The Arc of the Moral Universe Is Long But It Bends Toward Justice

Martin Luther King? Barack Obama? Theodore Parker? Freemason Commander? Seth Brooks? Jacob Kohn?

Dear Quote Investigator: Civil rights champion Martin Luther King, Jr. once delivered a powerful speech with this resonant line:

The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends toward justice.

I was told that this metaphorical framework has a long history that stretches back to the 19th century. Could you examine this topic?

Quote Investigator: Theodore Parker was a Unitarian minister and prominent American Transcendentalist born in 1810 who called for the abolition of slavery. In 1857 a collection of “Ten Sermons of Religion” by Parker was published and the third sermon titled “Of Justice and the Conscience” included figurative language about the arc of the moral universe: 1

Look at the facts of the world. You see a continual and progressive triumph of the right. I do not pretend to understand the moral universe, the arc is a long one, my eye reaches but little ways. I cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; I can divine it by conscience. But from what I see I am sure it bends towards justice.

Things refuse to be mismanaged long. Jefferson trembled when he thought of slavery and remembered that God is just. Ere long all America will tremble.

The words of Parker’s sermon above foreshadowed the Civil War fought in the 1860s. The passage was reprinted in later collections of Parker’s works. A similar statement using the same metaphor was printed in a book called “Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry” with a copyright date of 1871 and publication date of 1905. The author was not identified: 2

We cannot understand the moral Universe. The arc is a long one, and our eyes reach but a little way; we cannot calculate the curve and complete the figure by the experience of sight; but we can divine it by conscience, and we surely know that it bends toward justice. Justice will not fail, though wickedness appears strong, and has on its side the armies and thrones of power, the riches and the glory of the world, and though poor men crouch down in despair. Justice will not fail and perish out from the world of men, nor will what is really wrong and contrary to God’s real law of justice continually endure.

In 1918 a concise instance of the expression similar to the modern version was printed in a book titled “Readings from Great Authors” in a section listing statements attributed to Theodore Parker: 3

The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1932 a columnist for the Cleveland Plain Dealer in Ohio reported on an adage that he saw posted at a church. This saying nearly matched the 1918 expression, but the word “moral” was omitted. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 4

A Euclid Avenue church which displays weekly epigrams on its bulletin board, has this current offering: “The arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” I don’t know where the quotation is from—it sounds like Emerson—but I have tried in vain for three days now to puzzle out a meaning for it. It sounds so good that it really ought to mean something. Perhaps it is a vague and poetic way of claiming that nature is eventually just.

A newspaper reader recognized that the statement was based on the words of Theodore Parker and notified the columnist. Fourteen days after the original article was published the columnist reprinted the relevant excerpt from Parker’s sermon as published in 1857 and then praised his words. 5

In 1934 a version of the phrase was used in a sermon by Rev. Seth Brooks, pastor of the First Parish church of Malden, Massachusetts as reported in the Lowell Sun newspaper. No attribution was given: 6

“We must believe that the arc of the universe is long, but that it bends toward justice, toward one Divine end towards which creation moves onward and onward, forever.”

In 1940 a version was included in a New Year’s message by Rabbi Jacob Kohn in Los Angeles. No attribution was given: 7

“Our faith is kept alive by the knowledge, founded on long experience, that the arc of history is long and bends toward justice,” Rabbi Jacob Kohn told his audience at Temple Sinai. “We have seen so many ancient tyrannies pass from earth since Egypt and Rome held dominion that our eyes are directed not to the tragic present, but to the beyond, wherein the arc of history will be found bending toward justice, victory and freedom.”

In 1958 an article by Martin Luther King, Jr. was printed in “The Gospel Messenger” periodical. King employed the saying, and he placed it between quotation marks which signaled that it was a pre-existing aphorism: 8

Evil may so shape events that Caesar will occupy a palace and Christ a cross, but that same Christ arose and split history into A.D. and B.C., so that even the life of Caesar must be dated by his name. Yes, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” There is something in the universe which justifies William Cullen Bryant in saying, “Truth crushed to earth will rise again.”

In 1964 King delivered the Baccalaureate sermon at the commencement exercises for Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, and he included the saying: 9

“The arc of the moral universe is long,” Dr. King said in closing, “but it bends toward justice.”

In 2009 Time magazine published an article by President Barack Obama that included the distinctive subphrase about history: “bends toward justice.” Obama credited the words to King: 10

But as I learned in the shadow of an empty steel plant more than two decades ago, while you can’t necessarily bend history to your will, you can do your part to see that, in the words of Dr. King, it “bends toward justice.” So I hope that you will stand up and do what you can to serve your community, shape our history and enrich both your own life and the lives of others across this country.

In 2010 the quote appeared in the pages of Time magazine again, and the words were credited to King: 11

Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Let us realize the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

In conclusion, QI believes that Theodore Parker should be credited with formulating this metaphor about historical progress which was published in a collection of his sermons in 1857. By 1918 a concise version of the saying was being credited to Parker. In 1958 Martin Luther King, Jr. included the expression in an article, but he placed the words in quotation marks to indicate that the adage was already in circulation. King found the phrase attractive and included it in several of his speeches.

(In Memoriam: Thanks to my brother Stephen who asked about this saying.)

Notes:

  1. 1853, Ten Sermons of Religion by Theodore Parker, Of Justice and the Conscience, Start Page 66, Quote Page 84-85, Crosby, Nichols and Company, Boston. (Google Books full view) link
  2. 1905 [Copyright 1871], Morals and Dogma of the Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite of Freemasonry: Prepared for the Supreme Council of the Thirty-Third Degree, for the Southern Jurisdiction of the United States, Compiled by Albert Pike, XXXI GRAND INSPECTOR INQUISITOR COMMANDER, Section XXXI: Grand Inspector Inquisitor Commander, Start Page 825, Quote Page 838, Charleston. (Google Books full view) link
  3. 1918, Readings from Great Authors by John Haynes Holmes, Harvey Dee Brown, Helen Edmunds Redding, and Theodora Goldsmith, Section: Justice: Theodore Parker, Start Page 17, Quote Page 18, Dodd, Mead and Company, New York. (Internet Archive) link
  4. 1932 October 14, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Philosopher of Folly’s Column by Ted Robinson, Page 10, Column 3, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  5. 1932 October 28, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Philosopher of Folly’s Column by Ted Robinson, Page 8, Column 3, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  6. 1934 March 13, Lowell Sun, Real Happiness Found Only In Making Others Happy Says Malden Pastor in Lecture Here, Start Page 10, Quote Page 12, Column 5, Lowell, Massachusetts. (NewspaperArchive)
  7. 1940 October 3, Los Angeles Times, Jews Usher in New Year: Services Conducted at Scores of Synagogues and Temples in City, Quote Page 14, Los Angeles, California. (ProQuest)
  8. 1958 February 8, The Gospel Messenger, Out of the Long Night by Martin Luther King, Jr., Start Page 3, Quote Page 14, Column 1, Official Organ of the Church of the Brethren, Published weekly by the General Brotherhood Board, Elgin, Illinois. (Internet Archive archive.org full view) link
  9. 1964 June 8, Hartford Courant, Wesleyan Baccalaureate Is Delivered by Dr. King by John Craig, Page 4, Hartford, Connecticut. (ProQuest)
  10. 2009 March 19, Time, A New Era of Service Across America by Barack Obama, Time Inc., New York. (Online Time archive time.com) link
  11. 2010 April 29, Time, Mir-Hossein Mousavi by Shohreh Aghdashloo, Time Inc., New York. (Online Time archive time.com) link