Spirituality

The Spiritual Rhythms of Dr. Martin Luther King’s Sermons

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is not the only example of an African American preacher who intentionally relies on rhythmic devices for spiritual purposes, but he is an example of someone who does so very effectively. The rhythms of Dr. King’s sermons involve, firstly, the rhetorical dimensions of the speech itself. This includes his use of repetition, patterns of pausing, the rise and fall of tempo, and alliteration. He regularly repeats words or phrases, but he also sets up a relatively regular repetition of syllable-stress that is not dependent on the sense of the words themselves,[1] a style more typical of poetry than prose. He pauses after every 3-5 beats such that his lines of speech are more akin to the lines of a poem than to straight prose. In this way, he sets up something like a beat, which carries the listeners along. According to Richard Lischer – a scholar of King’s sermonic style – this is called the “soundtrack.” It is the non-discursive dimension of the sermon more available to emotion than reason. King’s congregation did not always know what he was saying, but they were always able to connect to his rhythm.[2]

This is particularly important in the African American sermon of King’s day because the call-and-response pattern between preacher and congregation was key to the success of the black preacher’s style.[3] The congregation in fact helps the preacher establish the rhythm; they are not mere passive recipients of it. This call-and-response style is “a metaphor for the organic relationship of the individual to the group in the black church.”[4] Rhythm fulfills a synchronizing function, in this case, between speaker and audience and, therefore, hopefully also between message and audience.

Once King has set up his beat, he then adjusts it for various effects.[5]  Perhaps the most spiritually significant of these effects are the points of climax in the sermon when the rhythm is manipulated using what is, in prosody, called enjambment, a device in which one line runs into the next without the typical end-of-line pause. Running those phrases together and increasing the rate – the number of words per beat – together create a sense of overflow.[6] These pinnacles are not merely rhetorical. In King’s sermons, they have spiritual significance. They are both the theological culmination and the rhythmic culmination of the sermon. According to Lischer, the climax is always the point at which the gospel – the identity of God and the salvation of God’s people – is celebrated. At this point, the sermon transitions from talk about God to the experience of God, from theology to spirituality, in a sense.[7] These are the points at which Dr. King will often shift into talking in the first person. This spiritual practice is supported by the overthrow of the rhythmic symmetry, which induces a sense of ecstasy.[8] King captivates people in a rhythm in order to give them an experience of freedom through the experience of throwing off or overcoming the regular repetition. The rhythms of speech are modified in order to connect participants with a freeing Spirit. 

Having said this, it is worth noting that Dr. King used this technique less than some other African American preachers. He doesn’t often lose himself in the response in the way that some other preachers do. In fact, while the rhythm speeds up and the repetition intensifies and he makes liberal use of enjambment, the rhythm itself does not altogether disappear; it is maintained, to an extent, by pauses.[9] Lischer suggests that a possible reason for this is that King was not an incendiary. His purpose was to create harmony and identifications between people, not to induce chaos or licentious violence.

Personally, I am suspicious of this explanation. It seems to me that it is an interpretation of King’s rhythmic practices that lends itself to the white appropriation of King that suggests that King embodied an acceptable, non-threatening version of civil rights in opposition to other, black civil rights leaders. Thus, while we may be able to say that the quality of the freedom that he envisioned is represented in the way in which he breaks the rhythm, this does not necessarily reflect an incendiary/non-incendiary political binary so much as different ways of experiencing  and inviting the Holy Spirit

 

Regardless, synchrony between congregants, between congregants and speaker, and between speaker and message is set up before an encounter with the divine is invited. God is encountered through a synchrony with others. Thus, perhaps one of the central messages of King’s life is embodied here in the style of his sermons as well: knowing God requires intimacy with others because, paradoxically, it is in intimacy that freedom is experienced. Perhaps rhythm can be a vehicle for such intimacy.

 

[1] Lischer, “The Music of Martin Luther King Jr.,” 55.

[2] Lischer, The Preacher King, 130.

[3] This is important because it separates the rhythms of King’s sermons in African-American congregational contexts from the rhythms of his speeches, which are, rhetorically, much the same. These two patterns interact with one another to produce the distinctive rhythm of King’s preaching.

[4] Lischer, “The Music of Martin Luther King Jr.,” 59, fn.19.

[5] Ibid., 56.

[6] Ibid., 56.

[7] Ibid., 61.

[8] The best example is from 1967 “Why Jesus Called a Man a Fool.”

[9] King had reservations about those who spent their time learning the rhetoric rather than studying the gospel, he acknowledges potential abuses of the sermon’s soundtrack, and he pokes fun at those who don’t prepare a sermon but just depend on the voice. Lischer, “The Music of Martin Luther King Jr.,” 57.

 

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