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"Discerning the Signs of History"

King, Martin Luther, Jr.
Martin Luther King, Jr. - Career in Ministry
Martin Luther King, Jr. - Political and Social Views


The following three versions of this sermon include a brief outline written on a notecard, a handwritten draft, and a typed manuscript.1 King cites numerous examples from world history demonstrating that "evil carries the seed of its own destruction.”

“Discerning the Signs of History,” Sermon notes

I am convinced that what human life, man-centered, has torn down, human life, God-centered can build up.

  1. He who oppresses another will ultimately suffer as a results of such oppression
  2. Whenever the secular super-structure is cut alose from religious foundations disintegration sets in
  3. A breakdown in the moral structure of a society leads to the ultimate breakdown of the physical structure

“Discerning the Signs of History,” Sermon Outline

Luke 12:54, 552

“ye can discern the face of the sky and of the earth, how is it that ye know not how to interpret this time?3 What is Jesus’ indictment? He was is saying that these people had an amazing awarness of the the trends of astronomy and an appalling ignorance of the trends of history. They could read the face of the sky, but they could not read the face of the past. They had mastered the art of noticing the succession in the natural world. They were so ingenious that they could apply the law of cause and effect to the natural order. If a cloud appeared in the west they knew that a shower would soon emerge. If the south wind blew they knew that the tropical heat would soon appear. The sequence was certain. They knew that one was the harbinger of the other [Three pages are missing]

He started underestimating the power of his opponent. He invaded Russia in 1812. The Battle of Leipzig in 1813. His ultimate doom was the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.4 Waterloo is but the eternal symbol of the doom of every Napoleon. He lived by the sword and die by it.5

    1. Hitler set out to rule the world. Cite how he invaded Ethiopia and Halla Sillasis had to flee his throne. But today Hitler is dead and Halla Sillasis still holds his throne6
    2. Mussilini tried the sword, and ended up being killed by the very people that he once ruled.7
      This is the ever present story of history.
    1. A third lesson that history teaches is that whenever the secular superstructure is cut alose from religious foundations disintegration sets in. In other words whenever a civilization looses a moral and religious consciousness, it is headed for doom.
      1. Toynbee teaches that 26 civilizations have risen and all but 10 have fallen.8 They did not fall because of armies without but because of inner decay. Whenever emphemal institutions and techniques are raised to absoluteness decay sets in.
      2. Gibbon reports of what immorality meant in the fall of the Roman empire.9
      3. I am worried about America because of its materialism. We affirm God with our lips while denying him with our lives. The white man is gradually repenting. He becoming more churchy. He has come to see the futility of materialism. But I am still worried about the Negro. He emptying his churches while the white man is filling them.
      1. Cite what religion meant to the Negro in the past.
      2. place God back into the center of your lives.

    I do not mean to leaves a message of doom this morning. This is hope if we will but read the signs of history and profit by its mistakes. I am convinced that what human life, man-centered, has torn down, human life God centered can build up.

    Conclude with story of wise man in Virginia

    “Discerning the Signs of History”

    This morning I want to have you think about some of the things that are just as true in history as we find the truth in the natural law. The coming of the heat with the south wind, the coming of the rain with the gathering of the clouds.10 There are some things that are as basic and as structural in history, as in nature. If we do not know these things, we are in danger of destroying ourselves and destroying the world. If we are to discern the signs of, the times in which we live we must understand a basic truth; that evil carries the seed of its own destruction. Ultimately there is a checkpoint in the Universe, there is at the end of the road of evil a sign which says, “Dead end street You won’t get through here.” If you see evil riding high, do not worry, one day it will be cut down.

    Go with me back across the centuries of French history. Watch the kings as they exploit and trample over the people of France thinking only about themselves and their families and their welfare. Louis XIV, his wife, Marie Antoinette, had literally wagons of meat to feed their dogs. The begging masses of people went hungry. In a few short years that same Louis XVI and his wife were beheaded by his own people.11

    It is the long story of history: “Evil carries the seed of its own destruction.

    The evil system of colonization got started in the world and the great nations of Europe moved into Asia and Africa exploiting the people economically, and dominating them politically. It came to the point that the vast majority of the people of Asia and Africa were dominated by some foreign power. Finally the people fought for an end and won. Britain had under its domination more than sixty million people in Asia and Africa but not today. Evil carries the seeds of its own destruction. There is a process in the Gods universe. God still reigns in history.

    You know, we know about another evil don’t we? It started in 1619 right here in this nation our foreparents were brought here to slave from the soil of Afnca. For more than Two Hundred Forty years africa was raped and plundered, her native kingdoms disorganized, her people and rulers demoralized. We lived with that system right here for 244 years and then for a period it looked like we were going to get out with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation.12 But we were only halfway out.

    It looked like we were doomed to stay in slavery and segregation for ever. But evil carries the seed of its own destruction. God spoke through nine men in 1954, on May 17. They examined the legal body of segregation and pronounced it constitutionally dead and ever since then things have been changing.13 We can go to places all over the South that we could not go last year. Why? Because evil carries the seed of its own destruction. And I am convinced that segregation is just as dead as a doornail and the only thing I am uncertain about is how costly the segregationalist will make the funeral.

    The old order is passing away. Evil carries the seed of its own destruction. William Cullen Bryant caught it and said “Truth across the earth will rise again.”14 Carlisle caught it and said, “No lie can live forever.”15 James Russell Lowell caught it and said, “Truth forever on the scaffold, wrong forever on the throne, and yet that scaffold sways the future, and behind the dim unknown stands God within the shadow keeping watch above his own.”16 The Bible caught it right, “You shall reap what you sow.”17 Evil carries the seed of its own destruction and that is just as true as the rising and the setting of the sun. If we understand the facts of nature, let us understand the facts of history.

    1. According to a 26 June 1955 Dexter program, King preached a sermon with this title. Reinhold Niebuhr’s book Discerning the Signs of the Times: Sermons for Today and Tomorrow may have inspired King’s title for this sermon (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1946). King wrote “discerning the signs of the time” above the passage Matthew 16:3 in his copy of the Bible.

    2. “And he said also to the people, When ye see a cloud rise out of the west, straightway ye say, There cometh a shower, and so it is. And when ye see the south wind blow, ye say, There will be heat and it cometh to pass.”

    3. Cf. Luke 12:56.

    4. Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia and captured Moscow on 14 September 1812. The Russians, however, set the city ablaze, leaving the French army with no place to stay during the winter. This led to the French army’s retreat on 19 October 1812. At the battle of Leipzig, Russian, Austrian, Prussian, British, Portuguese, Spanish, and Swedish forces defeated Napoleon’s troops on 19 October 1813 and forced the French army to flee Germany. Napoleon’s final defeat at the battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815 ended the Napoleonic Wars.

    5. Cf. Matthew 26:52.

    6. Italy, not Germany, invaded Ethiopia in 1935 and annexed the country in 1936. King refers to Haille Selassie I (1892-1975), the last emperor of Ethiopia, who fled to England when the Italians invaded. After the British liberated Ethiopia in 1941, Selassie reclaimed the throne. He was deposed in 1974.

    7. Benito Mussolini was executed on 28 April 1945.

    8. Arnold Toynbee, A Study of History (1934-1961).

    9. King refers to Edward Gibbon's The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

    10. Cf. Luke 12:54, 55.

    11. Louis XVI was executed on 21 January 1793. Marie Antoinette suffered the same fate on 16 October 1793.

    12. Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation on 22 September 1862.

    13. On 17 May 1954, the United States Supreme Court ruled, in the case of Brown v. Board of Education et al., 347 U.S. 483, that segregation in education was unconstitutional.

    14. Bryant, “The Battlefield” (1839).

    15. Thomas Carlyle, The French Revolution (1837).

    16. Lowell, “The Present Crisis” (1844).

    17. Cf. Galatians 6:7 and 2 Corinthians 9:6.


    CSKC-INP, Coretta Scott King Collection, In Private Hands, Sermon file.