Black Preaching: Going Back to the Old Landmark

Preaching with Sacred Fire: An Anthology of African-American Sermons, 1750 to the PresentA friend of mine at The Post and Courier, who knew that I’d get restless while recovering from surgery, gave me some “homework” – to read “Preaching with Sacred Fire: An Anthology of African-American Sermons, 1750 to the Present” and do a book review. In addition to keeping me occupied, the book was enlightening and revelatory.

The editors – Martha Simmons and Frank A. Thomas – chose sermons that showed how preaching in the historically black church met the needs of each generation, from social activism to identity to cultural survival to empowerment. Those sermons showed how the Holy Spirit moved in generations of preachers – from those on the plantation who were barely literate to those who had formal seminary education. The common thread was the ability of those preachers to make Scripture come alive, show us our shortcomings, assure us that Christ was (and is) the cure for our shortcomings and spur us to take God inspired action to improve our condition. The sermons were a lot like “blues” music – down to earth, very real, and best appreciated by those who had “been in the storm” and come through by the grace of God.

Those sermons reminded me of two things etched in my memory. The first is the desire of a white, evangelical and politically conservative colleague who wanted years ago to partner with the black church and who said that the black church is the most authentic spiritual expression in America. The second is the mostly unsuccessful effort during the Presidency of George W. Bush to create “faith based partnerships” with historically black churches – primarily to throw money at churches with few visible strings attached “up front.”

Reverend Joseph Darby on the PulpitIt hit me while reading those sermons that the historically black church and her preachers – from Richard Allen to Frederick Douglass to Adam Clayton Powell to Martin Luther King, Jr. – served as America’s spiritual and moral conscience. From the bitter days of slavery to the crushed hope of Reconstruction to the horror of Jim Crow to the hope of the civil rights movement, those preachers spoke not only to those who sat in the pews of their churches. They also spoke to America, challenged America to live up to her promises, and demanded the equity and justice that flow from the liberating Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Maybe that’s why many white, evangelical and conservative clergy, laity and politicians wanted to partner with or finance historically black churches – to mute and pay off those preaching voices. The tragedy, however, is that they really didn’t have to make the effort.

Too many preachers today are more interested in “preaching style” and entertainment than in making a difference in the lives of those in and beyond their churches. Too many sermons today are the equivalent of theological “fast food” – long on sensory appeal and pleasant taste, but short on spiritual nutrition. Too many “megachurches” serve up a counterfeit Gospel that emphasizes personal prosperity but ignores personal and corporate responsibility for those who are lost, hurting and in need of advocates who can speak truth to power. Rather than being sold on the liberating power of Jesus, many churches have simply “sold out” and allowed divisive demagogues like Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh and Rocky D. to create confusion without challenge.

Those who laid the foundations of the historically black church once sang in brush arbors and praise houses that we should “all go back to the old landmark.” We should take their admonition seriously today. Those who stand in the pulpit should be authentic in promoting spiritual and social well being and in demanding that America be “one nation, under God with liberty and justice for all.” Those in the pews should make it plain that we are to be about our Father’s business and change our churches, our communities, our state and our nation for the better. Going to the polls on November 2 and electing those who go beyond empty words to stand for progress and well being for all of God’s children would be an excellent starting point.

1 thought on “Black Preaching: Going Back to the Old Landmark”

  1. Reverend Darby:

    What a thought-provoking discourse on the role of black preaching in the Black-American Diaspora! I certainly agree that black preaching has to be about more than just “hooping” and “hollering” as a mechanism to rouse emotions, but it must be a call to action that elicits a response from the faithful (i.e., increased spirituality, deepened relationship with God, renewed civic responsibility, social activism, etc.). I believe that black preachers have to go back to the old landmark, and preach with purpose. When the black Church was the center of the black community, black preaching provided the social as well as spiritual commentary for the faithful to be mobilized for action. We must return to that. This is at the heart of our tradition, and the catalyst for our transformation.

    Thank you for this insightful witness.

    Kylon Jerome Middleton, Ph.D.
    Pastor, Hopewell AME Church

    Post Script: I have already voted, but I will join you in challenging others to go beyond empty words to stand for progress. Continue to be well.

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