HUNTSVILLE, Ala. (RNS) -- Ask the average person to recite two or threelines--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 atlast!"

Those are the noted last three sentences from King's "I Have aDream" speech delivered during the 1963 March on Washington. Consideringthe major role King played in the civil rights movement in the 20thcentury, 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 preachersin the South, King sprang from "the womb of the black church," Warrenwrites 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. TaylorBranch, 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 inthe 1960s, Warren has studied King's sermons and preaching style. Hisdissertation was a scholarly look at King the preacher.

The new book is a complete rewriting and updating of thatdissertation, scripted for lay rather than scholarly consumption. In itWarren dissects King's research, writing, speaking and delivery styles.The book includes the full text of four of King's sermons that had neverbeen 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 inspiredhim to study King as part of his doctoral work in philosophy.

Warren's doctoral adviser approved the dissertation subject butmandated that Warren get King's approval as well as a personalinterview. In a stroke of luck, one of Michigan State's few blackprofessors then, Robert Green, had spent time with King during the Selmamarch. He was able to set up an interview for Warren.

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

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

Warren writes: "Here was a man who spoke and served from principleshammered out primarily from family, the Bible and theologicalunderpinnings. All of his responses to my questions bore indelible marksof a conscious fulfillment of the understanding of God's law of loveincumbent 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 andconsulted some of the hundreds of books and thousands of newspaper andmagazine articles about King. (The book lists 10 pages of footnotes.)

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

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

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

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

King preferred extemporaneous speeches, often using the same subjectmatter and many references, but always varying the content. Warrenquotes King as saying he preferred to write out his sermons, makingnumerous revisions. But when he stepped to the pulpit, King generallyused 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 organizethe material.

King told Warren during their interview, "Occasionally, I read apolicy 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 theaudience in the eye.


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