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Four Papers on Preaching Issues

Author: 
King, Martin Luther, Jr.
Date: 
September 14, 1948 to February 15, 1950
Genre: 
Essay
Topic: 
Martin Luther King, Jr. - Education
Martin Luther King, Jr. - Political and Social Views

Details

King submitted the following assignments for preaching courses at Crozer taught by Keighton. They demonstrate the breadth of topics and issues that influenced King's emerging understanding of homiletics. “Karl Barth,” a review of a sermon by this theologian, includes a harsh critique of the theological complexity of Barth's homily: “The preaching of theology must be presented in the light of the experiences of the people. This Barth fails to do.”1 Keighton gave the paper an A. In “The Limitation of Experience,” King criticizes ministers who fail to read regularly and learn from others, claiming they “starve the people for the gospel.” He questions the viability of capitalism in “Will Capitalism Survive?” claiming it “has seen its best days.” In the final assignment, “Is the Church the Hope of the World?” King challenges the church, calling it “one of the chief exponents of racial bigotry.”

"Karl Barth"

Karl Barth, round whose name centres the great discussions now agitating the theological world, was born at Basle, in Switzerland, in 1886.2 He was born in the atmosphere of theology, for his father was a Professor of the Reformed Church and author of two useful books.3 Barth first went to school at Berne, and proceeded thence to the other Universities at Berlin, Tubingen and Marburg.4 The Neo-Kantian school at Marburg has left its mark upon the philosophical outlook of Barth.5 Barth gives interesting information concerning the writers who later influenced his thought. His “ancestral line runs back through [Søren] Kierkegaard to [Martin] Luther and [John] Calvin and so to Paul and Jeremiah.” To understand Mr. Barth's views one must know something of how he came to his present point of view. He has told us that most of his views came from the principles of the Reformed Churches.6 Such a dogmatic assumption as the utter depravity of man as a consequence of the Fall, is an example of the influence that the Reformed Churches had on Barth. All of this helps us to understand the views expressed by Barth in many of his books and also in the sermon that will be discussed at this point.

Karl Barth opens his sermon, “Repentance,” with the moving Biblical pharse, Jesus calls us: “Come unto me!”7 He states that Jesus desires to speak truth to us. He wants to talk God to us. He, who lets himself be told, repents. “Repentance,” according to Barth, “is turning about to that which is nearest and which we always overlook.”8

Mr. Barth makes it very clear that other voices also call us. He uses the church as an example. Today she calls men to thanksgiving, repentance, and prayers. But when the church says something, it is always an open question.9 Repentance must go beyond the church, for in many instances the church is the greatest hindrance to repentance. The church, in many instances, has betrayed God to the needs and humours of men. If we want to hear the call of Jesus we must hear it despite the church.10

The question arises, who is Jesus? We know him best by those whom he calls to himself.11 Jesus says, “Come unto me, all ye!” He is free enough to invite all to himself. It is essentially at this point, says Barth, that Jesus differs from other great men, other aims and movements. Even the church is not for all men.

Again the question arises, who is Jesus? He is the one who calls the laboring and the heavy laden to Himself. Because we labor and are heavy laden we belong to the “all” to whom the invitation is given.12

In conclusion the quistion arises, what does Jesus want of us? He wants nothing of us but that we come. Here Barth makes it very clear that Jesus does not want “ours” but “us”. Of course to come to Jesus means to labor and to be heavy laden, therefore it is hard to come.13 But we must see, says Barth, that coming to Jesus begins with the knowledge that something difficult is asked of us.

It is very clear that many of Barth's theological concepts creep into this sermon, such as God, “the Wholly other.” Of course, one complaint that I must make is that Barth sets up an obstruse mode of expression which only the learned can understand. He leaven the average mind lost in the fog of theological abstractions.14 I am not saying that one must not preach theology, but I am contending that the preaching of theology must be presented in the light of the experiences of the people. This Barth fails to do.

Another complaint is that Barth doesn't fully explain his views; great terms like God, Faith, Repentance, are thrown out without adequate definition, as though their meaning were self-evident. For these reasons I found this sermon very boring.

[signed] M. L. King Jr.15

"The Limitation of Experience"

In historical theology three different things have been put forward as the source of Authority in Religion: the church, The Bible and experience. Luther and his friends destroyed the Church as the central Religious Authority for the Protestants and put the Bible in its place. Most Protestants are confused on this issue as they lean on both the Bible and Experience. The Protestants talk about the Bible and then proceed to rely on experience. But experience has its limitations.

What is experience? In philosophy according the [Immanuel] Kant, Experience is a compound out of sensation and the activity of the understanding. According to psychology, it is a change in a set pattern of behavior. According to the “man in the streets” it is simply living a log long time. And this is the danger.

Just because a man has lived a long time is no sign that he is a man of experience. There are plenty people thirty who have had more experience than a person fifty.16 A farmer who has spent fifty years on the same plantation has certainly not had as much experience as a son who has been roaming all over Europe and the USA and is now thirty.

It is therefore a sign of mature judgment when you rely absolutely on your own experiences. The teachers in our schools have been pounding this in the heads of [strikeout illegible] students to long.17 We must come to see that lives are enriched by the experiences of others.

A minister who therefore tries to preach out of his own experiences all the time soon becomes shallow. He should let the great souls of the world enrich his life. The run around all the week and never look in a book and then get up on Sunday and preach what rises from inside you is to fool yourself and starve the people for the Gospel.18

[signed] M. L. King Jr.19

"Will Capitalism Survive?"

Karl Marx, the German philosopher, once stated that capitalism carries the seed of its own destruction.20 There is an obvious fallacy in this statement. The fallacy lies in its limitation. He speaks of capitalism as if it is the only social institution that carries the seed of its own destruction.21 The actual fact is that every social institution carries the seed of its own destruction, its survival depends on the way the seed is nourished.22 Therefore, just as every social institution carries the seed of its own destruction it also carries the seed of its own perpetuation.

Now after admitting that there is a definite fallacy in Marx' statement, do we find any truth therein?23 It is my opinion that we do. I am convinced that capitalism has seen its best days in America, and not only in America, but in the entire world. It is a well known fact that no social institution can survive after it has outlived its usefullness.24 This capitalism has failed to do.25 It has failed to meet the needs of the masses.

Strikes and labor troubles are but surface indications of the deep dissatisfaction and distress in this country.26 There is a definite revolt by, what Marx calls, “the proletariat”, against “the bourgeoisie.” Every we turn we hear the demand for socialize medicine.27 In fact, what is more socialistic than the income tax, the T.V.A., or the N.R.B.28 What will eventually happen is this: labor will become so powerful (this was certainly evidenced in the recent election) that she will be able to place a president in the White House.29 This will in all probability bring about a nationalization of industry. This will be the end of capitalism.

What will the new movement be called in America? I must admit that I don't know. It might well be called socialism, communism, or socialistic democracy.30 But what does it matter anyway, “a rose called by a different name smells just as sweet."31 The point is that we will have a definite change. Capitalism finds herself like a losing football team in the last quarter trying all types of tactics to survive. We are losing because we failed to check our weaknesses in the beginning of the game.

[signed] M. L. King Jr.32

"Is the Church the Hope of the World?"

It is a common saying in religious circles that the church is the hope of the world. This question inevitably leads the objective mind to a bit of doubt. He immediately asks, “how can the church be the hope of the world when it is the most reactionary institution in society.”33 In other words, the church is suppose to be the most radical opposer of the status quo in society, yet, in many instances, it is the greatest preserver of the status quo.34 So it was very easy for slavery to receive a religious saction.35 The church is one of the chief exponents of racial bigotry. Monopoly capitalism has always received the saction of the church.36

Since this is the case, we must admit that the church is far from Christ. What has happened is this: the church, while flowing through the stream of history has picked up the evils of little tributaries, and these tributaries have been so powerful that they have been able to overwhelm the main stream. In other words, the church has picked up a lot of historical vices. This is the tragedy of the church, for it has confused the vices of the church with the virtues of Christ. The church has been nothing but the slave of society; Whenever the mores call for evil practicies, society runs to the church to get its sanction.

Therefore, I conclude that the church, in its present state, is not the hope of the world. I believe that nothing has so persistently and effectively blocked the way of salvation as the church. On the other hand, the church can be the hope of the world, but only when it returns to Christ. If we take Christ to the world, we will turn it upside down, but the tragedy is that we to often take Christianity.37 It is our job as ministers to bring the church back to the center of the human race. But we can only bring the church back to the center of the human race when we bring Christ back to the center of the church.38

[signed] M. L. King Jr.39

1. King also criticized Barth in an essay he wrote for Davis's course at Crozer, Christian Theology for Today (King, “The Place of Reason and Experience in Finding God,” 13 September-23 November 1949, in Papers 1:230-236). During his first semester of graduate studies at Boston University, King also focused on Barth's theology in L. Harold DeWolf's Seminar in Systematic Theology. In an essay for DeWolf, King challenged Barth's theology, commenting, “Most of my criticisms stem from the fact that I have been greatly influenced by liberal theology, maintaining a healthy respect for reason and a strong belief in the immanence as well as the transcendence of God” (King, “Karl Barth's Conception of God,” 2 January 1952, in The Papers of Martin Luther King, Jr., vol. 2: Rediscovering Precious Values, July 1951-November 1955, ed. Clayborne Carson, Ralph E. Luker, Penny A. Russell, and Peter Holloran [Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994], p. 104).

2. Karl Barth (1886-1968) was a Swiss Reformed Church theologian. He studied at a series of universities between 1904 and 1909, including the University of Bern and the University of Marburg. After his ordination as a pastor in 1908 and the publication of Epistle to the Romans ( 1919), which established his reputation as a theologian, he became a professor of Reformed Theology at Göttigen (1921), Münster (1925), and finally at Bonn (1930), despite never receiving a doctorate. He was eventually exiled from Germany in 1935 because he refused to take an oath of loyalty to Adolf Hitler. His later writings include Fide Quaerens lntellectum (1931) and the multi-volume Church Dogmatics (1932-1968). Barth held that theology should be based solely on the Bible and the figure of Jesus Christ instead of human experience and reason. Keighton inserted an “a” before “round.”

3. Fritz Barth (1856-1912) was the author of several books, including The Gospel St. John and the Synoptic Gospels (New York: Eaton & Mains, 1907), Die Hauptprobleme des Lebens Jesu (Gütersloh, Germany: Bertelsmann, 1918), and Einleitung in das Neue Testament (Gütersloh, Germany: Bertelsmann, 1921).

4. Keighton corrected Tubingen to Tübingen.

5. Neo-Kantianism was a late nineteenth-century outgrowth of the philosophy of Immanuel Kant (1724-1804). One of its main expressions was the Marburg school, founded by Hermann Cohen (1842-1918), which developed a philosophical system emphasizing Kant's critical, a priori idealism as foundational in logic, ethics, and aesthetics.

6. Reformed Churches are the Reformed, Congregational, United, and Presbyterian denominations, which have their theological roots in the works of John Calvin.

7. Cf. Matthew 11:28. Keighton indicated the “a” and “r” in the word “pharse” should be reversed.

8. “Jesus calls us: 'Come unto me!' He seeks to tell us what is true. He desires to speak truth to us. He wants to talk God to us. He, who lets himself be told, repents. Repentance is turning about to that which is nearest and which we always overlook; to the center of life which we always miss; to the simplest which is still too high and hard for us” (Karl Barth, Come Holy Spirit: Sermons [New York: Round Table Press,1933], p. 67).

9. Barth, Come Holy Spirit, p. 69: “Other voices also call us: 'Come unto me!' The voice of the church,for example. Today she calls us to the Confederation's service of thanksgiving, repentance, and prayer… When the church says something, it is always an open question.”

10. Barth, Come Holy Spirit, p. 71 : “The call of Jesus resounds despite the church. But the church is a great, perhaps the greatest, hindrance to repentance. If we wish to hear the call of Jesus, then we must hear it despite the church.”

11. Barth, Come Holy Spirit, p. 71: “Who is Jesus? We know him best by those whom he calls to himself."

12. Cf. Matthew 11:28.

13. Barth, Come Holy Spirit, p. 78: “What does Jesus want of us? He wants nothing of us but that we come. He does not want ours but us. If we come as we are, all is well. For this is the new and all-important thing, the mystery that confronts us in Christ. Our coming consists in this, that we permit Jesus to tell us that we labor and are heavy laden. On this account it is so hard for us to come.”

14. Keighton crossed out the “n" in leaven and replaced it with an “s."

15. King folded this assignment lengthwise and signed his name on the verso of the last page.

16. Keighton placed a question mark before the word “thirty,” placed brackets around the words “plenty people thirty,” and circled the words “person fifty.” He also placed a question mark above the word “fifty.”

17. Keighton added “to” to the word “in,” and added an “o” to the word “to.”

18. Keighton circled the word “The” and placed a question mark in front of it. He also wrote a large question mark in the paper's margin next to the entire sentence. In the same sermon file folder as this essay, King kept a copy of a speech by George Kelsey, his professor at Morehouse College. Kelsey noted,in a speech given in Atlanta at the Joint Committee on Negro Ministerial Education of the Northern, Southern, and National Baptist Conventions, the presence of “scores of ignorant preachers who compensate for their ignorance by claiming that the entire message of the preacher comes from God, and not from books” (Kelsey, “The Present Crisis in Negro Ministerial Education,” 19 January 1948).

19. King folded this assignment lengthwise and signed his name on the verso of the last page.

20. King paraphrases Karl Marx: “But capitalist production begets, with the inexorability of a law of Nature, its own negation” (Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy [Chicago: Charles H. Kerr, 1906], 1:837). King also prepared a handwritten version of this paper (King, Notes on American Capitalism, 14 September 1948-15 February 1950, in Papers 1:435-436). Similar analyses of capitalism became a regular theme in King's writings and sermons for years to come (King to Coretta Scott, 18 July 1952; “Communism's Challenge to Christianity,” 9 August 1953; “Can a Christian Be a Communist?” Sermon Delivered at Ebenezer Baptist Church, 30 September 1962, pp. 123-126, 146-150, and 445-454 in this volume, respectively).

21. Keighton crossed out the word “is” and wrote “were” above it.

22. Keighton made the comma after the word “destruction” into a semicolon.

23. Keighton inserted a comma after the word “now.”

24. Keighton inserted a dash between the words “well” and “known.”

25. Keighton crossed out the words “failed to do” and wrote “done” above it.

26. In the handwritten version of this paper this sentence reads: “We need only to look at the underlying developments of our society” (King, Notes on American Capitalism, 14 September 1948-15 February 1950, in Papers 1:435-436).

27. Keighton inserted “where" after the word “every” and added “d” to the end of the word “socialize.”

28. The 16th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, ratified by the states in 1913, authorized a federal income tax. The Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) was established by Congress in 1933 for the purposes of electrical generation, navigation, and flood control. King may refer to either the National Recovery Act enacted in 1933 or the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) established in 1935, each of which sought to insure fair collective bargaining between businesses and unions. Keighton inserted a question mark following “N.R.B.”

29. Organized labor played a key role in the election of Harry S. Truman in 1948.

30. Keighton crossed out “might” and wrote “may" over it.

31. King paraphrases William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet, act 2, sc. 2: “What's in a name? That which we call a rose / By any other name would smell as sweet.” Keighton drew a line to this quotation and wrote at the end of the document, “Want to check this quotation? Romeo & Juliet II-ii-43-4.”

32. King folded this assignment lengthwise and signed his name on the verso of the last page.

33. Keighton drew an arrow to indicate that “asks" should come before “immediately,” and added a question mark at the end of the sentence.

34. Keighton added a “d” to the end of the word “suppose.”

35. Keighton inserted an “n” in the word “saction.”

36. Keighton bracketed the phrase “monopoly capitalism" and wrote a question mark in the margin.

37. Keighton added an “o” to the end of the word “to.”

38. Keighton circled the word “only” and drew an arrow to indicate that it should have come in between the words “race” and “when.” At the end of this essay, Keighton wrote: “You are careless in writing—a characteristic that seems new! Personal Comment Beware of making words carry the burden of thoughts. Do not substitute the one for the other. Would you be willing to debate your meanings of the words 'Church', 'Christianity' & 'Christ'? It is far too easy to make these things the whipping boys! Don't begin your ministry by taking this path.”

39. King folded this assignment lengthwise and signed his name on the verso of the last page.

Source: 

“Karl Barth”: CSKC-INP, Coretta Scott King Collection, In Private Hands, Sermon file, folder 36, “Sermon Notes.”

“The Limitation of Experience”:  CSKC-INP, Coretta Scott King Collection, In Private Hands, Sermon file, folder 36, “Sermon Notes.”

“Will Capitalism Survive?”: CSKC-INP, Coretta Scott King Collection, In Private Hands, Sermon file, folder 36, “Sermon Notes.”

“Is the Church the Hope of the World?”: CSKC-INP, Coretta Scott King Collection, In Private Hands, Sermon Files, folder 92.