Learning to Preach from Martin Luther King, Jr.

 |  February 4, 2019

The black preacher has been called many things; he’s been called a poet, a sage, a prophet, and the political leader of his community. Black preachers have been the voice of both hope and despair in the struggle for Civil Rights. They are the expressions of both passion and politics for generations. They have been the drum majors of equal rights. Because of these characteristics, W.E.B. DuBois, in his monumental work The Souls of Black Folk, called the black preacher “the most unique personality developed on American soil. A leader, a politician, an orator, a ‘boss,’ an intriguer, an idealist.”

While there have been many lesser-known black preachers throughout the history of the Black Church that have embodied this uniqueness, it is Martin Luther King, Jr. who displays the genius of the Black Pulpit for the world to see. While today Dr. King is best known for his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, delivered in Washington DC on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, August 28, 1963. But long before the summer of 1963, during his rise to the leadership of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Dr. King was a Baptist preacher. King averaged 3 Sundays a month preaching in the pulpit of his Ebenezer Baptist church.

But for many of us, today the pressing question about his preaching is, what did he do in his sermons? To answer this question let us examine a number of things. To be clear, King was a Baptist preacher—and a good one at that. Here are a few things we can learn from Martin Luther King, Jr.

  1. Sermon Preparation: Early in his ministry King would spend 15 hours a week in sermon prep. Monday was for prayer and reading the text under consideration. On Tuesday, he wrote a basic outline of the sermon. Wednesday, he gathered material from commentaries, theology textbooks, illustrations for the news or books. He read his passage again on Thursday. Friday was the day he wrote his manuscript. As his involvement with the Civil Rights Movement increased, he would rework past sermons as well as preach extemporaneously. Many of his sermons followed a simple three-part scheme of introduction, body, and conclusion.
  1. He made excellent use of illustration: King’s illustrations were drawn from every source imaginable. He used current news events, historical events, literature. As he read widely, we too should read widely. He was a master of storytelling because he read both fiction and non-fiction. We need to read good fiction in order to understand good storytelling!
  1. He knew how to use rhetoric and did so often: King was a genius with his use of language. He was known for his eloquence, and rhetorical force. Take his use in the anaphora, also known as epanalepsis, which is the repetition of a word or words at the beginning of successive clauses in the sermon “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” He refers to a time when he was stabbed, resulting in an injury that would have worsened with a simple sneeze:

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1961, when we decided to take a ride for freedom and ended segregation in inter-state travel.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been around here in 1962, when Negroes in Albany, Georgia, decided to straighten their backs up. And whenever men and women straighten their backs up, they are going somewhere, because a man can’t ride your back unless it is bent.

If I had sneezed, I wouldn’t have been here in 1963, when the black people of Birmingham, Alabama, aroused the conscience of this nation and brought into being the Civil Rights Bill.

  1. He made use a variety of sermon forms: As mentioned above, King made use of simple sermon preparation and delivery. But, he also used other forms as well. In the sermon “Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” King’s sermon followed what can be called a textual arrangement.
  1. He spoke to a wide audience: This was also an extension of King’s use of rhetoric in his preaching. A study of his sermon and speeches reveals that he sought to do three things. 1. Appeal to the intellect of his audience. 2. Appeal to the imagination of the audience. 3. Appeal to the heart of the audience. This is due to his study of Aristotle’s three rhetorical proofs.
  1. He preached doctrinally: There are times that every preacher has to tackle key doctrinal issues, or at least should. Dr. King did not shy away from this kind of preaching. In his sermon titled “The Answer to a Perplexing Question,” preached in 1962, he deals with the doctrine of justification by faith:

This is what the Apostle Paul emphasized in his doctrine of salvation by faith. For him, faith is man’s capacity to accept God’s willingness through Christ to rescue us from the bondage of sin. In his magnanimous love, God freely offers to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Our humble and openhearted acceptance is faith. So by faith, we are saved. Man filled with God and God operating through man bring unbelievable changes in our individual and social lives.

Recommended Reading for Further Study:

King. A Knock at Midnight: Inspiration from the Great Sermons of Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. Edited by Clayborne Carson and Peter Holloran. New York: Warner Books, 2000.

_____. Letter from Birmingham Jail. New York: Penguin Random House, 2018.

_____. Strength to Love. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2010.

_____. A Testament of Hope: The Essential Writing and Speeches. Edited by James M. Washington. New York: Harper Collins, 2003.

Rodrick Sweet is a P.D. student in Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s School of preaching. He is also a Teaching Fellow for Southwestern’s Darrington Prison Program.

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