New Fellowship Launched with The Martin Luther King, Jr. Institute at Stanford University

A project designed to explore the faith and justice legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is being launched by the Center for Innovation in Ministry at San Francisco Theological Seminary. The groundbreaking program will fund a new fellowship designed to promote the study of King’s life from a religious perspective in order to reinvigorate the social justice commitments of congregations.

The J. Alfred Smith Fellowship at the Martin Luther King Institute of Stanford University will be awarded annually to a religious scholar who is also an activist, says Rev. Floyd Thompkins, director of the SFTS Center for Innovation in Ministry. Fellowship recipients will “study the life of King as a Christian leader and explore how his theology informed his activism.”

The fellowship marks the first major cooperative venture of the seminary with Stanford University. Fellowship recipients will study the comprehensive collection of King’s papers housed at the Martin Luther King Jr. Research & Education Institute on the Stanford campus. They also will be available to lecture at Stanford and the Seminary and participate in programs of the Center for Innovation in Ministry.

The new fellowship is named for legendary minister J. Alfred Smith Sr., pastor emeritus of Allen Temple Baptist Church in Oakland, CA, and professor emeritus at American Baptist Seminary of the West. A renowned scholar and preacher, Smith is author of more than 17 books, including Sounding the Trumpet: How Churches Can Answer God’s Call to Justice, co-authored with Rev. Dr. Brooks Berndt. In his sermons, Smith calls for reclaiming the prophetic gospel that inspired the civil rights movement.

The seminary’s project with the MLK Institute will help fulfill Smith’s vision of the church as “fellowship with a radical edge,” Thompkins says. “Smith preaches that the growing edge of the church should always be justice. He wants to make sure that grassroots leaders are always part of the dialogue about peace and justice, and that their voices are studied in academia.”

SFTS and Allen Temple Baptist Church have maintained a close relationship over the years, Thompkins explains, noting that many of the Seminary’s African American students have come from Smith’s congregation.

The J. Alfred Smith Fellowship will also bring pastors from across the country to SFTS and Stanford several times a year, Thompkins says. “They will spend time in both places, drawing on the resources of both Stanford and the Seminary to create a peace and justice curriculum for their churches.”

Resources for pastors and religious leaders will be posted on the website of the MLK Institute. The program for pastors is modeled on a program for teachers at the Institute, which offers curriculum materials for educating students about nonviolent work for social justice and human rights around the world.

Stanford’s MLK Institute was founded in 1985 when Coretta Scott King asked Stanford historian Clayborne Carson to archive and edit her husband’s letters, sermons, speeches, and other materials. The objective of the J. Alfred Smith, Sr. Fellowship is to analyze and build on this work.

“Almost all scholarly writings about King have originated at the King Institute at Stanford. But, as Thompkins points out, “they have never studied King as a pastor or religious leader.”

The J. Alfred Smith, Sr.  Fellows Program will focus on the role of King’s faith and beliefs in his civil rights and social justice work. It will contribute to the seminary’s Center for Innovation in Ministry, Thompkins adds. The J. Alfred Smith, Sr. Fellows will help ensure that every program at San Francisco Theological Seminary —whether it’s a workshop on evangelism or a seminar for new pastors—contains an emphasis on peace and justice.

“We want to make sure that the generative themes of the Center—inclusion, peace and justice—are always emphasized,” he says. “If you don’t put them in the foundation, you can lose them.”