New Book Dissects Martin Luther King Jr.'s Sermons

'King Came Preaching' is a meticulous examination of MLK's powerful speeches from the pulpit.

BY: Ben Johnson


HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (RNS) -- Ask the average person to recite two or three lines--any lines--from a sermon by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and you're likely to hear a familiar refrain:

"Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!"

Those are the noted last three sentences from King's "I Have a Dream" speech delivered during the 1963 March on Washington. Considering the major role King played in the civil rights movement in the 20th century, it's easy to forget he was a preacher at heart, says Mervyn A. Warren, a professor at Oakwood College in Huntsville.

As the son, grandson and great-grandson of black Baptist preachers in the South, King sprang from "the womb of the black church," Warren writes in his new book, "King Came Preaching: The Pulpit Power of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr." (InterVarsity Press, $19.99, 223 pages).

Unlike King biographers Lewis Baldwin, James Cone and C. Taylor Branch, Warren doesn't focus on King's life and social activism. Instead, he meticulously examines King's sermons.

Ever since he was a doctoral student at Michigan State University in the 1960s, Warren has studied King's sermons and preaching style. His dissertation was a scholarly look at King the preacher.

The new book is a complete rewriting and updating of that dissertation, scripted for lay rather than scholarly consumption. In it Warren dissects King's research, writing, speaking and delivery styles. The book includes the full text of four of King's sermons that had never been published.

One of these was delivered at Oakwood College on March 2, 1962, during King's only visit to Huntsville.

Warren, an Oakwood student then, heard King's sermon. It inspired him to study King as part of his doctoral work in philosophy.

Warren's doctoral adviser approved the dissertation subject but mandated that Warren get King's approval as well as a personal interview. In a stroke of luck, one of Michigan State's few black professors then, Robert Green, had spent time with King during the Selma march. He was able to set up an interview for Warren.

Prior to speaking at a Chicago church, King spent a couple hours with Warren.

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