“Why is black preaching so much better than white preaching?”
That’s the provocative first question in today’s interview with the Rev. Martha Simmons, co-editor of a book that truly is unique and historic. We don’t use those terms lightly, but this is a milestone in religious publishing that will stand for years to come: nearly 1,000 pages of some of the greatest sermons preached by African-American men and women over the past 200 years. The task of researching, collecting and obtaining permission to publish these sermons was monumental.
Or, to put this another way: If you’re a preacher, or if you hope to become a preacher—or if you’re simply someone who wants to improve preaching—this is a book you must read. It’s a book that should be in the personal library of anyone interested in American religious life.
Could we be any clearer? We’re recommending this book as strongly as possible. You can order “Preaching with Sacred Fire: An Anthology of African American Sermons, 1750 to the Present” from Amazon now.
Your excitement in turning these pages will depend, to some extent, on your experience with African-American preaching. If you’re African-American yourself or if you’ve had any experience with some of the nation’s great black preachers, you’ll get goose bumps flipping these pages. I’m a tough, skeptical old journalist and I felt the hair stand up on the back of my neck as I read sermons by such giants as the Rev. C.L. Franklin, the Rev. Charles Adams, the Rev. Howard Thurman, the Rev. Fred Sampson, the Rev. T.D. Jakes, the Rev. Vashti McKenzie and on—and on. Of course, I’ve heard many of the greatest black preachers of the 20th century and their voices will forever resonate for me.
Here’s an example: Words on a page can’t substitute for the spiritual nitroglycerine that began to flow when the late Fred Sampson prepared to preach. Instead of reading this thick new volume in an easy chair, imagine that you’re decked out in your best Sunday clothes, poised in a packed church pew—and every eye in the place is watching carefully as the tall, professorial Dr. Sampson strides to the pulpit and begins his message in a soft, raspy voice as if talking off hand to an old friend. Of course, you and 1,000 other “old friends” all are straining ears to catch each word that passes from his lips. Why is such a moment so exciting? Not because of the first few lines the Doctor intones, but because of the intellectual, spiritual and theatrical tour de force that everyone in the church knows will sweep forth like a tidal wave in the minutes ahead. This Doctor never disappointed. After a Fred Sampson sermon, one always stood taller and walked with more purpose—just like the towering Doctor himself.
No, words on a page can’t capture that experience—but they come very close. What’s more, Simmons and her publisher, W.W. Norton have launched a website with an ever-changing sample of audio clips from some of these preachers.
Highlights of ReadTheSpirit Interview with Martha Simmons on
“Preaching with Sacred Fire: An Anthology of African American Sermons”
DAVID: Why is black preaching so much better than white preaching? There are far more white preachers than black preachers in America, but if you’re among the millions of Americans who travel each weekend—and if you want to visit a church on Sunday morning—you’re far more likely to have a stirring experience if you choose to go hear an African-American preacher. Why is that so?
MARTHA: Two reasons: Number 1, African-American preachers come out of a tradition in this country that, for many years, did not allow African Americans to learn to read and write. So, in developing sermons in those early days, preachers depended on memory. In learning to preach this way in those early years, men and women were following the African tradition of the griots, those who preserved and passed on the community’s oral traditions.
Then, Number 2, when you find people who preach well in this tradition, they tend to use more images and tell more stories. It’s that kind of narrative preaching, filled with images, that tends to reach people at a gut level. I’m not saying this form of preaching is uneducated. It’s just livelier. It reaches more than heads, more than minds. That’s still the basic form of preaching you’ll hear on any given Sunday in American black churches, even from preachers who have earned masters and doctorate degrees.
Many white preachers are trained to concentrate on the theory of preaching and in that tradition of teaching preaching, little attention is given to the mechanics involved. Black preachers are taught from an early age about the methods of reaching people on all levels, including the gut, the heart. Yes, your message has to be planned, thought out carefully and theologically grounded, but your goal is deeper when you step into the pulpit. It’s not enough to make people think; you’ve also got to reach deep within them.
DAVID: Some of our readers, I suspect, will want to debate that first question I asked you. Obviously there are some powerful white preachers, the Rev. Billy Graham and Archbishop Fulton Sheen among them. But I’m not alone in raising such a question. Think about our popular culture: TV series and Hollywood films. Most white preachers in dramas or comedies are cast as boring or irrelevant or, at worst, they’re cast as bad guys. But black preachers in TV series and movies? They’re beloved. They’re heroes. Think about Tyler Perry movies. Just last year, for example, the Rev. Marvin Winans essentially played himself in “I Can Do Bad All By Myself.”
MARTHA: Well, this goes back to what we were just talking about a moment ago. You asked about a person who is visiting in some city and they’re looking for a place to go to church. I think most people realize they’ll have very different experiences in choosing to visit a black church or a white church.
Beyond the style of preaching, there’s a different cultural assumption about African-American preachers because of the history of the black church itself. A people will develop knowledge, will develop wisdom, depending on their social experiences over time. So, if you take people who have been dispossessed, who have been treated unfairly and who have survived against great odds, then you begin to develop a reputation for having uncommon wisdom. To survive great oppression, a people must have wisdom about God, about the world, about the right things to do to survive. Well, black preachers come out of that tradition and most white preachers do not.
Think about it this way: If you’re facing a personal crisis and you want to find someone in your family who is the keeper of wisdom about survival, most people are going to turn to some older grandmother-type figure. She may have less education than others in the family, but this person has lived. This person has experienced rough times and triumphed over those challenges. That’s the African-American preaching experience in this country—period. We’re not alone in saying that—our culture, even popular culture, knows that truth.
From Moses to Joseph (of the Technicolor Dreamcoat)
DAVID: In your book, you take us way back into the 1700s and you dig deeply into the courageous sermons that were preached during slavery—and during the worst of 20th-century racism. Then, you give us a terrific collection of later 20th-century sermons as well. Throughout this history, you refer to an evolving “black preaching canon.” Describe that for us.
MARTHA: Black preaching primarily is an oral tradition and that means the preaching develops over time as stories are repeatedly used and reinterpreted. That common collection of wisdom becomes the canon of black preaching. Because of slavery, of course, the Moses story is essential. And there are so many other great images—like the image out of Deuteronomy of the eagle that was used so powerfully by the Rev. C.L. Franklin as he described the eagle stirring her nest. The canon represents stories of encouragement, of overcoming, of liberation. Over the last 20 years, though, the canon has been shifting. It will be interesting over time to see what remains and what is added to the canon.
DAVID: Tell us about that change. What’s new?
MARTHA: Well, the traditional canon included Moses, of course, and the three boys in the fiery furnace, the eagle and all those other staples of survival and liberation. But in the last 20 years or so, the Joseph story has become a staple in African-American churches as well. What’s interesting about that is: Joseph’s story basically is preached as a lesson about individual, material liberation. It’s not like the Moses story, which is about communal liberation. There’s a shift in preaching in many churches toward individualism, toward material wealth, health and power and that’s one reason the Joseph story has been preached so much over the past 20 years.
We’re seeing less preaching about the group and a lot more preaching about rugged individualism, which is a trend that comes right out of popular culture. It’s not surprising to see that, but I do wonder if this preaching about individual success will last as long as the traditional canon of black preaching.
The Rev. C.L. Franklin (Aretha’s Father) and Whooping Nationwide
DAVID: Your book illustrates many changes we’ve seen in black preaching down through history. You write about the Rev. C.L. Franklin as “likely the most imitated African-American preacher in history.” He was the “ultimate melodic whooper,” which refers to his style of breaking into a kind of rhythmic song toward the end of his sermons. In addition to his radio broadcasts, Franklin produced 26 albums and, of course, he is famous for introducing his daughter, Aretha, to the world. But why do you think Franklin was such an innovator?
MARTHA: I think what really made him so electrifying is that, first of all, he presented himself as the everyman. In his day, he became wealthy, but he didn’t come across that way when people met him on the street. He was always well dressed. He wore diamond rings, but that’s not the personality that came across to people. He always had time to talk with people about their lives. He was an everyman who loved people and that way of presenting himself made people love him.
Then, he was a great storyteller. He could do things with imagery that few other preachers could do. Others had preached about the eagle stirring her nest, but no one brought those images to vivid life like the Rev. Franklin did in his famous sermon on the eagle.
Then, there was his whoop. The greatest whoopers in the Franklin tradition were great singers and Franklin was a wonderful singer. When you put all those elements together, you had a phenomenal experience.
The Rev. Charles G. Adams, Harvard and a Preaching Revolution
DAVID: You credit Franklin with an entire style and historical era of black preaching and you say that another era was inaugurated by the Rev. Charles G. Adams. In your book, you say that Adams took Franklin’s style of whooping and transformed it into something new. Franklin was a singer; Adams wasn’t such a singer. Franklin drove toward one big crescendo; Adams offered as many as four or five crescendos in a single sermon. Franklin whooped as he concluded his stories; Adams created absolutely startling runs of alliteration—driving home complex points in his sermon with unforgettable strings of phrases.
MARTHA: What Adams did was nothing short of standing whooping on its head. The Franklin tradition of whooping could leave people with the impression of an exciting preacher who may not have as much education as white preachers. Listening to Franklin-style whoopers, it wasn’t clear whether the preacher had spent much time in seminary.
Adams turned that all around by clearly letting people know: I’m from Harvard, and I’m connected with the traditions of the C.L. Franklins of the world. And I’m here to tell you that I’m proud of both traditions. This was something new in the world.
Adams actually spent time working with Franklin on sermon writing, but Adams added riffs and runs and the use of cadence in his sermon as opposed to melody. Adams is a musician, but he’s not as great a singer as Franklin was. Adams knew that and he developed his style out of his strengths.
Adams didn’t call himself a whooper, but by the time I first started hearing about Charles Adams, he already had that nickname: the Harvard Whooper. The people on the street knew what they were hearing—two traditions coming together: great education and the great traditions of black preaching. Adams could stand up proudly in any pulpit in America and people would say: Oh, my God! Where did this come from? How can he preach like that! People walk away from a Charles Adams sermon, black and white, saying: I could never imagine a preacher doing that!
DAVID: At the end of your book, you devote 26 pages of fairly small type to listing “Other Notable Preachers” down through African-American history. As a writer and editor myself, I imagine those 26 pages represent a great deal of work, sweat and tears over who to include—and who to cut, right?
MARTHA: Oh, my God! Yes! That list was maddening to compile and to cut down to 26 pages. We started with about 50 pages!
But here’s why we included those listings: In our research through the centuries of preaching in America, we would find so many newspaper accounts describing the importance of a particular preacher—but not a single word of what was preached.
We included those names, because we have clear evidence they were great preachers. They made it into newspaper stories about the crowds they drew and the power of what they preached. But otherwise, they seem to have vanished. We want to help write them back into our history.
After so much research, it was maddening to come away with a preacher we knew was very important—with evidence from many newspaper accounts of the preacher’s power and influence—yet not a single word remains of what they preached. In case after case, we found: Nothing remains of their work.
DAVID: I think we should ask readers who buy your book to go through those 26 pages, first, and see if there is any memory, any connection out there, to family records, church archives, library collections that may not have been tapped yet.
MARTHA: Nothing would thrill me more! And I’m interested, as well, in the women who showed up in our research as preachers. We’ve included women in the book, but there are far too many who have all but vanished from the pages of history. You may not think that women preachers could attain this kind of power of influence. But there were women even in the early years. Can you imagine how important you must have been as a woman preacher in the early years to actually make it into newspaper accounts of your work? I’d love to find more about some of the women whose names we found in the early years.
We really do want to get more people involved in this process of moving these important men and women from obscurity back into the pages of American history.
You can order “Preaching with Sacred Fire: An Anthology of African American Sermons, 1750 to the Present” from Amazon now … and your purchase through ReadTheSpirit will help to support our online magazine.
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