Take the First Step in Faith. You Don’t Have To See the Whole Staircase, Just Take the First Step

Martin Luther King Jr.? Marian Wright Edelman? George Sweeting? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Famous civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. has received credit for a stimulating remark about faith. Here are two versions:

(1) Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.

(2) Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.

I haven’t been able to find a citation. Would you please help?

Quote Investigator: Martin Luther King Jr. died in 1968. The earliest published evidence located by QI appeared in the “Cleveland Plain Dealer” of Ohio in 1986. The newspaper interviewed Marian Wright Edelman who was the founder of the Children’s Defense Fund. Edelman knew King and heard him deliver multiple speeches. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

“I was impressed by his leadership, but I think I was impressed even more by the fact that he was an adult and he was not afraid to speak about his uncertainties, his fears,” she said.

“He introduced me to the idea of taking one step, even if you can’t see the whole stairway when you start. I think because of that, I have a much greater capacity to accept failure and move on.”

The excerpt above did not include a direct quotation from King. In addition, it used the word “stairway” instead of “staircase”. The 1991 and 1999 citations presented further below which are also based on Edelman’s memory both contain direct quotations.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In the nineteenth century, thematically related sayings about faith were circulating. For example, in 1831 a Vermont newspaper printed the following: 2

One point, to which the sinner needs to be brought, is this; that he should learn to “walk by faith, and not by sight;” that he should learn to trust in God for the performance of that, for which he has no security but the Divine character.

In 1865 a book about establishing religious missions included the following: 3

“God will provide Himself” the men, if we will but act in faith. Take the first step in faith, and God will find us a footing for the second.

In 1972 George Sweeting, President of the Moody Bible Institute, published a collection of essays, one of which included the following pertinent passage. The point was similar to that of the target quotation; however, it did not refer to a staircase: 4

If you take the first step in faith, the others come easier. We walk by faith and not by sight. Faithfulness to follow today will prepare you for tomorrow.

In 1986 Marian Wright Edelman stated that earlier in her life she had heard a memorable metaphor from Martin Luther King Jr. concerning a partially visible stairway as mentioned previously.

“He introduced me to the idea of taking one step, even if you can’t see the whole stairway when you start.”

In 1988 the compilation “And Still We Rise: Interviews With 50 Black Role Models” included the 1986 interview with Marian Wright Edelman. Thus, her testimony about King was further propagated. 5

In 1991 “Mother Jones” magazine of San Francisco, California printed an article by Edelman in which she described listening to King’s orations in the chapel at Spelman College when she was a young lawyer: 6

One of the things I liked about him was that he didn’t pretend to be a great powerful know-it-all. I remember him discussing openly his gloom, depression, his fears, admitting that he didn’t know what the next step was. He would then say: “Take the first step in faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”

In 1999 the “Houston Chronicle” of Texas published an interview with Edelman in which she discussed King and presented a slightly different version of the quotation using “stairway” instead of “staircase”: 7

“He was not an adult who thought he knew it all. He could say, ‘I don’t know.’ And I remember the very first speech that I heard of his at Spelman. He said, ‘Just because you can’t see the whole stairway, that doesn’t mean you don’t take the first step.’ He said, ‘Keep moving. If you can’t run, walk. If you can’t walk, crawl. But keep moving.’

In 2006 the “Treasury of Wit & Wisdom” compiled by Jeff Bredenberg contained this entry: 8

Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.
— Martin Luther King, Jr.

In conclusion, QI and other researchers have not yet found this quotation in the writings or speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. The posthumous evidence comes from the remarks of Marian Wright Edelman starting in 1986. She presented more than one slightly different version of the quotation. QI believes that the evidence is substantive because Edelman knew King well. Yet, some uncertainty remains.

(Great thanks to Leanne Watson, Daniel Radosh, and Jarrod Baniqued whose inquiries led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Image Notes: Picture of spiral staircase from fda54 at Pixabay. Image has been retouched, resized, and cropped.

Notes:

  1. 1986 March 30, Cleveland Plain Dealer, Section: Living – Panorama – Part 3, Fighting for kids is a full-time job by Deena Mirow (Staff Writer), Quote Page 21, Column 2 thru 4, Cleveland, Ohio. (GenealogyBank)
  2. 1831 April 8, Vermont Chronicle, Regeneration, Quote Page 2, Column 4, Bellows Falls, Vermont. (Newspapers_com)
  3. 1865, Foreign Missions Reviewed: With Suggestions for the Formation of a Friends’ Missionary Society by Henry Stanley Newman (Leominster), Quote Page 21, A. W. Bennett, London. (Google Books Full View) link
  4. 1972, The City: A Matter of Conscience, and Other Messages by George Sweeting (President of the Moody Bible Institute), Chapter: When the Christian Speaks Up, Start Page 44, Quote Page 46, Moody Press, Chicago, Illinois. (Verified with scans)
  5. 1988, And Still We Rise: Interviews With 50 Black Role Models, Edited by Barbara A. Reynolds, Chapter: Children’s Advocate – Marian Wright Edelman, Start Page 73, Quote Page 74 and 75, USA Today Books: Gannett Co. Inc., Washington D.C. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1991 May-June, Mother Jones, Volume 16, Number 31, Kids First! by Marian Wright Edelman, Start Page 31, Quote Page 77, Published by the Foundation for National Progress, San Francisco, California. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1999 April 30, Houston Chronicle, Section: Houston, Marian Wright Edelman – Remembering the Past – Changing the future by Claudia Feldman, Quote Page 1, Houston, Texas. (NewsBank Access World News)
  8. 2006, Treasury of Wit & Wisdom: 4,000 of the Funniest, Cleverest, Most Insightful Things Ever Said, Compiled by Jeff Bredenberg, Topic: Faith, Quote Page 46, Column 2, The Reader’s Digest Association, Pleasantville, New York. (Verified with scans)