2017-07-12
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.

"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.



more from beliefnet and our partners