Many Black Social Movements Began In The Pulpit

For African-Americans, social movements tend to start in the pulpit. From slavery to civil rights to the election of the first African-American president, preachers have given sermons that moved black Americans to tears and to action. NPR's Guy Raz talks to the Rev. Martha Simmons about the new book she edited, called Preaching with Sacred Fire.

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GUY RAZ, host:

Welcome Back to All Things Considered, from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

You can trace the history of the black American experience, in part, by listening to Sunday sermons over the generations.

Dr. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR.: But it really doesn't matter with me now because I've been to the mountaintop.

(Soundbite of applause)

The Reverend WILLIAM JONES: That's the way it's going to be when I get to the tollboth in glory.

Bishop JOSEPH PATTERSON: Since the spirit helpeth our infirmity, which mean the spirit comes together...

The Reverend CLAUDETTE COPELAND: I'm not praying for myself right now. I'm believing God for that which concerns you. I need somebody to yell glory.

RAZ: The voices of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Reverend Williams Jones, Bishop Joseph Patterson and Reverend Claudette Copeland.

A new anthology has collected these and other important African-American sermons, stretching back 250 years. Martha Simmons co-edited the book. It's called "Preaching with Sacred Fire," and she joins me from Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta.

Reverend Simmons, welcome.

The Reverend MARTHA SIMMONS (Co-editor, "Preaching with Sacred Fire"): Thank you. It's good to be with you.

RAZ: Now, your book catalogs all these amazing sermons, starting in 1750 up to the modern-day period - with more familiar preachers, like T.D. Jakes. Can you basically reconstruct the black experience in America by reading through these sermons?

Ms. SIMMONS: I think you can. And in addition to the sermons, each section of the book begins with a brief, contextual history of what was going on when particular sermons were preached - to say to you, this is what a preacher was addressing and dealing with as they preached this sermon.

RAZ: I want to pick out a few of the sermons to ask about, and I want to start with a man named John Chavis.

Ms. SIMMONS: Yes, indeed.

RAZ: He was born in 1763, an amazing story because he served in the Revolutionary War.

Ms. SIMMONS: He did.

RAZ: And then he became the first person of African descent in this country ordained as a Presbyterian preacher. Tell me: Would John Chavis - I mean, he was a free black man living in the South, in North Carolina, in the 18th century, end of the 18th century. Would he have had access to people who were enslaved? Would he have been able to preach to them?

Ms. SIMMONS: Oh, no doubt, because it was often the case that even slaves were allowed to sit in white churches as long as there were overseers there who could watch them.

RAZ: The sermon that you have in the book is - actually reads more like a letter. It's actually called a letter, "A Letter Upon the Doctrine of The Extent of the Atonement of Christ." And we have a brief excerpt of it. Here's a reading of part of it.

Unidentified Man #1: (Reading) And I rode on, one of the most miserable of men, and found no peace of mind until I became satisfactorily convinced that the atonement which our savior had made was commensurate to the spiritual wants of the whole human family, that he had made it possible for each individual to be saved.

RAZ: Obviously, not recorded in the 18th century; the technology was not available then. But in the book, you write about the natural bridge between the oral traditions that those who were enslaved brought with them from Africa, and how that sort of melded into an oral tradition in black American Christianity.

At what point did black preaching kind of become, you know, something more visceral, more holistic, more exuberant?

Ms. SIMMONS: If you listened in African villages - and I had a chance to a few years ago, visiting South Africa, and people were having church outdoors. And I heard them chanting, and I thought I was in an old church revival service somewhere in the Deep South.

RAZ: Wow.

Ms. SIMMONS: And in talking to some of the elders in the group, they talked about it as always having been that way.

RAZ: You write about a variety of different styles, sort of cadences, and we have a recording. This is from the early 1940s. This is C.L. Franklin. And he became known for his style, known as whooping.

The Reverend C.L. FRANKLIN: (Unintelligible).

RAZ: That's the Reverend C.L. Franklin, and that sermon was called "The Eagle Stirreth her Nest," and we believe this is from 1941. This is actually Aretha Franklin's father.

Ms. SIMMONS: Absolutely. This is her father. And she would sing in groups that he would put together. And then on occasion, he would preach. And so you hear, if you listen to him very closely, the music that's in his throat and in his preaching, just as it is in his daughter's.

RAZ: Reverend Simmons, as you sort of look at the modern-day landscape, and look at the modern-day black church and the most influential preachers - for example, T.D. Jakes - do you see any kind of trend in the way that African-American preachers are ministering or are delivering sermons?

Ms. SIMMONS: One of the trends that we've noticed in the last 15 or 20 years is that the preaching is so much faster than it used to be. It sped up just like all of culture has sped up.

The other thing that we see - we're seeing more of a return to what's currently being called prosperity preaching.

RAZ: One of those preachers who sometimes is known for prosperity preaching is, of course, T.D. Jakes. He has a megachurch in Texas. We have a recording of one of his sermons. Let's take a listen for a moment.

The Reverend T.D. JAKES: Somebody holler: Take me higher.

Unidentified Group: Take me higher.

Mr. JAKES: I've been thinking too low. I've been looking too low. I've been asking too low. I've been hanging around people who talk too low.

RAZ: And Reverend Simmons, you talk about T.D. Jakes as an example of what you call a black-empowerment preacher. And his style, I mean, resonates with millions of people - I mean, not just African-Americans; also, white Americans, Latinos and others.

Ms. SIMMONS: Well, I think most of all, T.D. Jakes is just a solid preacher. I'm not surprised that his style would appeal to a wide audience because his energy and his fervor, in terms of his approach, would be engaging, and then - there are some whites, some blacks, Latinos, Asians, what have you, who are interested in empowerment and-or prosperity messages.

RAZ: When you think about the historical progression of the sermons in this book - from 1750 to 2010 - is there a quality you see in today's preachers that can be connected, a continuity, a clear line of continuity stretching all the way back to 1750?

Ms. SIMMONS: The one thread that I saw through all of the material was this notion of enhancing the self-esteem of the people to whom you preached.

And you could go into black churches North, West, East, South any Sunday and I think still hear that thread often lifted. It makes sense that that thread would run all the way to the present.

RAZ: That's historian and Reverend Martha Simmons. She is an associate minister at Rush United Church of Christ in Atlanta, andthe co-editor of the new anthology of African-American sermons. It's called "Preaching with Sacred Fire."

Reverend Simmons, thank you so much.

Ms. SIMMONS: It's been wonderful to be with you.

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