Pulpit at historic Ebenezter. Photo by John Pierce.By John Pierce

Themes of courage, justice and social change surround the Martin Luther King Jr. federal holiday. With international acclaim for the civil rights leader and Nobel Peace prize laureate gunned down on April 4, 1968, it is possible to overlook the fact that King was by vocation a Baptist preacher.

He assumed the pastorate of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Ala., in 1954 and then joined his father as co-pastor of Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1960.

His powerful sermons that informed and inspired the movement have been collected into various volumes including, most recently, A Gift of Love: Sermons from ‘Strength to Love’ and Other Preachings (Beacon Press, 2012). Current Ebenezer pastor Raphael G. Warnock, in a second foreword to an earlier one by Coretta Scott King, notes: “Hailed during his lifetime as a civil rights leader and honored in death with a memorial befitting a president, it should not be forgotten that King was at his core a preacher.”

And, as Warnock notes, King himself said: “I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher. This is my being and my heritage…”

For pastors who fear their words fall on deaf ears, King’s sermons serve as a reminder that such proclamation can work its way into hearts, minds, hands and feet. For listeners who wonder if the message of the hour can impact the challenges of daily living, these sermons affirm the potential for being truly doers, not just hearers of the Word.

King was reluctant to have his sermons published, claiming, “A sermon is not an essay to be read but a discourse to be heard.” Yet, the powerful words often leap from the pages to convict, inspire and motivate now as they did when bouncing off the walls of churches in Montgomery, Atlanta and elsewhere.

In his preaching, King often called for courageous yet balanced living — marked by “tough mindedness” and “tender heartedness.” He challenged “blind conformity” that leads to suspicion and the protection of unjust systems.

He proclaimed that narrow provincialism gives an obstructed view of the value of all persons; that forgiveness is the catalyst for new beginnings; that materialism is false wealth; that both “superficial optimism” and “crippling pessimism” should be avoided; and that deeper thinking matters, or as he put it: “Never must the church tire of reminding [people] that they have a moral responsibility to be intelligent.”

And he said this and much more from the pulpits of Baptist churches and those of other Christian traditions, believing that the persons who heard his words could change their communities, nation and world for good.


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