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60 Years On: The legacy of Martin Luther King's first London sermon

mlk

Martin Luther King preached in London for the first time on the 29th October 1961, at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church.

This event marked the 60th anniversary of this important occasion, where he gave one of his most memorable and prophetic speeches, exploring how Dr King’s speeches and writings continue to speak to the issues of racial injustice, economic and social inequality, poverty, violence, and hope for world peace that shape the 21st Century British context.

Praise for this event on Twitter:

  • Was wonderful to commemorate the 60th anniversary of MLK speaking at @BloomsburyCBC. What leads us to his work? How can we carry liberatory, radical black thought forwards? @afr0alien
  • "They have noticed that the church is too often a taillight and not a headlight" Martin Luther King, sixty years ago today on his first sermon in London, preached at my church @BloomsburyCBC @thebanburyman
  • Emmanuel Gotora speaking about Martin Luther King and community organising on 60th anniversary MLK's speech at
    @BloomsburyCBC Important reminder on the relationship between love and power as we seek racial and economic justice in the world. @FroilanLegaspi
  • What a sacred space it was. Amen & amen to all the speakers tonight! Thank you @BloomsburyCBC for a night of power! @lauramon
  • Great talk tonight from @JacarandaMusic1 in response to #MLK sermon 60 years ago. Standing in the same spot, calling once again on civil society to organise for justice. @franksoclock as part of the ‘60 Years On: The legacy of Martin Luther King's first London sermon’ event @BloomsburyCBC@sebchapleau
  • Thank you to @BloomsburyCBC @SimonPWoodman for hosting today’s event exploring #MartinLutherKings sermon & its legacy 60 years on. Fascinating inputs from @RSReddie @AnthonyGReddie @hannahelias Learnt much! Sorry to miss the rest @JacarandaMusic1 #History #Theology #justice #Hope @HeidiShewell
  • A wonderful talk from @hannahelias on MLK and his impact in the UK as part of @BloomsburyCBC's event 60 Years On: The Legacy of MLK's First London Sermon I also loved the mention of Claudia Jones and the 1953 March from Ladbroke Grove in support of US Civil Rights Counterparts @mintchalkchip

Afternoon Session Part 1

https://youtu.be/RJu3VlwzLVE

  • Richard Reddie, Director of Justice and Inclusion, Churches Together in Britain and Ireland (CTBI)
  • Dr Hannah Elias, Lecturer in Black British History, Goldsmith's, University of London.

Afternoon Session Part 2

https://youtu.be/wfzUFibFOjc

  • Professor Anthony G. Reddie, Director of the Oxford Centre for Religion and Culture, Regent’s Park College, Oxford.
  • Panel Discussion with Richard, Hannah, and Anthony, chaired by Udoka.

Evening Session

https://youtu.be/5XMjVfZS3BM

  • Revd Dr Simon Woodman, Minister, Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church.
  • Impact Dance! Hip-Hop Theatre Company, Street Dance Organisation and Educational Facilitator, now based at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church.
  • Emmanuel Gotora, Lead Organiser, TELCO & North London Citizens.
  • Ife Thompson, community- based activist, writer, Human Rights Defender and Barrister and the founder of two civil society organisations; BLAM UK and Black Protest Legal Support UK, in conversation with Udoka.

 

Introducing The Three Dimensions of the Complete Life

A significant feature in the defining mythology of Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church is “that Martin Luther King, Jr. preached there once.” Specifically, on 29th October 1961.[1]

It’s mentioned proudly in the church history, and six decades later is still remembered and recounted by people who were there at the time. Newcomers to the church are swiftly inducted into this story, and it is often used as an example of “the kind of church” that Bloomsbury is (or aspires to be).

What is less well known is that the sermon King delivered at Bloomsbury was “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life,” in which he used the image of the new Jerusalem from the Book of Revelation to call people to a life of equal length, breadth, and height.[2]

By King’s exegesis, a “long” life is one where a person’s talents are harnessed and developed to the full, a “broad” life has an outgoing concern for the welfare of others, and a life of “height” intentionally includes God as the pinnacle of a complete life, recognising that personal and humanitarian concerns are too small without this third dimension.

This sermon was one which King re-used over many years, having been the first sermon his wife heard him give. She commented in her biography that, “it had a special meaning for me, because it was … the first sermon I had ever heard him preach on a Sunday long ago in a little church at Roxbury, Massachusetts.”[3]

He later delivered the sermon on 24 January, 1954 as his “preach with a view” to the pastorate at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama; a church he was to serve as pastor until 1960, and from which he organised the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56.[4]

He returned to “The Three Dimensions” for his inaugural sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia in 1960, where he was to minister alongside his father until his assassination in 1968,[5] and he also delivered it for his Evensong sermon at St Paul’s Cathedral in 1964.[6]

Comparison of various instances of him delivering the sermon would suggest that he worked from a script, with the more “exegetical” sections earlier in the sermon repeated almost verbatim each time, followed by an “application” section which was more varied, before returning to a set conclusion.[7]

Regrettably, no direct record of him preaching at Bloomsbury is known to have survived, but those who were there remember the sermon well. In addition to conversations I have had with Norah and David Shapton, the late Eleanor Bowers wrote a note at the time on the theme of the sermon, and she said,

"The vision given to John on Patmos of the new Jerusalem, the city whose dimensions were equal in length, breadth and height, leapt into contemporary terms as he spoke on the three dimensions of a complete life. The length – harnessing and developing given talents to the full; the breadth . . . of outgoing concern for the welfare of others . . . the need to include God as the height in this vision of a complete life – to recognize him in every situation and to realize that personal and humanitarian plans without this third dimension are too small."[8]

The recording from which our excerpts are taken this evening was made on 14th January 1962 at Yale University, less than three months after King’s visit to Bloomsbury.

The Revd Dr Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of King’s former church (Ebenezer, Atlanta), says of the sermon:

"Herein is the clarion call of a spiritual genius and sober-minded sentinel who insists that we pray with our lips and our feet, and work with our heads, hearts, and hands for the beloved community, faithfully pushing against the tide of what he often called ‘the triplet evils of racism, materialism and militarism.’ In a divided world and amid religious and political pronouncements in our public discourse that erroneously divide the self, we still need that message."[9]

Clearly, for King, this sermon offered an enduring message which bore repetition throughout his ministry, communicating the essence of his vision for the African-American civil rights movement, so it is perhaps unsurprising that he should have used it for his first preaching engagement in London.

The invitation to preach at Bloomsbury had been issued by Howard Williams only three weeks earlier, with King travelling to London for the weekend to fulfil a variety of other engagements.[10]

His timeline for the weekend was fast-paced: having delivered a keynote address at Colombia University on 27 October, he had departing for London arriving at Heathrow on the morning of Saturday 28 October.[11

King went straight from the airport to the London studio of the artist Feliks Topolski who drew his portrait, for use as the title sequence of the special live transmission of the BBC ‘Face to Face’ interview programme on the Sunday afternoon.[12]

On Sunday morning King preached at Bloomsbury, and afterward went back to the manse for lunch with Howard Williams and his family. Faith Bowers records, “King remembered that his parents had worshipped in Bloomsbury in 1955, and he enjoyed a meal at the manse, feeling ‘at home’ among four children.”[13] Howard Williams’ son recalls being told by his parents that, aged 15 months, he sat on King’s lap for a group photograph; however despite Williams’ request at the time to be sent a copy, that photograph has not yet been located.[14]

The Bloomsbury Magazine for December 1961 records Howard Williams’ memory of the event, originally published in the Baptist Times,

"He came as a quiet man with a reputation. One might have expected that he would be big, loud and assertive. But he was gentle, quiet in conversation and persuasive in his public speaking. He had been to Britain before but this was the first time for him to make public appearances. I am glad to think that his first sermon in this country was given at Bloomsbury. It was all authentic autobiography - ‘This one thing I know . . .’ He was clearly delighted to recall that his mother and father had worshipped at Bloomsbury when the Baptist World Alliance met at London in 1955."[15]

Sunday evening saw King interviewed by John Freeman, editor of the New Statesman, for a live transmission of Face to Face on the BBC, and after this broadcast, King was recorded for the Granada TV programme “Protest”.

The next day, Monday 30 October, King spoke at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster where he was heckled, and afterwards attended a reception sponsored by the Afro Asia West Indian Community at Africa Unity House. He left London for New York the following day.

It was in the midst of this busy weekend of engagements, at only three weeks’ notice, King made time to preach on the new Jerusalem from the Book of Revelation at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church.

[1] The following introduction is an extract from a longer piece of research, published by Simon Woodman as ‘“I Have A Vision”: Assessing the Impact of Martin Luther King Preaching at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church’ in Anthony R. Cross, and Brian Haymes (eds.) Re-Membering the Body: The Witness of History, Theology, and the Arts in Honour of Ruth M.B. Gouldbourne (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2021).

[2] The timeline of King’s visit to the UK, including the sermon title and place of delivery, can be found in Carson and Armstrong, eds., 61.

[3] Coretta Scott King, My Life with Martin Luther King, Jr. (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1969), 6.

[4] For a transcript of this delivery of the sermon, including a scan of the first page of King’s handwritten script, see Martin Luther King Jr., "The Dimensions of a Complete Life, Sermon at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery Alabama, 24 January 1954", Stanford University Martin Luther King Jr. Papers Project https://stanford.app.box.com/s/pstod2mchrngzrd2zuidbtjho0995umr (accessed 24/1/19).

[5] The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, "Ebenezer Baptist Church (Atlanta, Georgia)", Stanford University https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/encyclopedia/ebenezer-baptist-church-atlanta-georgia (accessed 24/1/19); Hugh Muir, "Martin Luther King in London, 1964: Reflections on a Landmark Visit", The Guardian https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2014/dec/02/martin-luther-king-in-london-1964-reflections-on-a-landmark-visit (accessed 24/1/19).

[6] There are not many Baptists who have preached at St Paul’s Cathedral, but three Bloomsbury Ministers are known to have done so. Howard Williams (1958-86) did so in 1969 giving a sermon which echoed King’s theme, “Speaking on ‘Evangelism Today’ at St Paul’s in January 1969, he expounded the Gospel as a three-way relationship: not just ‘God and me’ but ‘God, me and my neighbour.’” Bowers, A Bold Experiment, 386. Brian Haymes (2000-05) preached there for a City University Service, and Simon Woodman (2012-) gave the sermon for the Morning Sung Eucharist on the first Sunday in Lent 2017.

[7] An audio recording of King delivering the sermon on 14 January 1962 at Battell Chapel, Yale University, can be found at Martin Luther King Jr., "The Dimensions of a Complete Life" https://youtu.be/JlvFpmkAAkM (accessed 24/1/19). Further details relating to this recording can be found at Pacifica Radio Archives, "The Dimensions of a Complete Life / Martin Luther King" https://www.pacificaradioarchives.org/recording/bb3438 (accessed 24/1/19).

[8] Bowers, A Bold Experiment, 388. Revised 2016

[9] King Jr., A Gift of Love: Sermons from Strength to Love and Other Preachings, Forward.

[10] Williams’ letter of invitation to King is now in the “Martin Luther King, Jr., Papers, 1954-1968” archive at Boston University, with a copy at the “Martin Luther King, Jr. Papers Project” at Stanford University. Interestingly, the letter has marginal comments by King, and is tagged “The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.” It has not been possible to obtain a copy of the letter, so we can only speculate as to whether Williams specifically requested this sermon, or whether King noted on the letter the sermon he had chosen for delivery. The Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute, "Letter to Martin Luther King, Jr.", Stanford University http://okra.stanford.edu/en/permalink/document611007-000 (accessed 24/1/19).

[11] The chronology of the visit to London is recorded in Carson and Armstrong, eds., 61. A famous photograph of King is of him arriving at Heathrow on the morning of 28 October, and this can be viewed at Getty Images, "Civil Rights Movement - Martin Luther King - Heathrow Airport, London" https://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/dr-martin-luther-king-arriving-at-heathrow-airport-from-new-news-photo/851891318 (accessed 24/1/19).

[12] A photograph of King in Topolski’s studio, talking with Hugh Burnett the producer of “Face to Face,” can be viewed at Radio 4 and 4 Extra Blog, "Ten Remarkable Guests from John Freeman's Face to Face" http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/radio4/2011/02/face_to_face_john_freeman_and_his_remarkable_guests.html (accessed 24/1/19). Topolski’s drawing of King, along with other “Face to Face” portraits can be viewed at Mike Lynch Cartoons, "Face to Face Portraits by Feliks Topolski" http://mikelynchcartoons.blogspot.com/2017/11/face-to-face-portraits-by-feliks.html (accessed 24/1/19)..

[13] Bowers, A Bold Experiment, 389.

[14] Enquiries with the Press Association and the BBC Photo Archive have revealed some information about the source of the known photographs from that weekend. The picture of King in front of the aircraft arriving at Heathrow is credited to the Press Association, and their practice at that time was to have an “airport photographer” on standby to catch people of note on arrival. The photograph of King in Topolski’s studio is one of a series of photographs taken by a BBC photographer, now available through the BBC Picture Archive, which track his time both with Topolski on the Saturday, and in the BBC studio on the Sunday evening. However, the BBC archive does not contain any images of him at either Bloomsbury or the Manse. Additionally, there are photographs of King speaking at Westminster Central Hall the next day available at ReportDigital,  https://www.reportdigital.co.uk/archive-photos/1960s/martin-luther-king-westminster-central-hall-1961.html (accessed 24/1/19).

[15] Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, "Dr Martin Luther King," Bloomsbury Magazine December, (1961): 3. Williams,  8.

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