Beloved Community

February 20, 2018

At a gathering this past weekend, we reflected on what the term “beloved community” means to us.  To all those present, the term is part of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s vocabulary and legacy.  But is King the origin of this concept, or did he draw it from someone else?

Josiah Royce is the answer.  Shirley Strong (for example) writes:

The term “Beloved Community” can be traced back to Josiah Royce (1855-1916), the 19th century American religious philosopher. It was a part of the popular theological vocabulary of Boston University’s School of Theology during the early 1950s, when Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was a doctoral student there. Royce characterized the Beloved Community as “a spiritual or divine community capable of achieving the highest good as well as the common good.”

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy provides a good overview of Royce, someone who deserves to be better known and appreciated.  Says that entry,

[S]ome communities are defined by true loyalty, or adherence to a cause that harmonizes with the universal ideal of “loyalty to loyalty.” He refers to such communities as “genuine communities” or “communities of grace.” Other communities are defined by a vicious or predatory loyalty. These degenerate “natural communities” tend toward the destruction of others’ causes and possibilities of loyalty. Finally, beyond the actual communities that we directly encounter in life there is the ideal “Beloved Community” of all those who would be fully dedicated to the cause of loyalty, truth and reality itself.

“Loyalty, truth and reality itself:” these are not the first words one would hear today in imagining the beloved community.  For example, Strong defines the “beloved community” as “an inclusive, interrelated society based on love, justice, compassion, responsibility, shared power and a respect for all people, places, and things—a society that radically transforms individuals and restructures institutions.”  I think most others would say similar things.

Good words all, but I also like Royce’s grounding in commitment, reality and truth.

(By “loyalty,” Royce meant “the practically devoted love of an individual for a community” [The Problem of Christianity, Royce, 1913].)

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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