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


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"He exhausted every question I had to ask him," Warren said recently during an interview in his Huntsville home.

Warren writes: "Here was a man who spoke and served from principles hammered out primarily from family, the Bible and theological underpinnings. All of his responses to my questions bore indelible marks of a conscious fulfillment of the understanding of God's law of love incumbent on his life--love of God and love of his fellow human beings--and he could do none other, come what might."

Warren interviewed numerous King associates and biographers and consulted some of the hundreds of books and thousands of newspaper and magazine articles about King. (The book lists 10 pages of footnotes.)

The result is a painstakingly researched book that examines common notions about King's sermons. The book includes some little-known facts, including this one: By the time King turned 13, he had tried to commit suicide twice -- both times in the wake of traumatic events involving his grandmother, first a serious accident and later her death.

Another observation deals with King's decision to enter the ministry after considering becoming a doctor and then a lawyer. He wrestled with his conscience and his soul.

When Time magazine selected him as the 1964 "Man of the Year" (the same year he won the Nobel Peace Prize), King told a reporter: "I had doubts that religion was intellectually respectable. I revolted against the emotionalism of Negro religion, the shouting and the stamping. I didn't understand it and it embarrassed me."

There are four ways to deliver sermons, according to scholars who study them: extemporaneous, reading a manuscript, memorization and impromptu (given off-the-cuff).

King preferred extemporaneous speeches, often using the same subject matter and many references, but always varying the content. Warren quotes King as saying he preferred to write out his sermons, making numerous revisions. But when he stepped to the pulpit, King generally used only notes or an outline, never a prepared text from which he read. This approach made his sermons more spontaneous, Warren observes. Writing out the sermon helped him familiarize himself with his ideas, pushed him to select just the right language, and helped him organize the material.

King told Warren during their interview, "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."

Though King asked Warren to send him a copy of the dissertation after it was completed, he was killed before Warren could comply. Years later, at the invitation of Coretta Scott King, King's widow, Warren presented copies of his work to her, and they now are part of the King collection at the Center for Non-Violent Social Change in Atlanta.

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