The Prophet and His Preaching: The Legacy of Martin Luther King Jr.

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The African American church tradition employs an effective and unique mode of homiletical discourse esteemed across generations and richly codified in such a way that engagement is accessed exclusively by insiders. The prophetic pronouncement moves from the very voice inflection of the preacher to the voice of the people and back to the preacher again. The audience is a necessary participant in the prophet’s preaching. Apart from their participation there is neither a prophet nor a sermon.

Lischer notes that the most important aspect of King’s prophetic pronouncement is this highly codified voice inflection. Stemming from African ancestral speech, King, in line with his tradition, communicated verbal “meaning through the content of the words themselves, in the nuance of their pronunciation, and in the tonal qualities of the voice.”[1] His verbal tuning and tweaking took theological truth and thrust it deep into the hearts of hearers. Combined with themes of suffering for example, the tonal inflection of key words “produces a feeling in the audience that offers the possibility of momentary transcendence of the suffering that has produced these blue notes and diminished chords in the first place.”[2]

But, again, King’s audience is not a passive recipient here. King’s sermons hinged on his audience’s acknowledgement of the artistically accented truth.[3] This acknowledgment took place largely in call and response format. Without the response of the audience, the call of the preacher means nothing because the response indicates that King had evoked “a sense of God’s awe and mystery in the listening congregation.”[4] In their response, they become participants in the delivery of the truth, participants in the story proclaimed by the prophet.

The call-and-response aspect of the sermon frequently began with strong emotion, often lament, which affirmed the reality of the audience’s suffering. This responsive emotion energized the sermon as an affirmation of King’s charge to defiance, maladjustedness, and action.[5] The audience, in other words, assisted King in the sermonic movement toward rhetorical climax. The climax of the sermon is the “place where the experience of God replaces talk about God. It is the theological culmination of the address, but, stylistically, the climax also represents the most important rhetorical moment in the elevation of the black congregation.”[6] It is, in the words of Nancy Duarte, a climactic call to envision the difference between the world that “is” and the world that “could be.”[7] It is, in other words, the prophetic call toward imagining a new future, an alternate reality, the eschatogical hope of justice breaking into the present.

And all of this makes the climax of the sermon the most theologically significant section.  It is the embodiment of King’s Realized Eschatology in sermonic form that prophetically energizes the audience to challenge the dominant regime’s deadening hold on their imaginations and families by lifting them to new heavenly heights, all while still living in this world.

The nature of the climactic part of the sermon is that it involves not only King’s rhetorical skill, but also an affirming response from his audience. Both are necessary ingredients for prophetic energizing.


[1] Richard Lischer, The Preacher King. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), 133.

[2] Lischer, 134.

[3] Cleophus J. LaRue, The Heart of Black Preaching. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2000), 10.

[4] LaRue, 10.

[5] Rieder, 231.

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Tom Fuerst is Associate Teaching Pastor and Associate Director of Community Life at Christ United Methodist Church of Memphis, TN.

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