The name Martin Luther King Jr. is iconic in the United States. President Barack Obama mentioned King in both his Democratic National Convention nomination acceptance and victory speeches in 2008, when he said,
“[King] brought Americans from every corner of this land to stand together on a Mall in Washington, before Lincoln’s Memorial…to speak of his dream.”
Indeed, much of King’s legacy lives on in such arresting oral performances. They made him a global figure.
King’s preaching used the power of language to interpret the gospel in the context of black misery and Christian hope. He directed people to life-giving resources and spoke provocatively of a present and active divine interventionist who summons preachers to name reality in places where pain, oppression and neglect abound.
In other words, King used a prophetic voice in his preaching – the hopeful voice that begins in prayer and attends to human tragedy.
So what led to the rise of the black preacher and shaped King’s prophetic voice?
First, let’s look at some of the social, cultural and political challenges that gave birth to the black religious leader, specifically those who assumed political roles with the community’s blessing and beyond the church proper.
In slave society, black preachers played an important role in the community: they acted as seers interpreting the significance of events; as pastors calling for unity and solidarity; and as messianic figures provoking the first stirrings of resentment against oppressors.
The religious revivalism or the Great Awakening of the 18th century brought to America a Bible-centered brand of Christianity – evangelicalism – that dominated the religious landscape by the early 19th century. Evangelicals emphasized a “personal relationship” with God through Jesus Christ.
This new movement made Christianity more accessible, livelier, without overtaxing educational demands. Africans converted to Christianity in large numbers during the revivals and most became Baptists and Methodists. With fewer educational restrictions placed on them, black preachers emerged in the period as preachers and teachers, despite their slave status.
Africans viewed the revivals as a way to reclaim some of the remnants of African culture in a strange new world. They incorporated and adopted religious symbols into a new cultural system with relative ease.
Rise of the black cleric-politician
Despite the development of black preachers and the significant social and religious advancements of blacks during this period of revival, Reconstruction – the process of rebuilding the South soon after the Civil War – posed numerous challenges for white slaveholders who resented the political advancement of newly freed Africans.
As independent black churches proliferated in Reconstruction America, black ministers preached to their own. Some became bivocational. It was not out of the norm to find pastors who led congregations on Sunday and held jobs as schoolteachers and administrators during the work week.
Others held important political positions. Altogether, 16 African Americans served in the U.S. Congress during Reconstruction. For example, South Carolina’s House of Representatives’ Richard Harvey Cain, who attended Wilberforce University, the first private black American university, served in the 43rd and 45th Congresses and as pastor of a series of African Methodist churches.
Others, such as former slave and Methodist minister and educator Hiram Rhoades Revels and Henry McNeal Turner, shared similar profiles. Revels was a preacher who became America’s first African American senator. Turner was appointed chaplain in the Union Army by President Abraham Lincoln.
To address the myriad problems and concerns of blacks in this era, black preachers discovered that congregations expected them not only to guide worship but also to be the community’s lead informant in the public square.
Such tide-swelling events, in multiplier effect, ushered in the largest internal movement of people on American soil, the Great “Black” Migration. Between 1916 and 1918, an average of 500 Southern migrants a day departed the South. More than 1.5 million relocated to Northern communities between 1916 and 1940.
A watershed, the Great Migration brought about contrasting expectations concerning the mission and identity of the African American church. The infrastructure of Northern black churches were unprepared to deal with the migration’s distressing effects. Its suddenness and size overwhelmed preexisting operations.
The immense suffering brought on by the Great Migration and the racial hatred they had escaped drove many clergy to reflect more deeply on the meaning of freedom and oppression. Black preachers refused to believe that the Christian gospel and discrimination were compatible.
However, black preachers seldom modified their preaching strategies. Rather than establishing centers for black self-improvement focused on job training, home economics classes and libraries, nearly all Southern preachers who came North continued to offer priestly sermons. These sermons exalted the virtues of humility, good will and patience, as they had in the South.
Setting the prophetic tradition
Three clergy outliers – one a woman – initiated change. These three pastors were particularly inventive in the way they approached their preaching task.
Bishop Ransom’s discontentment arose while preaching to Chicago’s “silk-stocking church” Bethel A.M.E. – the elite church – which had no desire to welcome the poor and jobless masses that came to the North. He left and began the Institutional Church and Social Settlement, which combined worship and social services.
Randolph and Powell synthesized their roles as preachers and social reformers. Randolph brought into her prophetic vision her tasks as preacher, missionary, organizer, suffragist and pastor. Powell became pastor at the historic Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. In that role, he led the congregation to establish a community house and nursing home to meet the political, religious and social needs of blacks.
Shaping of King’s vision
The preaching tradition that these early clergy fashioned would have profound impact on King’s moral and ethical vision. They linked the vision of Jesus Christ as stated in the Bible of bringing good news to the poor, recovery of sight to the blind and proclaiming liberty to the captives, with the Hebrew prophet’s mandate of speaking truth to power.
Similar to how they responded to the complex challenges brought on by the Great Migration of the early 20th century, King brought prophetic interpretation to brutal racism, Jim Crow segregation and poverty in the 1950s and ‘60s.
Indeed, King’s prophetic vision ultimately invited his martyrdom. But through the prophetic preaching tradition already well established by his time, King brought people of every tribe, class and creed closer toward forming “God’s beloved community” – an anchor of love and hope for humankind.
Like his spiritual mentor, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the long-standing congressman was an ordained Black Baptist minister. It meant that he not only knew how to parse legislative briefs but also ancient biblical texts and extrapolate wisdom from them to address social issues of great urgency.
For Christians like Lewis, preaching, though not an end in itself, is a means by which God reminds a society of God’s concern for community wellness, life, human dignity and freedom in a less-than-perfect world.
Preaching, in their understanding, tells the truth about suffering in the contexts of fear and death. Ultimately it declares that evil and despair have an appointed end. Because of this, as John Lewis said in his posthumously penned op-ed: “Each of us has a moral obligation to stand up, speak up, and speak out.”
This is why Black preaching and Black preachers matter.
But understanding Lewis as a preacher requires far more unpacking than one might imagine. As an ordained Baptist minister and a scholar who studies the art of preaching sermons and the evolution of the Black preacher in the U.S., I understand firsthand why suspicion has long accompanied African American preachers into America’s pulpits and often extended into the halls of Congress and even newsrooms.
Preachers wear performative masks. Who ministers understand themselves to be has major implications for how they prepare and perform sermons. If they see their role as social justice advocate, they will speak and act in ways that condemn oppressive systems. But if they see themselves more as offering pastoral care, they will focus on therapeutic matters requiring counseling and other means of congregational support.
A preacher’s persona or “prosopon” – meaning “face” in Greek – is not simply a mask behind which she or he performs a role in a socioreligious drama but is part of their being. The role and speaker are one.
Preachers fall broadly under different personas. Alongside the preacher as “social activist,” there is the “clerico-politician” skilled in the art and science of government politics. Then there is the “evangelical-moralist,” who typically has an encyclopedic knowledge of scripture and is skilled in teaching Christian doctrine.
Finally, there is the “entrepreneurial agent” who focuses on building financial and social capital for themselves and their congregations.
Yet, many outside the Black Church community remain badly informed about the complex roles performed by Black preachers in our society.
Take for example Tony Evans, who is both a pastor and broadcaster. As an evangelical-moralist, he places strong emphasis on the believer’s need for a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through spiritual conversion, behavior modification, evangelism and soul regeneration. Proselytizing is paramount.
Megachurch preacher Bishop T.D. Jakes, as an entrepreneurial agent, is a highly pragmatic church growth strategist largely interested in enterprising pursuits and works.
MSNBC host Rev. Al Sharpton straddles the clerico-politician and social activist identities when stirring public discontent to shame the cruel in signal moments.
Following George Floyd’s killing at the hands of a white police officer, Sharpton preached two eulogies – one in Minneapolis and the other in Houston, Floyd’s city of birth. Both of Sharpton’s sermons elicited exuberant “Amens” of celebration from face-masked mourners. More significantly, his messages had a global effect, bringing together a broad a cross-section of culturally diverse listeners.
No matter what persona they chose to adopt, Black clerics have long been encouraged to mute their voices in front of white audiences or adopt preaching methods not native to their cultural habitats.
Without these pioneering white clerics’ preaching influence on American culture there would be no Rev. Billy Graham. Graham was dubbed “America’s Pastor” and the most celebrated preaching evangelist of our time.
Many Black preachers have modeled their preaching methods after these clerics without questioning their ideological origins and philosophical heritage.
In contrast, Black preachers like John Lewis, son of Alabama sharecroppers, embraced a preaching style focused on Jesus as a disinherited figure and grounded in a philosophy of nonviolence.
Preachers with sermons of this sort prize words that speak to distressing problems affecting society’s most vulnerable populations over rhetorical methods placing logic and Western philosophy at the center.
Sermons preached in rural or urban settings that helped African Americans make sense of their plight were far more uplifting than sermons rooted in the Celtic, Nordic, and Roman cultures of Europe.
Politics and the pulpit
The political and religious stakes are always higher for Black preachers than their racial counterparts because Black communities expect their preachers will do more than preach Sunday sermons.
Georgia U.S. Senate candidate and pastor of Dr King’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, Rev. Dr. Raphael Warnock, who officiated at Lewis’ funeral, believes as did Lewis that communities are best served when preachers work within the system. By doing so they can exercise their influence through crafting legislation, political antagonism and forming alliances deemed advantageous for the communities they serve.
A certain moral gravitas accompanies such work.
This is why the recent deaths of John Lewis and fellow preachers Joseph Lowery, and C.T. Vivian are cause for communal mourning. These religious voices are irreplaceable in the culture.
Sojourner Truth Memorial in Florence, Massachusetts. Lynne Graves, CC BY-ND
Each semester I greet the students who file into my preaching class at Howard University with a standard talk. The talk is not an overview of the basics – techniques of sermon preparation or sermon delivery, as one might expect. Outlining the basics is not particularly difficult.
The greatest challenge, in fact, is helping learners to stretch their theology: namely, how they perceive who God is and convey what God is like in their sermons. This becomes particularly important for African-American preachers, especially African-American women preachers, because most come from church contexts that overuse exclusively masculine language for God and humanity.
Yet, America’s Christian pulpits, especially African-American pulpits, remain male-dominated spaces. Still today, eyebrows raise, churches split, pews empty and recommendation letters get lost at a woman’s mention that God has called her to preach.
The deciding factor for women desiring to pastor and be accorded respect equal to their male counterparts generally whittles down to one question: Can she preach?
The fact is that African-American women have preached, formed congregations and confronted many racial injustices since the slavery era.
Here’s the history
The earliest black female preacher was a Methodist woman simply known as Elizabeth. She held her first prayer meeting in Baltimore in 1808 and preached for about 50 years before retiring to Philadelphia to live among the Quakers.
An unbroken legacy of African-American women preachers persisted even long after Elizabeth. Reverend Jarena Lee became the first African-American woman to preach at the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. She had started even before the church was officially formed in the city of Philadelphia in 1816. But, she faced considerable opposition.
AME Bishop Richard Allen, who founded the AME Church, had initially refused Lee’s request to preach. It was only upon hearing her speak, presumably, from the floor, during a worship service, that he permitted her to give a sermon.
Lee reported that Bishop Allen, “rose up in the assembly, and related that [she] had called upon him eight years before, asking to be permitted to preach, and that he had put [her] off; but that he now as much believed that [she] was called to that work, as any of the preachers present.
Lee was much like her Colonial-era contemporary, the famed women’s rights activist Sojourner Truth. Truth had escaped John Dumont’s slave plantation in 1828 and landed in New York City, where she became an itinerant preacher active in the abolition and woman’s suffrage movements.
Fighting the gender narratives
For centuries now, the Holy Bible has been used to suppress women’s voices. These early female black preachers reinterpreted the Bible to liberate women.
In a skillful historical interpretation of the scriptures, in her convention address, Truth used the Bible to liberate and set the record straight about women’s rights. She professed:
“Then that little man in black there, he says women can’t have as much rights as men, because Christ wasn’t a woman! Where did your Christ come from? From God and a woman! Man had nothing to do with Him.”
Like Truth, Jarena Lee spoke truth to power and paved the way for other mid- to late 19th-century black female preachers to achieve validation as pulpit leaders, although neither she nor Truth received official clerical appointments.
The first woman to achieve this validation was Julia A. J. Foote. In 1884, she became the first woman ordained a deacon in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion AMEZ Church. Shortly after followed the ordinations of AME evangelist Harriet A. Baker, who in 1889 was perhaps the first black woman to receive a pastoral appointment. Mary J. Small became the first woman to achieve “elder ordination” status, which permitted her to preach, teach and administer the sacraments and Holy Communion.
Historian Bettye Collier-Thomas maintains that the goal for most black women seeking ordination in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was simply a matter of gender inclusion, not necessarily pursuing the need to transform the patriarchal church.
An important voice was that of Rev. Florence Spearing Randolph. In her role as reformer, suffragist, evangelist and pastor, she daringly advanced the cause of freedom and justice within the churches she served and even beyond during the period of the Great Migration of 20th century.
In her sermons she brought criticism to the broken promises of American democracy, the deceptive ideology of black inferiority and other chronic injustices.
Randolph’s sermon “If I Were White,” preached on Race Relations Sunday, Feb. 1, 1941, reminded her listeners of their self-worth. It emphasized that America’s whites who claim to be defending democracy in wartime have an obligation to all American citizens.
Randolph spoke in concrete language. She argued that the refusal of whites to act justly toward blacks, domestically and abroad, embraced sin rather than Christ. That, she said, revealed a realistic picture of America’s race problem.
She also spoke about gender discrimination. Randolph’s carefully crafted sermon in 1909 “Antipathy to Women Preachers,” for example, highlights several heroic women in the Bible. From her interpretation of their scriptural legacy, she argued that gender discrimination in Christian pulpits illustrated a misreading of scripture.
Randolph used her position as preacher to effect social change. She was a member and organizer for the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU), which led in the work to pass the 18th Amendment, which made prohibition of the production, sale and transport of alcoholic beverages illegal in the United States. Her affiliation with the WCTU earned her the title “militant herald of temperance and righteousness.”
Today, several respected African-American women preachers and teachers of preachers proudly stand on Lee’s, Small’s and Randolph’s shoulders raising their prophetic voices.