Annotations on a Letter that Changed the World

May 04, 2013

From a Birmingham Jail

Fully annotated and footnoted by Westminster president 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.

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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.

“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

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