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"Mental and Spiritual Slavery," Sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church

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Author: King, Martin Luther, Jr.

Date: May 1, 1954 to May 31, 1954

Location: Montgomery, Ala.

Genre: Sermon

Topic: Martin Luther King, Jr. - Career in Ministry


King made several trips from Boston to Montgomery before moving permanently in September 1954. For one such trip, he preached from this handwritten outline.1 King calls on his new congregation to consider Pontius Pilate, who acquiesced to the crowds and sentenced Jesus to death. He criticizes conformity: “Many white people are against many of the practices of their group, but they are afraid to take a stand.”2 The following outline was compiled from fragments found in two different sermon folders.3

“They are slaves who fear to speak,
for the fallen and the weak;
They are slaves who will not choose,
Hatred, scoffing and abuse,
Rather than in silence shrink,
From the truth they needs must think;
They are slaves who dare not be,
In the right with two or three”4

  1. Int. These words from the pen of James Russel Lowell are quite expressive of all that I intend to say this morning. Usually we think of slavery in the physical sense, as an institution inflicted on one group of people by another group. But there is another type of slavery which is probably more prevelent and certainly more injurious than physical bondage, namely mental slavery. This is a slavery that the individual inflicts upon himself. History abounds with individuals who have enjoyed physical freedom and who have at the same time inflicted mental and spiritual freedom upon themselves. Deep down in their souls and minds they were slaves. (Notice the mental slavery of the Negro.)
  2. This morning I would like to use Pilate as an example of one whose mind was caught in the clutches of slavery
    1. His mind and soul were enslaved to the crowd. In other words Pilate found security in conforming to ideas of the mob. Listen to the account. “And so Pilate, willing to content the people, released Barabbas unto them, and delivered Jesus to be crucified."5 Pilate did not have the moral courage stamina to stand alone on his convictions
      1. Most people today are in Pilate's shoes i.e. conformist. Most people would take stands on their ideas but they are afraid of being non‐conformist. {This particular slavery has lead us to a philosophy of a numerical test of truth.}
        1. Many white people feel are against many of the practices of their group, but they are afraid to take a stand.
        2. Many people divelope undesirable habits in an attempt to conform
        3. Notice how the Church has often conformed
          Now at a point we must all be conformist. (We are tied to an extent to the folkways and mores) There is no virtue in being a non-conformist just to be a non conformist.6 Some people are non conformist just to get attention and to be different. This type of non-conformity I am not speaking of. I am speaking of a non conformity which is based on high and noble purposes. This type is both legitimate and necessary. Whenever the mores and patterns of our society conflict with our highest ideals and tend to degrade human personality then it is our moral obligation to revolt against them. {1. Agaist War 2. Agaist the inequalities of Capitalism 3. Many white people 4 Young people}
        4. Quote Emerson7
        5. The truely great men of history have been those who could stand up before the crowd and not bow. The great creative insights have come from men who were in a minority. It was the minority that fought for popular education, for religious liberty, for freedom of scientific research
        6. Professor Bixler of Harvard Coby College has made some interesting comments on our new psychological talk about the well adjusted life8
        7. {Quote Paul}9 We Christians are not called upon to be the conformist, but the non-conformist. (Use ill of Thermostats and themon)10 Being a Christian is serious business. It is more than reciting a few creeds. It is more than singing a few beatiful hymns. It is more than partaking of the sacraments.
      2. Pilates Let us look at Pilate again. We find that his mind and soul were slaves to his own selfish interest. Pilate made it clear that he didn't believe Jesus to be guilty of the charges heaped upon him and he continually said “I find no fualt in him.”11 So Pilate's problem was not that of deciding whether Jesus was guilty or innocent. He knew he was innocent. The problem was whether he should free an innoncent man and lose he secure position with the people, or sentence an innocent man to death and so establish himself more securely in the affections of his subjects. He did not want to condemn Jesus to death. But to free him would jeopodise his own position. And so he crucified upon the cross of his self interest

        1. Not Now it is easy for us to look back and condemn Pilate for such an action, but we must also see that many of us are just as much victims of this sort of thing as Pilate.
          1. Take the politician choosing between truth and votes
          2. Take the business man choosing between truth and some sharp business practice which mean more money
          3. Take the mininstr choosing between truth and keeing in with the member and being popular with the breathen

        The great progressive moves of history have been mined by the purpetuity of “Pilateness”12

Conclusion—Who has been the most influential character in history Jesus or Pilate Who is it that has been the most influential character of human history—Jesus or Pilate? Who is it that was able to change a Simon of sand into a Peter of Rock.13 Who is it that was able to change a persecuting Peter into a Apostle Paul—Jesus or Pilate?14 Who is it that has been able to split history into A.D. and B.C.—Jesus or Pilate? Who is it that so captivated the soul of man that they shook the hinges from the gates of the Roman empire—Jesus or Pilate? Who is that gave impetus to a movement that has grown from a group of eleven men to more than 600,000,000 followers today—Jesus or Pilate. Who is it whose influence has outlasted the Caesar and whose majestic power has towered above empires—Jesus or Pilate? Who is it that has given a message so universal and international that choirs the world ove can sing In Christ there is no East nor West—Jesus or Pilate?15 Who is it that has so convinced men that his message is eternal and lasting that they have cry out with Handel of oll Halululia, Halulia16

Preached at Dexter May, 195417

1. King's announced 7 September 1952 sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church was also titled “Mental and Spiritual Slavery” (“Rev. King, Jr. Will Deliver Last Summer Sermon Sun,” Atlanta Daily World, 6 September 1952).

2. King reworked this theme for a sermon titled “Transformed Nonconformist” (November 1954, pp. 195-198 in this volume, and “Transformed Nonconformist,” Strength to Love, pp. 8-15).

3. This document's pages were found in two separate folders in King's sermon file. The first two pages were stored in the folder titled “Mental Slavery.” The last four pages were filed in an untitled folder (Sermon File Inventory, pp. 609 and 621 in this volume).

4. James Russell Lowell, “Stanzas on Freedom” (1892).

5. Cf. Mark 15:15. Pontius Pilate, who ordered Jesus' execution, was the fifth Roman governor of Judea and ruled for a decade (26-37 CE).

6. The remainder of this document was filed in a separate folder.

7. King maybe referring to Ralph Waldo Emerson, Self Reliance (1841): “Whoso would be a man must be a nonconformist.”

8. Harry Emerson Fosdick, “Facing the Challenge of Change,” in The Hope of the World (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1933), p. 112: “Dr. Seelye Bixler, of Harvard University, has lately made some shrewd comments on our new psychological talk about the well-adjusted life.” Julius Seelye Bixler was a professor of theology at Harvard University from 1933 until 1942 and served as president of Colby College from 1942 until 1960.

9. King probably refers to Paul's words in Romans 12:2: “And be not conformed to this world: but be ye transformed by the renewing of your mind, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect, will of God.” He also used this text as the basis for the November 1954 version of “Transformed Nonconformist” and the version that was submitted for publication in Strength to Love (see King, “Transformed Nonconformist,” November 1954, and King, Draft of Chapter II, “Transformed Nonconformist,” July 1962-March 1963, pp. 195-198 and 466-476 in this volume, respectively). See also Chart 1 (p. 16), which compares King's explication of this biblical text in this document with passages in his several versions of “Transformed Nonconformist.”

10. “And so the christian is called upon not to be like a thermometer conforming to the temperature of his society, but he must be like a thermostat serving to transform the temperature of his society” (King, “Transformed Nonconformist,” November 1954, p. 196 in this volume).

11. Cf. John 18:38 and 19:4, 6.

12. King added this sentence in a second pen.

13. Cf. John 1:42.

14. Cf. Acts 9:1-28.

15. King cites John Oxenham's hymn “In Christ There Is No East or West” (1908).

16. King cites the “Hallelujah Chorus” in George Frideric Handel's oratorio Messiah (1741).

17. King added this sentence in a second pen.

Source: CSKC-INP, Coretta Scott King Collection, In Private Hands, folder 113, “Mental Slavery”; and Sermon file, folder 124.

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