugenot is associate executive minister of American Baptist Churches of New York State.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.