"In the quiet recesses of my heart," Martin Luther King, Jr. often said, "I am fundamentally a clergyman, a Baptist preacher." The Preacher King may be read as an extended commentary on that confession. Already it seems unlikely that even a nation "under God" could have been so profoundly affected by the minister of a little black church in Montgomery, Alabama. It seems remarkable, in retrospect, that we were willing to listen to his overtly Christian persuasions and that so many of us were moved by them. Yet it is true. At one of its several turning points in the twentieth century, America submitted its laws and customs to the influences of one with the instincts and commitments of a Christian preacher. And he moved "the nation with the soul of a church," as G. K. Chesterton named us, as a preacher moves a congregation.
Nowadays the word preacher does not attract much admiration. The word is associated with parochial morality or televised quackery, but in either case the preacher is a rather narrowly defined figure. Martin Luther King was proud of the title, however, because he believed that his religious vocation was essential to the healing of the nation. To him, the preacher symbolized the combination of political and spiritual wisdom that his own church had always required of its leaders. Like the ministers of no other tradition, the African-American preacher harnessed practical necessities to religious power. The black preacher fought for the kingdom of God every day of the week and then celebrated it ecstatically, even poetically, on Sundays. The same one who flexed his muscle in the neighborhood could speak with the tongues of angels in the church. King seized upon this partnership of political acumen and religious elo