As Martin Luther King prepared for the Birmingham Campaign in early 1963, he drafted the final sermons for Strength to Love, a volume of his most well known homilies that would be published later that year. He originally proposed the book in early 1957 to Melvin Arnold, head of Harper & Brothers’ Religious Books Department. Arnold welcomed King’s “proposed collection of sermons; we hope that they will have a heavy emphasis on permanent religious values, rather than on topical events” (Arnold, 5 February 1957). Despite King’s best intentions and Arnold’s repeated urging for a manuscript, however, King had not produced the promised sermon book by mid-1962.
Although circumstances were far from ideal, King was finally able to start working on the sermons during a fortnight in jail in July 1962, during the Albany Movement. Having been arrested for holding a prayer vigil outside Albany City Hall, King and Ralph Abernathy shared a jail cell for 15 days that was, according to King, “dirty, filthy, and ill-equipped” and “the worse I have ever seen” (King, “Reverend M. L. King’s Diary”). While behind bars, he was able to spend a fair amount of uninterrupted time preparing the drafts for the sermons “Loving Your Enemies,” “Love in Action,” and “Shattered Dreams,” and continued to work on the volume after his release. King sent the first part of the manuscript to his publisher in the early fall, including several sermons that had become King standards, such as “Paul’s Letter to American Christians” and “What Is Man?”
His editors praised the first results, seeing Strength to Love as the words of a minister who addressed his congregation with messages of “warmth, immediate application, and poetic verve” (Wallis, 3 October 1962). In the process of editing the book, however, many familiar King phrases were removed by Arnold and Charles Wallis. King’s assessment of segregation as one of “the ugly practices of our nation,” his call that capitalism must be transformed by “a deep-seated change,” and his depiction of colonialism as “evil because it is based on a contempt for life” were stricken from the text (Papers 6:480; 6:471; 6:530). In particular, many of King’s vivid anti-military and anti-war statements were deleted. In his draft sermon of “Transformed Nonconformist,” for example, he characterized the early Christian church as anti-war: “Its views on war were clearly known because of the refusal of every Christian to take up arms” (Papers 6:473). These statements were absent in the sermons’ published versions.
King worried that the force of his spoken words would not make the transition to the printed page and wrote in the book’s preface that his reservations had “grown out of the fact that a sermon is not an essay to be read but a discourse to be heard. It should be a convincing appeal to a listening congregation.” Even as the book went to press, he conceded: “I have not altogether overcome my misgivings” (King, x).
As the first volume of sermons by an African American preacher widely available to a white audience, Strength to Love was a landmark work. Despite omissions and changes to the original manuscript, Strength to Love remains a concrete testament to King’s lifelong commitment to preach the social gospel. His fusion of Christian teachings and social consciousness remains in print and continues to promote King’s vision of love as a potent social and political force for change, the efficacy of religious faith in surmounting evil, and the vital need for true human integration, or, as he defined it, “genuine intergroup and interpersonal living” (King, 23). This volume brought to the forefront King’s identity as a compelling, well-educated, and compassionate preacher at a time when many whites knew him only as a civil rights leader.
Arnold to King, 5 February 1957, MLKP-MBU.
King, Draft of Chapter II, “Transformed Nonconformist,” July 1962–March 1963, in Papers 6:466–477.
King, Draft of Chapter III, “On Being a Good Neighbor,” July 1962–March 1963, in Papers 6:478–486.
King, Draft of Chapter XIII, “Our God Is Able,” July 1962–March 1963, in Papers 6:527–534.
King, “Reverend M. L. King’s Diary in Jail,” Jet (23 August 1962).
King, Strength to Love, 1963.
Charles L. Wallis, Editorial notes, 3 October 1962, MCMLK-RWWL.