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Among the innumerable warriors against legalized racial segregation and discrimination in American society, the iconic Martin Luther King, Jr. emerged as a principal spokesman and symbol of the black freedom struggle. The many marches that he led and the crucial acts of civil disobedience that he spurred during the 1950s and 1960s established him and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference as rallying points for civil rights activities in several areas in the American South. King's charisma among African Americans drew from his sermonic rhetoric and its resonance with black audiences. Brad R. Braxton, a scholar of homiletics, observed that King as a black preacher “made the kinds of interpretive moves that historically have been associated with African American Christianity and preaching.” Braxton adds that “for King Scripture was a storybook whose value resided not so much in the historical reconstruction or accuracy of the story in the text, but rather in the evocative images, in the persuasive, encouraging anecdotes of the audacious overcoming of opposition, and in its principles about the sacredness of the human person.” Hence, King's use of this hermeneutical technique with scriptural texts validated him as a spokesman for African Americans. On a spectrum stretching from unlettered slave exhorters in the nineteenth century to sophisticated pulpiteers in the twentieth century, King stood as a quintessential black preacher, prophet, and jeremiad “speaking truth to power” and bringing deliverance to the disinherited.
For what is worth as much as these festival assemblies? And what is so august and all-beautiful as to see the whole city with one's whole race issuing from the town, occupying a holy place to perform pure mysteries of the most genuine devotion?
Few Romans of any era would have disagreed with these exclamations, though earlier generations might have been astonished that such familiar sentiments could issue from the mouth of a Christian bishop. The ideal of civic solidarity through worship and celebration was a familiar concept from ancient times, one which Asterius felt to be entirely in keeping with the practice of Christianity at the end of the fourth century. Asterius's festival homilies reveal part of the process whereby views on society and citizens became informed by Christian belief. First he offers a critique of traditional society and religion. Second he promotes Christian politeia, by means of martyr festivals, as the true foundation for social harmony. Three conceptual strategies emerge in Asterius's program for transforming classical politeia: recommending distinctly Christian philosophic virtue, depicting citizenship in terms of familial relationships, and employing an eschatological dimension to patronage.
Henry Hammond (1605–60), the learned and practical English priest who during the Interregnum did as much as any man and a good deal more than most to reinforce and renew the ideational underpinnings of his Church, is a familiar figure in seventeenth-century Anglican studies. Historians speak of his captaincy of a circle of Anglican divines. One names him the “oracle of the High Church party”; another sees him as the principal transformer of Anglicanism. The Independent John Owen likened him to a clerical Atlas bearing on his shoulders “the whole weight of the episcopal cause.” The scholars just quoted call Hammond a “Laudian” but are uneasy with the label and loath to defend it. He appears in their work as an exemplary High Churchman standing for de jure episcopacy, Prayer-Book piety, the Eucharist, and royal headship of the Church. His intransigent Churchmanship contrasts in some degree with his character and temperament. He comes down to us as “the spokesman of those who would make no concession,” yet Richard Baxter, who thought him “the fons et origo of the prelatical bigotry of his day, wrote that he “took the death of Dr. Hammond … for a very great loss; for his piety and wisdom would sure have hindered much of the violence” of the Restoration.
Jacob Vernet (1698–1789) numbers among those eighteenth-century theologians whose relationships to the philosophes have saved them from being forgotten but at the cost of being misrepresented. Vernet is usually remembered for editing the first edition of Montesquieu's De l'esprit des lois, helping to restore Rousseau to Calvinism, and corresponding and then crossing swords with D'Alembert and Voltaire: it is especially the controversy with D'Alembert surrounding the article on “Geneva” in the seventh volume of the Encyclopédie (1757), as well as a sustained conflict with Voltaire over many issues, that have secured him scholarly attention. The scholars who have noticed Vernet have accordingly concentrated on aspects of his person: ascertaining whether he was mendacious, conniving, and hypocritical, as some of the philosophes, especially Voltaire contended, or the figure of impeccable behavior and conscience suggested by his office and his hagiographers. This one-sided emphasis on his person obscures the fact that Vernet wrote a shelf of books and was such an influential figure that he was the representative Genevan theologian of his day. The neglect of his thought is hardly astounding, however, since it is characteristic of the treatment accorded eighteenth-century theology in general. Theologians and students of religion have for long dismissed eighteenth-century theology as derivative; students of the Enlightenment have considered it outside the canon of Enlightenment literature and thus beyond their purview. Both these assumptions should be challenged.
After the Revolution, Thomas Jones, an embittered loyalist exile, identified the culprits he deemed responsible for the rebellion in New York: the Whig “triumvirate” of Presbyterians—William Livingston, William Smith, and John Morin Scott. Jones averred that in the Independent Reflector (1752–53) and Watch Tower (1754–55), which they authored, “the established Church was abused, Monarchy derided, Episcopacy reprobated, and republicanism held up, as the best existing form of government.” The three wrote “with a rancor, a malevolence, and an acrimony, not to be equaled but by the descendants of those presbyterian and repulblican fanatics, whose ancestors had in the preceding century brought their Sovereign to the block, subverted the best constitution in the world, and upon its ruins erected presbyterianism, republicanism, and hypocrisy.”