Reviewed by Jenny McBride

At Heart, a Baptist Preacher

The latest volume in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., draws on previously undiscovered materials to illuminate his powerful preaching ministry with new depth.

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Third, King's file entitled "Sermons by Other Ministers" shows that he deliberately drew upon the work of renowned preachers such as Harry Emerson Fosdick. In this way, King quite intentionally thought with and through the communion of saints. Volume 6 includes facsimiles of pages from sermons and works of theology where King responds to the text with notes in the margins. For example, one facsimile shows a brief outline of King's sermon "What is Man?" on the opening page of his copy of Reinhold Niebuhr's 1932 Moral Man and Immoral Society, a text that presumably inspired these thoughts. The volume also includes seminary papers on various issues associated with preaching, one of which is a review of a homily by Karl Barth in which King harshly criticizes the Swiss theologian for failing to present his theology "in the light of the experiences of the people." The volume juxtaposes the seminary paper with a picture of King proudly walking arm–in–arm with Barth at Princeton Theological Seminary 12 years later.

King's interaction with Barth as a student and later as a nationally acclaimed public figure represents the fourth lesson about preaching that King teaches us through this volume. King held the conviction that good preaching must be theological preaching. In his edition of Halford Edward Luccock's 1944 book, In the Minister's Workshop, (shown in facsimile), King underlines Luccock's words and paraphrases them in the margins: "Every great movement in history has been prepared for and partly carried out through preaching … . If preaching is to have any depth, height and breadth, it must be theological preaching." King believed that a good preacher must have a strong intellect but also must make "the complex, the simple."

King's ability to make the complex simple is shown in his 1963 book of sermons, The Strength to Love. Perhaps the most exciting discovery made available by Volume 6 is the typed draft of sermons King originally sent to his publisher. Because The Strength to Love was the first major volume of sermons by a black preacher that targeted a mixed racial audience, the editors of that collection significantly reworked King's text to tone down speech that might have offended his readership and opened him up to further political attack. Volume 6 of The Papers publishes the original language of the sermons, placing in bold the phrases cut from the manuscript and thus conveying with greater intensity the power of King's prophetic voice.

In addition to such diverse documents as sermon outlines, full drafts, seminary papers, facsimiles, and photographs, Volume 6 also includes transcripts of tape recordings of King's most famous sermons, documents from King's file "Sermons Not Preached," a chronology of sermons preached through 1959, a sermon file inventory listing all the folders discovered in 1997, a list of selected works relevant to King's sermon preparation, letters received after King's 1958 stabbing, and a calendar of documents including materials not printed in this volume. While the scope of the volume may seem daunting, the accessibility of the documents invites scholars and lay readers alike to benefit from this remarkable discovery. As a volume dedicated to King's preaching, Volume 6 arguably best conveys the life and work of the man who said of himself in 1965, "I am many things to many people but in the quiet recesses of my heart, I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher. This is my being and my heritage, for I am also the son of a Baptist preacher, the grandson of a Baptist preacher and the great–grandson of a Baptist preacher."

Jenny McBride is a doctoral candidate in Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.

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