Martin Luther King: The Preacher as Virtuoso

by Martin E. Marty

Martin E. Marty recently wrote Modern American Religion (Vol. 2): The Noise of Conflict.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, April 5, 1989, p 348.. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


American virtuosos like Lincoln and King knew how to invoke prophetic biblical texts and ancient moral injunctions and join them to calls to action.

Not once but twice a year Americans have special occasion to think about the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr. -- on his birthday in January and on the anniversary of his assassination on April 4.

Having two annual days of remembrance permits citizens to go beyond studying one or two elements in King’s legacy. Of course he will be remembered for his leadership in the civil rights cause, and for the nonviolent approach he brought to controversial issues. But as the years pass and memories fade, it becomes ever more valuable to reflect on how such a young man (he was 39 when he was killed) without official position gained so much power.

Among other things, he was an exemplar of the power of rhetoric, the ancient art or science which has suffered neglect for several generations. King appeared in a decade, if not an era, in which rhetoric, the art of public and persuasive speech and writing, was in disfavor. Students and teachers neglected rhetoric classes in English and classics departments. The result of that neglect can be seen in the numbers of people today who think they can get by with mumbling. Listen to the now middle-aged corporate managers stiffly state the case for their products or procedures. They can do nothing without stammering, or using "overheads," slides and teleprompters or relying on aides.

Seminarians of that era were old they had to lose their attachment to preaching, for ministry only occurred through public action or private counseling But the joke was on the ministerial mumblers. All around them new movements were taking shape -- feminism, liberation theology, the New Right -- in which the ability of leaders to use persuasive speech or writing was all-important. While the therapists and the mumblers were losing faith in words, King and his colleagues were employing to powerful effect the art described by Aristotle, Cicero, Quintilian and other ancients. They may not) have read the secular classics; they didn’t really need to They had learned their lessons not from the Greeks and Romans but from the Hebrews, not from the Ivy League but from the Baptist and Methodist churches that nourished them and which they, in turn, honored with their appeals.

Clifton F. Brown once spoke of the "religiocification" of the black movement occurring in the 1 960s. But one could say that the movement had never been other than ‘religiocified’ ‘ -- though it was the "Reverend" prefixing names like King, Young, Shuttlesworth, Fauntroy, Abernathy and Bevel that made the public aware of the deep religious roots of the civil rights movement and of black rhetoric. I recall a magazine article about King’s funeral by a well-known Northeastern white literary figure. She gave the impression that it was nice during this one occasion for people to sing the old songs and preach in the old style so white America could get a last look. How wrong she was. King’s funeral was not much different from all the others at Ebenezer Baptist Church, except for the presence of television cameras and a host of Kennedys. We tend to confuse "our" awakening with the notion that "their" traditions staged a comeback, when they had never left the scene.

My most sustained opportunity to watch King in action occurred at the Hampton Institute in Virginia. Each year several hundred black clergy gathered there to polish ministerial arts and build morale. In the summer of 1961 I was part of what participants smilingly called the "Martin and Martin" show. Each morning I would give a lecture, and the audience would take careful notes and ask cautious questions. We got on well. In the afternoon King would begin a lecture, which soon turned into a sermon? At the time I thought: "I’ll go back to good people, Christian people, but dispersed and relatively directionless people, who hear the gospel as but one element competing for their attention. These black clergy, on the other hand, will go back to their people leading them in a movement, on a march." I was a bit envious that week, both of King’s gifts -- he’d go off and preach at neighborhood Baptist churches several times a night -- and of the long-oppressed people who made up these ministers’ congregations. I did not recognize then how much my people, or my kind of people, would be drawn into the movement by 1963 or 1965, or how King’ s death 21 Aprils ago would involve us all.

To put it crudely: brutes like "Bull" Connor, the Birmingham, Alabama, police commissioner, or people of refinement like Georgia’s Senator Richard Russell were alike unmoved by King’s charisma. Nor did they ever hear him playing the charismatic leader, preaching, "It is written, but I say unto you. . ." They had to reckon with King as the virtuoso, who spoke to millions of Americans about what "is written," spoke about texts that had or were supposed to have some hold on the heads and hearts of those Americans.

Fundamentalists seem to be doing such preaching, but they do so in order to draw their subsector of society back to the ancient texts and contexts. Religious virtuosos, on the other hand, engage in ressourcement: they draw on the resources of profound traditions and project them into the future, calling for action in light of what the ancient texts themselves project. Weber and Hill say the charismatic is not interested in "the letter" when its power seems to have been lost. Hence their "It is written, but I say unto you . . ." The virtuoso, however, is interested in the letter even though it has been neglected, domesticated, taken captive or muffled, for it houses the spirit which gives life.

The other texts that have moved people are less official but more widely and profoundly grasped. They reached the hearts of the people who heard Lincoln speak, they, gave shape to the hopes and actions of the black community and the "fellow citizens" in King’s time, and they still have some effect today. These are the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. They cannot be the root of our "political religion" -- the Founders took great care to avoid that -- but they have made up our "religious religion." In synagogue and church and home, most citizens have used the Bible both for salvation and for the ordering of life -- voluntarily, through persuasion, not by legal establishment. On some lips the multiplicity of biblical citations, from the Hebrew prophets and from Jesus, would have been wearying. Yet American virtuosos like Lincoln and King have been so steeped in the rhetoric of the Bible that they have instinctively made it their own. Both Lincoln and King knew how to invoke prophetic biblical texts and ancient moral injunctions and join them to calls to action. "A hundred million and more of you claim to believe these texts and follow them; well, in them it is written . . . and I insist . . ."

Aristotle defined rhetoric as "the faculty of discovering in each case the available means of persuasion," and Quintilian defined it as "the knowledge of how to speak well." Rhetoric is concerned with five things: invention, arrangement, style, memory and delivery. Hear any King tape, and you will know what the ancients meant by these divisions.

All ancient talk about rhetoric refers to three elements -- ethos, pathos and logos; 18th-century thinkers added a fourth -- occasion or context.

Ethos or character refers to the credibility the speaker can establish. The audience must somehow trust the virtuoso when he or she insists that we follow the texts. King’s constant exposure to the threat of death, the way he was undercut by rivals and rooted in a tradition of the oppressed, made us listen.

Pathos is the quality that inheres in the audience: it is the emotional bond between speaker and congregation. Americans of the ‘60s knew that they were guilty and should be moved to change; many were on the verge of resolve and needed direction. King’s appeal to the Declaration, the Constitution and the religion of the Republic spoke to these feelings. The marches and speeches showed what King knew about pathos.

Logos refers to logical argument, the plausibility of the case. George Kennedy’s comment in New Testament Interpretation Through Rhetorical Criticism can be applied to Lincoln and King: "In religious discourse . . . the premises of argument are usually based on a scriptural authority or personal intuition, enunciated in sacred language." Kennedy goes on: "To a nonbeliever they may seem totally invalid." Try out Shi’ite rhetoric based on Islamic texts on an American audience, and you will see what he means. But King had no difficulty: scriptural authority and sacred language based on it could reach his black community and the larger American audience.

Today the religion of the Enlightenment is inaccessible in most direct senses. Articulate it, and the Religious Right will likely dismiss you as a secular humanist. It is not taught as the truth about life in most philosophy departments. Churches based partly on it -- one thinks of the Unitarian Universalist Association -- do not prosper. Yet in its texts and applications, as in the Declaration and the Constitution, the language of natural rights, natural law, natural reason and nature’s God still has power if the right speaker (ethos) with an intuitive understanding of audience (pathos) finds the right words and mode of reasoning (logos) in the right occasion or context.

As for biblical language, it also seems to be in decline. If people forget it, no credible speaker can come along some day and effectively say, "It is written, and I insist . . ." The hearers would not know that it is written. The loss of biblical language in public rhetoric or in public education may have telling effect (Lincoln might be incomprehensible today) Sunday school and other agencies of biblical education, where the texts can be restored and minds can as well be re-stored, are neglected, signaling that citizens are not really serious when they ask for more religion in the schools. The family circle where biblical language got bartered and nurtured is broken.

Will the black community of tomorrow continue to display the coherence on which King could draw for his rhetorical moment? We have lived in years in which religious style, not Enlightenment or biblical substance, counts in the bully pulpits of national politics and local civic ceremonies. It is easy to be manipulated by stylists, unless one has substantial knowledge of the texts on which rhetoricians draw.

In remembering King, and Lincoln, Americans can renew their attachment to their textual traditions. A public renewed by the text stands a chance of connecting to speakers and writers like King and Lincoln. One thing is clear. What that president and that pastor had to say (logos) provides us with new texts. There is always a chance that people with such a heritage can add their interpretations to the hallowed texts and remind a new generation: "It is written, and I insist . . ."