The Preaching of Martin Luther King Jr.

The Preaching of Martin Luther King Jr.

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Learn about the style and sermon preparation of Martin Luther King Jr.  This paper/article was written by Terrell for his Life and Writings of MLK class at Wesley Theological Seminary in the summer of 2010.

Introduction

While accepting my call to ministry I’ve struggled with the idea of preaching.   For someone whose voice is monotone and overall demeanor is laid back, I often question whether or not I would able to deliver a sermon affectively, especially in the black church.  In the black church, along with the word from God it almost seems that whooping is expected from the congregants and without it a sermon would be deemed ineffective by them.  In searching for a powerful preacher whose delivery wasn’t what I considered norm I was lead to Martin Luther King Jr., one of the most affective preachers and leaders the world may have ever seen.   W.E.B. Du Bois was quoted to say “the Preacher is the most unique personality developed by the Negro on American soil.  A leader, a politician, an orator, a ‘boss,’ an intriguer, an idealist-,” and King displayed all of these attributes in his preaching and speech giving. What was unique about King was that he was able to preach in a way that transcended race and styles that not only his fellow African Americans would be familiar with.   In the following paragraphs I will speak of some of the people who influenced Martin Luther King Jr.  I will also go on to describe how King composed and delivered his sermons and speeches.

King’s History and Influences

The history of African American preaching can be linked back to the African slave’s exposure to the gospel by George Whitefield.  Whitefield was one of the most notable preachers who wasn’t hesitant to share the gospel with the slaves.  Whitefield style was that of a storyteller.  His gifts included “his ability to simplify Divine truth and to present the narratives of the Scriptures and the message of the Gospel with vivid clarity.”[1] This made him a great candidate for the task.  Later, as slaves were able to participate in camp meetings and gain more exposure to the gospel, the African American preacher would be birthed.  Along with what the slaves were experiencing from their white slave masters they would also incorporate aspects of their African heritage while preaching to each other.  “Rooted in West Africa and fragmented by slavery, the black oral tradition encompasses an elaborate system of music, dance, folklore, and oratory in which the black preacher reigns supreme.”[2] King being a third generation preacher had all of this in his makeup.   His maternal great-grandfather Rev. A.D. Williams was a spiritual leader for the slave community later leading ex-slaves in Green County Georgia.

As a child Dr. King was attracted to words and those who spoke eloquently.  His father is quoted as saying that as a child, “if he heard that some outstanding man was going to speak, he would ask me to take him.  I remember after on such occasion when he was only about ten, he said, “That man had some big words, Daddy.  When I grow up I’m going to get me some big words.”  As soon as he could read, he lived in dictionaries, and he made that saying come true.  King almost seemed to be obsessed with good preachers.  One of King’s early influences was Rev. William Holmes Borders.  King was so intrigued with Borders he would even “sneak down occasionally to Wheat Street Baptist Church, located a few blocks from his home on Atlanta’s Auburn Avenue, to listen to Pastor Borders.”[3] William Borders himself was an educated man.  Borders attended Morehouse.  After completing his bachelor’s degree, he would go on to attend Garrett Theological Seminary at Northwestern.  Borders was known as a gifted speaker.  Prior to accepting the position of Pastor at the Wheat Street Baptist church in Atlanta he was asked to return to Morehouse as an instructor, a position that he would hold for year.  Borders was so gifted that in 1940 he was offered and accepted a position at a local radio station.  His show would continue for more than twenty years.  By 1962 Borders would also have “authored five books of sermons and a book of poems.”[4] Dr. King would be exposed to leaders like this throughout his childhood.  A list of well-known ministers with graceful styles were constant visitors not only at his father’s Auburn Avenue church but in the King house hold.  They included “Sandy F. Ray, Joseph H. Jackson, Mordecai Johnson, Benjamin E. Mays, J. Pius Barbour, William H. Hester, James T. Boddie, Gardner C. Taylor, Howard Thurman, Lucius M. Tobin and Samuel W. Williams.”[5] King would aspire to be well rounded and educated like those he was exposed to during his childhood.

School of Thought, Preparation, Methods for Composing and Delivery

Even though Martin Luther King Jr., came from a line of African American preachers in his family he was also influenced from what he learned while attending Crozer, a predominantly a white seminary.  While studying at Crozer, King would be exposed to various styles of sermon arrangements.  Those styles included the Jewel Sermon, the Roman Candle Sermon, and the Classification Sermon.   The Jewel Sermon involved looking at an idea from multiple angles.  The Roman Candle Sermon contained a series of loosely related points.  The Classification Sermon involved placing people or things into different classes or groups. A number of King’s sermons would fall into the Classification category which was common to the folk preaching that African Americans were used to.[6] From time to time he would also show the ability to mix styles as some preachers did.  Because Dr. King had a handle on an array of sermon arrangement styles he would be able to reach all audiences instead of being just able to preach to the black community.   In seminary King was also taught by James Richards and Morton Scott Enslin.  From these professors he learned that in order to fully interpret what was written in the Bible he had to know the historical context in which the texts were written.  This form of biblical interpretation enabled King to be able to relate biblical characters and stories to the to the current time setting.

Dr. King did not take sermon preparation lightly.  Prior to The Civil Rights movement he spent 15 hours in preparation.  He had a system which that he followed:  On Tuesday he began to outline his ideas; On Wednesday he would conduct research which included gathering illustrations for the sermon; On Friday he would begin to write the sermon; On Saturday he would complete the sermon.  His systematic approach during The Civil Rights Movement had to be adjusted.  King stated during the movement, “I very seldom get to write out my sermons as I did in the past.  I frequently have to be content with an outline.”[7]

In compiling his content, King would often borrow from known authors and preachers.  Historians may criticize this because he rarely gave credit to the authors while preaching.  Some may question whether or not his messages were genuine.  Borrowing was even frowned upon by his professors while attending seminary.  They taught that one should never do such.  But if we look closely at Dr. King’s work we notice that he never recited someone’s sermon word for word.  Instead “he merged voices and enhanced his status by selecting themes that were not only useful but also authoritative.”[8] Let’s take a look at how he was able to do this in the first few paragraphs of his sermon Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.  First King drew from Episcopal Bishop Phillip Brooks’ “The Symmetry of Life” for the first four paragraphs.  Below displays the difference in the fourth paragraph showing that King didn’t reproduce Brooks’ sermon word for word.

Brooks States:

There are then three directions or dimensions of human life to which we may fitly give these three names, Length and Breadth and Height.  The Length of a life, this meaning of it, is, of course, not its duration.  It is rather the reaching on and out of a man, in the line of activity and thought and self-development… It is the push of a life forward to its own perusal ends and ambitions.

King States:

There are three dimensions of any complete life to which we can fitly give the words of this text: length, breadth, and height.  The length of life as well shall think of it here is not its duration or its longevity, but it is the push of a life to achieve its personal ends and ambitions. [9]

King then moves to personalize Rabbi Joshua Liebman’s (a bestselling author) concept of self-love in his book Peace of Mind by stating:

“Too many Negroes are ashamed of themselves, ashamed of being black.  A Negro gotta rise up and say from the bottom of his soul, ‘I am some-body.  I have a rich, Noble, and proud heritage.  However exploited and however pained my history has been, I’m black but I’m black and beautiful.’”[10]

Though King rarely spoke of his resources during his sermons he never hid his influences.  When asked if Phillip Brooks influenced one of his sermons King openly admitted that Brooks affected much of his preaching. [11] King was able shape topics and ideas from other well-known writers and mold sermons that were relevant for his time.  For instance in his sermon on “Being a Good Neighbor”, King references Albert Schweitzer (a German Theologian), Abraham Lincoln, Harry Emerson Fosdick (an American Minister).  Also in “The Death of Evil Upon The Seashore” King quoted a large list of writers including, William Cullen Bryant (an American Poet), Thomas Carlyle (a British Writer), Shakespeare, James Russell Lowell (an American Writer), Winston Churchill, Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln.[12] In using such resources Dr. King showed that he was versatile and well read.

Not only was King skillful at scripting a sermon, he made them clear and easy to understand.  According to a formula derived by Rudolf Flesch in his book The Art of Plain Talk, King’s sermons ranged from easy to fairly easy to understand.  The calculation was conducted on 3 random sermons and takes note of the average sentence length in words, affixes per 100 words and the personal references per 100 words. [13] With his simple use of language, Dr. King would also paint simple pictures for his audience through the use of metonymies.  A metonymy is defined by Dictionary.com as “a figure of speech that consists of the use of the name of one object or concept for that of another to which it is related, or of which it is a part”.  Unlike a metaphor a metonymy shows relationships between the image and the idea in a logical sense which will make the use of it suitable for a large audience.  Some of the metonymies used during the Civil Rights Movement where there would be no questions of their meanings would be phrases such as “the iron feet of oppression” and the “dark chambers of pessimism.”  King would make use of metonymies like these and they would be clear and easy for the audience to understand leaving no room for confusion.[14]

His delivery was almost always void of whooping which is a common practice in the black church.  At Ebenezer, King experienced whooping and call and response which can be dated back to the practice of ring and shout by our slave ancestors.  Du Bois “described it as a ‘Pythian madness’, the natural separation of leader and audience was broken down.  The Word became the achievement of the group.”   Once a year during an Emancipation Day celebration, preachers would “whoop and turn in circles while the audience shouted and kept time.  King Jr. would later disdain the preaching of ‘whooping, loud, emotional’ sermons and churches whose members have ‘more religion in the hands and feet than in their hearts and souls.’  He also rarely used notes.  Dr. King stated, “Occasionally I read a policy speech or an address for civil rights, but I never read a sermon.  Without a manuscript, I can communicate better with an audience.  Furthermore, I have greater rapport and power when I am able to look the audience in the eye.”  Because King did not read from a manuscript the audience was almost guaranteed that they would never hear the same sermon twice.  King’s open style was one in which he would be able to rearrange ideas on the fly even being able to pull in sections of a totally different sermon.  In fact during his speech that was later titled ‘I Have a Dream’, which took place during The March on Washington in 1963, it was noted Mahilia Jackson urged him from the crowd to tell the crowd about the dream.  King went on to insert the famous I Have a Dream sequence into the speech which was actually used by him in a prior address at the Great March on Detroit in June of 1963.[15] Below is a side by side comparison of the dream sequence:

During the March in Detroit King states: During the March on Washington King States:
I have a dream that one day, right down in Georgia and Mississippi and Alabama, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to live together as brothers.I have a dream this afternoon (I have a dream) that one day, one day little white children and little Negro children will be able to join hands as brothers and sisters.I have a dream this afternoon that one day, that one day men will no longer burn down houses and the church of God simply because people want to be free.

I have a dream this afternoon (I have a dream) that there will be a day that we will no longer face the atrocities that Emmett Till had to face or Medgar Evers had to face, that all men can live with dignity.

I have a dream this afternoon that my four little children, that my four little children will not come up in the same young days that I came up within, but they will be judged on the basis of the content of their character, not the color of their skin.

I have a dream this afternoon that one day right here in Detroit, Negroes will be able to buy a house or rent a house anywhere that their money will carry them and they will be able to get a job.

Yes, I have a dream this afternoon that one day in this land the words of Amos will become real and “justice will roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.”

I have a dream this evening that one day we will recognize the words of Jefferson that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” I have a dream this afternoon.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, and “every valley shall be exalted, and every hill shall be made low; the crooked places shall be made straight, and the rough places plain; and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.”

I have a dream this afternoon that the brotherhood of man will become a reality in this day.[16]

I say to you today, my friends, so even though we face the difficulties of today and tomorrow, I still have a dream. It is a dream deeply rooted in the American dream.I have a dream that one day this nation will rise up and live out the true meaning of its creed: “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal.”I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.

I have a dream that one day even the state of Mississippi, a state sweltering with the heat of injustice, sweltering with the heat of oppression, will be transformed into an oasis of freedom and justice.

I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day, down in Alabama, with its vicious racists, with its governor having his lips dripping with the words of interposition and nullification; one day right there in Alabama, little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.[17]

By readjusting the section above for the March on Washington, King displayed the talent of being able to script on the fly without hesitation.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a master at his craft.  Coming from a line of preachers that were tied to slavery he was born to preach.  King took what was in his family roots and expanded upon it by continuing to expand his knowledge through continuous education.  King referred to Christian doctrine, poetry, personal experience and even philosophy in his preaching. Not only was he able to take everything he gained and make it understandable, he was also able to use these uplifting messages to help the Civil Rights Movement.  Through his preaching King was able to transcend race and proclaim the gospel to all people.

Written by Terrell Harris for CH210 – The Life and Writing of Martin Luther King, Jr. Copyright ©2010


[1] Thomas, Gerald Lamont: The Contribution of Dr. Gardern C. Taylor. African American Preaching. Ed. Mozella G. Mitchell. Vol 7. Peter Lang Publishing, 2004. 14-15

[2] Thomas, Gerald Lamont: The Contribution of Dr. Gardern C. Taylor. African American Preaching. Ed. Mozella G. Mitchell. Vol 7. Peter Lang Publishing, 2004. 19

[3] Baldwin, Lewis V. There is a Balm in Gilead. Minneapolos: Fotress Pr, 1991. 275

[4] Borders, Rev. William Homes. “Why I Believe There is A God.” Ebony (November 1962): 96

[5] Baldwin, Lewis V. There is a Balm in Gilead. Minneapolos: Fotress Pr, 1991. 276-277

[6] Miller, Keith. Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr and Its Sources. New York: Free Pr, 1992.

[7] Warren, Mervyn A. King Came Preaching: The Pulpit Power of Martin Luther King Jr. InterVarsity Pr, 2001. 156-157

[8] Miller, Keith. Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr and Its Sources. New York: Free Pr, 1992

[9] Lischer, Richard. The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr, and The word that moved America. Oxford Univ Pr, 1995. 96-97.

[10] Lischer, Richard. The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr, and The word that moved America. Oxford Univ Pr, 1995. 101.

[11] Miller, Keith. Voice of Deliverance: The Language of Martin Luther King, Jr and Its Sources. New York: Free Pr, 1992. 137

[12] Warren, Mervyn A. King Came Preaching: The Pulpit Power of Martin Luther King Jr. InterVarsity Pr, 2001. Appendix 5

[13] Warren, Mervyn A. King Came Preaching: The Pulpit Power of Martin Luther King Jr. InterVarsity Pr, 2001. 142-143

[14] Lischer, Richard. The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr, and The word that moved America. Oxford Univ Pr, 1995. 123-124.

[15] Lischer, Richard. The Preacher King: Martin Luther King, Jr, and The word that moved America. Oxford Univ Pr, 1995. 116.

[16] The Martin Luther King, Jr. Education and Research Institute – Speech at The Great March on Detriot. n.d. <http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/index.php/kingpapers/article/speech_at_the_great_march_on_detroit/>

[17] U.S. Constitution Online – The I Have A Dream Speech. n.d. <http://www.usconstitution.net/dream.html>.

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