On the evening of April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King was shot in Memphis, Tennessee. It was a Thursday. On Sunday one of the flagship institutions of American evangelicalism, Wheaton College, hosted a community memorial service for the slain civil rights leader. News of the event spread, and some white evangelicals were not happy. Among these was Timothy LaHaye, who would become famous decades later as the co-author of the Left Behind book series. LaHaye’s letter to the president of Wheaton College is below.
Think of some of the questions this single document might raise:
Where did LaHaye get the information about the memorial service? (He seems to have enclosed some sort of article but it was not included in the archives)
What kinds of information did LaHaye rely on to understand the civil rights movement, and where did the “deaths of seventeen people” statistic come from? Was this a right-wing meme? How did it circulate in this pre-internet age? Did LaHaye blame Dr. King for all the violence that occurred at his protests?
Was LaHaye satisfied with the president’s reply? (There is no subsequent letter from LaHaye in the archive.) Did he continue to recommend Wheaton College to his congregation?
Did LaHaye change his views in later decades? As memory of the civil rights movement changed and it became impolitic to have such a negative view of Dr. King, did LaHaye adjust, or did he just become silent?
Did LaHaye ever write anything publicly about the civil rights movement, or about race more generally?
Did the blowback Wheaton received (this was only one of dozens of letters) affect its institutional behavior in subsequent years?
What does this reveal about the theological and racial climate of white evangelicalism in the late 1960s? Were LaHaye’s attitudes exceptional, or normal?
Studying history often involves asking one question after another. At times the questions radiate outward in dizzying complexity, and often the evidence is far more fragmentary than we would like. Primary sources like this one don’t speak for themselves. If I ask you, “What does this document mean?” you might come up with dozens of plausible answers. But perhaps the best answer would be, “I don’t know yet. I need to ask more questions.” And that’s part of what makes history so compelling.
Credit: Wheaton College Archives and Special Collections.