Preaching to his Dexter congregation on the eve of the Montgomery bus boycott, an event triggered by the 1 December arrest of Rosa Parks, King draws upon a 1947 sermon by Robert McCracken.1 King seeks to elucidate “the awful silence of heaven” in the face of evil such as “imperialistic nations trampling over other nations with the iron feet of oppression.” He used this metaphor to tremendous effect the following evening at the first mass meeting of the Montgomery Improvement Association (MIA).2
1. According to a Dexter program from 4 December 1955, King delivered a version of this sermon. King kept a copy of McCracken's 27 April 1947 sermon “Why Does God Hide Himself?” in his homiletic file.
2. The overflow crowd reacted with thundering applause when King exclaimed, “And you know, my friends, there comes a time when people get tired of being trampled over by the iron feet of oppression” (King, MIA Mass Meeting at Holt Street Baptist Church, 5 December 1955, in Papers 3:72).
3. “Verily, thou art a God that hidest thyself, O God of Israel, the Savior.”
4. McCracken, “Why Does God Hide Himself?”: “How often through the centuries that cry has risen to human lips! Of late we ourselves have not been unfamiliar with it.”
5. McCracken, “Why Does God Hide Himself?”: “And God did not intervene. The awful silence of heaven remained unbroken. We pleaded with Him to manifest Himself and defend the right.”
6. John Keats, “The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream” (1819).
7. McCracken, “Why Does God Hide Himself ?”: “what wonder that some like H. G. Wells complained bitterly, ‘He is an ever-absent help in time of trouble.’”
8. In the sermon “Having a Faith That Really Works,” Harry Emerson Fosdick wrote: “In a depressed mood Carlyle said once, ‘God sits in heaven and does nothing’” (Fosdick, What Is Vital in Religion [New York: Harper & Brothers, 1955], p. 12). King and Fosdick paraphrase Thomas Carlyle's Sartor Resartus (1836), p. 163.
9. McCracken, “Why Does God Hide Himself?”: “Consider how He hides Himself in nature. In saying that I do not forget that for many nature is the very handwriting of God.”
10. The Romantic poets of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, such as William Wordsworth and Percy Bysshe Shelley, looked to nature for inspiration and fulfillment.
11. Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) was a Puritan politician and military leader during the English Civil War, which led to the defeat of King Charles I. Cromwell ruled England as Lord Protector from 1653 until 1658. In 1649 Cromwell wrote to his son's mentor, Richard Mayor, “I would have him mind and understand business, read a little history, study the mathematics and cosmography” (The Letters and Speeches of Oliver Cromwell with Elucidations by Thomas Carlyle, vol. 1 [London: Methuen, 1904], p. 451).
12. McCracken, “Why Does God Hide Himself?”: “Consider, too, how God hides Himself in history. Cromwell said to the man whom he appointed to tutor his son, ‘I would have him taught a little history.’ We know why he said what he did. He believed that the study of history inclined one to a sane, balanced and reverent judgment. But not all the lessons that history teaches are lessons that inspire and quicken faith. So often when we delve into the story of the past, what do we find?”
13. King underlined a paraphrase of James Russell Lowell's 1844 poem “The Present Crisis” in his copy of McCracken's “Why Does God Hide Himself ?”: “Might triumphing over right, the race to the swift and the battle to the strong, truth on the scaffold and wrong on the throne, Christ on a Cross and Caesar in a palace” (p. 39).
CSKC-INP, Coretta Scott King Collection, In Private Hands.