In August 1958 Martin Luther King, Jr., preached two sermons, “What Is Man?” and “The Dimensions of a Complete Life,” at the first National Conference on Christian Education of the United Church of Christ at Purdue University. Franklin I. Sheeder, executive secretary of the Board of Christian Education and Publication, found the speeches to be “among the finest of our entire program” (Sheeder, 11 September 1958). In response to demands made by conference attendees, Sheeder requested that King allow publication of the addresses. With King’s consent, the sermons were published by the Christian Education Press in a short book entitled The Measure of a Man. The press and King arranged for proceeds to be shared evenly, after the former had recovered its costs of publication.
King first developed the theme of “What Is Man?” during his seminary days. The earliest available manuscript version of this sermon dates back to July 1954, although records indicate that he may have delivered earlier versions. King believed the sermon’s title to be “one of the most important questions confronting any generation,” proposing that man is many things: “a biological being,” “a being of spirit” who is “made in the image of God,” and “sinner in need of God’s divine grace” (King, Measure, 1; 3; 8; 10). King preached the social gospel by issuing a challenge to America’s moral conscience and encouraging the nation to act in the interest of all of its citizens. Influenced by Reinhold Niebuhr’s philosophy in his book Moral Man and Immoral Society, King declared that “our sin is even greater” in “our collective lives” (King, Measure, 13). Drawing examples from the socio-political arena, he lamented that Western civilization had “trampled over one billion six hundred million of your colored brothers in Africa and Asia,” while America had deviated from its promises of equality in the Declaration of Independence by straying into the “far country of segregation and discrimination” (King, Measure, 16). Yet, he asserted, a loving Christian God would forgive Western civilization and America if they would renounce these practices.
King continued to emphasize man’s need for God in his second sermon, “The Dimensions of a Complete Life.” He begins with the story of the Apostle John, who glimpses the new Jerusalem descending from the heavens. In Revelation 21:16, John refers to the completeness of this city of God: “The length and the breadth and the height of it are equal.” King interprets the length of life as an individual’s personal push to realize ambition, the breadth of life as concern for others and realization of our interdependence, and the height of life as a love for God. King finally asks God: “Help us to discover ourselves, to discover our neighbors, and to discover thee and to make all part of our life” (King, Measure, 34). King delivered a version of this sermon in January 1954 when applying to pastor Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, where he served until 1959.
The Measure of a Man is the earliest attempt to publish King’s sermons in book form. A few years later, Harper & Row published the definitive collection of King’s signature sermons, Strength to Love (1963), which included the two sermons in The Measure of a Man. King continued to preach both of these sermons after their publication.
King, “The Dimensions of a Complete Life,” Sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, 24 January 1954, in Papers 6:150–156.
King, The Measure of a Man, 1959.
King, Strength to Love, 1963.
King, “What Is Man?” Sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, 11 July 1954, in Papers 6:174–179.
Niebuhr, Moral Man and Immoral Society, 1932.
Sheeder to King, 11 September 1958, MLKP-MBU.