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.

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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