Kenyatta Gilbert: King built on a long legacy of prophetic preaching

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’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? In my book “The Journey and Promise of African American Preaching,” I discuss the historical formation of the Black preacher. King’s clarion calls for justice were offspring of earlier prophetic preaching that flowered as a consequence of the racism in the U.S.

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.

Despite the development of Black preachers and the significant social and religious advancements of Blacks during this period of revival, Reconstruction 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. 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.

To address the myriad problems and concerns of 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.

Many other events converged as well impacting Black life that would later influence King’s prophetic vision: President Woodrow Wilson declared U.S. entry into World War I in 1917; as “boll weevils” ravaged crops in 1916 there was widespread agricultural depression; and then there was the rise of Jim Crow laws that legally enforced racial segregation until 1965.

Such tide-swelling events 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.

A watershed, the Great Migration brought about contrasting expectations concerning the mission and identity of the African American church. 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. Nearly all Southern preachers who came North continued to offer sermons that exalted the virtues of humility, goodwill and patience, as they had in the South.

Three clergy outliers — one a woman — initiated change. These three pastors were particularly inventive in the way they approached their preaching task.

Baptist pastor Adam C. Powell Sr., the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ) pastor Florence S. Randolph and the African Methodist Episcopal bishop Reverdy C. Ransom spoke to human tragedy, both in and out of the Black church. They brought a distinctive form of prophetic preaching that united spiritual transformation with social reform and confronted black dehumanization.

Bishop Ransom’s discontentment arose while preaching to Chicago’s “silk-stocking church”

Bethel AME — the elite church — which had no desire to welcome the poor and jobless masses that came to the North. He left and began an organization 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.

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 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.


This piece originally appeared in The Conversation, a nonprofit news source dedicated to unlocking ideas from academia for the public.