It is well known that Martin Luther King Jr. had a brilliant mind, especially about spiritual and theological matters.
That influence was stimulated by his father, grandfather, uncles and the preachers of stature that he met – especially Benjamin E. Mays and William Holmes Borders. The last two names epitomized the best in both intellect and preaching ability.
King also met men of stature at Morehouse College, the Baptist conventions and other such meetings. Hearing good preachers inspires others to absorb their better qualities.
King’s sermons and speeches have also inspired many young ministers toward pulpit excellence.
His pursuit of theological knowledge led him to Crozier Theological Seminary and a doctorate at Boston University. Both schools have produced quality leaders for the black pulpit. Dr. King is perhaps the more noted among them.
King’s ability to give substance, illustration and application to his speeches and sermons also inspired those who had been preaching for longer periods of time.
In a culture that valued both the importance of emotion and pulpit oratory, King brought theological reflection and the ability to show how the gospel related to social action and justice issues.
African-American congregations saw this as the substance they needed and desired from their clergy. They began to exact these qualities in the leaders they chose. We discovered that theological intelligence was a good thing to be desired and sacrificed for.
King also tied the substances of biblical literacy to specific applications of life challenges.
He helped us “live” the gospel, not just talk it. This called for community identity and awareness, determination, coordination and action.
To pack this into a sermon required a special art form. It was not new to the African-American community, but the task was made easier by King’s models.
He also brokered new models of interchurch cooperation. Some of us had become chained to our own denominational identities.
Justice issues are not bound to or by denominations. They call for ecumenical cooperation.
I lived in Kentucky during the 1950s and ’60s. Black Baptists in Kentucky were a tight-knit family.
Interdenominational activities were frowned upon. In most churches, only Baptists were allowed in the pulpit of Baptist churches, but all of that began to change as we found community in the quest for freedom.
Conversations of understanding were initiated across denominational lines. The barriers began to come down. We became brothers and sisters.
The beloved community that King sought took various expressions as other races, colors and ethnicities, and religious persuasions participated in the rallies and marches.
Our seminaries began to become places of much deeper conversation and exploration. We sought to know and understand those different from ourselves. We then wanted freedom for all of God’s children.
This is what it means to be free: Not to be chained to archaic ideas and philosophies is freedom.
To be able to wonder at the expanse of God’s creative genius frees us to explore even more marvelous aspects of God’s grace.
King seems to have found this freedom. Even amid his trials and tribulations, King knew what it was to be free.
As we celebrate his life, so may we.
Emmanuel McCall is pastor of the First Baptist Church, East Point, Georgia.
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series of articles about local churches and associations participating in MLK Jr. Day observances and engaging in racial reconciliation initiatives.
Previous articles in the series are: