The birth of Martin Luther King and the week of prayer for Christian unity

15 January 2004 | Faith & Society

The prayers which follow this introduction, which were prayed at St Martin-in-the-Fields on 20 January 2002, are framed in the Church of England tradition.



Martin Luther King Jr, born 15 January 1929 and assassinated in 1968 aged 39, is widely recognized as a giant in black history and American history. He was the first black American to be honoured with a public holiday (which falls, as does the annual week of prayer for Christian unity, at this time). Millions know of his speech on a sweltering Washington day in August 1963, when he said, ‘I have a dream.’


But King’s significance for the institutional churches has been less noticed. He – a third generation Baptist preacher – was adamant that the Church of God was in desperate need of reform, no less than the society in which it sat. He denounced division within the Church as vigorously as he denounced racism. Do we Christians remember the religious content in King’s closing words that August, when he exhorted the 250,000 crowd to bring closer the day when ‘all of God’s children, black and white, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics, will be able to join hands and sing in the words of the old spiritual – Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’?


King lived and died for his belief that ordinary people would one day rise up in righteous non-violent judgement, to tell the powers that be that they would tolerate scandalous division no longer. In the Church of God, are we listening?



In this special week of prayer, we pray with urgency for the unity, humility and energy of your Church throughout the world.


On our knees before you with Elizabeth our Queen; on our knees before you with Rowan our archbishop; on our knees before you with Richard our bishop; we repent of all institutional pride in the Church of England which disfigures your glory.


This week we also give thanks for your servant and martyr Martin Luther King, whose dream was of the promised land of unity: the unity of all your children, black and white, Jew and Gentile, Protestant and Catholic. We remember his haunting words on the evening before his assassination:


‘It really doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountain top … I’ve looked over and I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.’


Open our eyes Lord, that we may see today and every day your promised land of unity. Every valley will be exalted; every hill and mountain shall be made low; your glory shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it - together.

Just a second