Two Men, Two Sermons
"Who is it that is supposed to articulate the longings and aspirations of the people more than the preacher? Somehow the preacher must have a kind of fire shut up in his bones." ~Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Billy Sunday and Martin Luther King, Jr. didn’t agree on many things, but on one topic, they were both clear; it was a dangerous time to be alive. Their world teemed with examples of sickness and moral confusion. In each man’s social strata crisis was at hand, and they both felt called to bring the solution to their people. Each man firmly believed that the salvation of both society and soul could be found in the Gospel of Jesus Christ, yet these seemingly parallel paths led to incredibly divergent destinations.
Billy Sunday and Martin Luther King, Jr. were products of very different environments. Sunday, a white man, was raised in a Midwestern orphanage, while King, a man of color, was raised with his large Southern family. Sunday had no secondary or formal theological education, instead relying on his talent for autodidacticism. King began his college career at age fifteen, graduating with two bachelor’s degrees in sociology and divinity, and a doctorate in philosophy. Sunday was a non-denominational Christian who turned to evangelism as an adult, after a successful athletic career. King was a stalwart Baptist who dedicated his life to his ministry at the tender age of thirteen, taking after his own minister father.
Even their world views were polar opposites. Sunday was a primitive Republican with firmly mainstream views, publicly concerning himself with personal conduct and issues that affected society on a micro level, such as temperance and divorce. King was publicly non-partisan with radical views, publicly concerning himself with institutional conduct and issues that affected society on a macro level, such as poverty and legal equality. Sunday earned large speaking fees, and gained considerable social status throughout his life; his visits frequently made the front page of local newspapers, and his sermons were often printed in full. King earned almost no money in his ministry and was met with constant resistance, being repeatedly jailed, subject to attacks on both his person and property, and spent his entire adult life as the subject of both legal and illegal surveillance by his own government. These personal experiences surely informed their Biblical perspectives, and led to the disparate sermons examined herein.
In Billy Sunday’s sermon, Spiritual Food for a Hungry World, he opined that an increase in prostitution, divorce, and crime was an indicator of a society without a focus on the church. Even amongst church-goers, there seemed to be a focus on “religiousness” rather than “righteousness” (Sunday 000). Together, these issues threatened to surmount the church itself, despite what he saw as a great spiritual hunger. "The world is hungry. Jesus stood face to face with the problem of physical hunger just as we, in our day face, the problem of hunger, not only physical but spiritual." (Sunday 000.) Sunday used the parable of the Loaves and Fishes to further expound on what he viewed as the solution to this societal crisis.
Sunday thought that Christians were overly concerned with going to church, with feeding the poor, with the outward trappings of Christianity. Instead, Sunday felt that a Christian’s chief concern should be spiritual salvation. Sunday stated that a society based on the principles of the church would naturally “solve every difficulty and problem of city, state, nation, and the world” (Sunday 000). Bringing people back to the church was his answer both to the problems. Feed the soul, he seemed to be saying, and the rest will follow. “Jesus was the chef,” he said, “not the waiter at that banquet.” (Sunday 000) If they only focused on themselves, salvation could be obtained, and God’s will be done.
Billy Sunday didn’t equivocate in this belief:
“You cannot bathe anybody into the kingdom of God. You cannot change their hearts by changing their sanitation. It is an entirely good and Christian act to give a down-and-outer a bath, bed and a job. It is a Christian act to maintain schools and universities, but the road into the kingdom of God is not by the bath tub, the university, social service, or gymnasium, but by the blood-red road of the cross of Jesus Christ.” (Sunday 000)
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assessment could not have been more different. In his sermon, I’ve Been to the Mountaintop, his first concern was for the very physical hunger that Sunday seemed to disregard. Personal concerns distracted individuals from the real path to salvation, which could be found in overcoming injustice in our society. "Secondly, let us keep the issues where they are. The issue is injustice." (King 000) The problems of the poor were tantamount, King argued, using the parable of the Good Samaritan to illustrate his sermon. The priest and the Levite both asked, “If I stop to help this man, what will happen to me?” while the Good Samaritan asked, "If I do not stop to help this man, what will happen to him?” (King 000)
This, Dr. King said, was the crux of the issue. Jesus commanded us to care for one another, to help the fallen man as the Samaritan helped the fallen man, to be compassionate. If our society didn’t manage to bring people of color out of poverty, out of neglect, out of injustice, the world was doomed. If people only worked together, justice could be obtained, and God’s will be done.
”It's all right to talk about ‘long white robes over yonder’ in all of its symbolism. But ultimately people want some suits and dresses and shoes to wear down here! It's all right to talk about ‘streets flowing with milk and honey’, but God has commanded us to be concerned about the slums down here, and his children who can't eat three square meals a day.” (King 000)
Their backgrounds inform their writing styles. Self-educated Sunday favored colloquial sermons, using almost conversational language that his audience instantly understood. Traditionally-educated King preferred prose and rhetoric, using metaphors and analogies to engage his audience. In regards to these specific sermons, Sunday seemed to view God as a distant entity, and his solution was posited in generalities, leaving the particulars to the individual listener. In contrast, King spoke of God in a very personal way, and anchored his sermon to history, while suggesting specific solutions to very specific problems within the larger context of his sermon.
Their stage presence is also informed by their opposing experiences. Sunday’s experiences as a celebrity athlete lead perfectly into his stage antics. Sunday would leap about the stages on which he preferred to preach, stand on pulpits, smash chairs, and use exaggerated gestures as he ran and dived across the stage. King’s traditional upbringing and university training taught him the opposite. King almost always chose a stately pose behind a traditional pulpit in whatever space was available, using controlled hand movements, occasionally taking a step backwards or forwards, or carefully and slightly leaning over the pulpit for emphasis. Regardless of their stylistic differences, both men seemed to pay close attention to the reactions of their audience and were incredibly effective orators, exciting their audiences with the same fervor.
Billy Sunday, Martin Luther King, Jr. and their sermons are opposite sides of a very American coin. They felt the same calling, perceived the same problems, looked to the same source for solutions, and yet managed to conceive exactly the reverse of the other. This is a particularly American occurrence; that two men can be so different and yet so alike, taking the same path to such very different destinations, and ultimately ending up as cultural icons to the very same people.
Bruns, Roger A. “Preacher: Billy Sunday and Big-Time American Evangelism”. University of Illinois Press, 2002. Ebook.
King, Jr., Martin Luther. “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop.” American Sermons: The Pilgrims to Martin Luther King, Jr. Ed. Michael Warner. NYC: Library of America, 1999. Book.
Sunday, Billy. “Spiritual Food for a Hungry Nation.” American Sermons: The Pilgrims to Martin Luther King, Jr. Ed. Michael Warner. NYC: Library of America, 1999. Book.
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