Book Festival: Anthology of African-American sermons

The sermons and writings of African-American preachers can help readers glimpse the triumphs and tragedies of  the black community throughout history.

Their words trace the journey from slavery, to emancipation, reconstruction, civil rights and economic prosperity.

A new book, "Preaching with Sacred Fire: An Anthology of African American Sermons, 1750 to the Present,"  presents a selection of work by well-known and lesser-known preachers. The book is co-edited by Martha Simmons, an associate minister at Rush United Church of Christ in Atlanta, who will hold a reading and book signing at 1:15 p.m. Sept. 5 at the Holiday Inn Conference Center Auditorium during the AJC Decatur Book Festival.

According to Simmons, who received degrees from Candler School of Theology at Emory University and the New College of California School of Law, the African-American preaching community, historically, has been a very oral community. "We are so in touch with preaching and so used to hearing great preaching that I think we take for granted the greatness of so many of our  preachers."

Simmons recently talked with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about her book and African-American preachers.

If you read some of these sermons, you get a clear idea of what was happening in black America at that particular time.

Absolutely... For instance, if you go to Frederick Douglass' "What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July?", during this period the country was celebrating its independence and Frederick Douglass is, like, why would slaves celebrate the Fourth of July, given they had not received complete independence? Then, if you look at the period of reconstruction and deconstruction, which is between 1866 and 1917, you'd see a sermon like Emily Christmas Kinch's. She did a speech in Liberty Hall in 1920 and she preached about how black folks need to support one another. At that time everyone was talking about Marcus Garvey and the back-to-Africa movement. Now, you can go to  (the Rev.) Jesse Louis Jackson's "Keep Hope Alive" and Otis Moss Jr.'s "A Prophetic Witness in an Anti-Prophetic Age." In that sermon Moss talks to you about how materialistic we have become and how materialistic even the preaching has, in some respects, become. He talks about how we have turned Dr. King's dream into something he never intended.

You call it tragic that so much has been lost about the early years in our preaching history.

During a certain period in our history we were not even allowed to read and write in many states. So many preachers were not trained and they didn't write out sermons; they did them extemporaneously. A lot of great preaching was never recorded. We didn't have the capacity to record it. There was a lot of great preaching occurring. Even when, in the late 1930s and early 1940s, we did start to record sermons on records, a lot of that has disappeared.

How would you characterize the African-American preaching style?

African-American preachers are so varied. I don't think the American public recognizes that. The culture has painted black preachers either all like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. or the caricatures we see on television or in the  movies where we're jumping up and down and sweating, singing or whooping.  There's really nothing in between in the minds of a lot of people. But black preaching is so much richer. In the middle are the mystics like Howard Thurman, there's C.L. Franklin, Gardner C. Taylor, who was as eloquent as they come.

Is there an Atlanta style?

I think Atlanta is noted for a lot of folk preaching and scholarly preaching.  So you had a Martin Luther King Jr. and Jasper Williams Jr., who is a premier whooper. Paul Morton is one of the folk preachers but he does a lot of New Age type of preaching. He'll talk about empowerment and prosperity, but he will conclude his sermons with an old-fashioned whoop.

Event preview

Martha Simmons will read from and autograph copies of  "Preaching with Sacred Fire: An Anthology of African American Sermons, 1750 to the Present" during the AJC Decatur Book Festival. Free. 1:15 p.m. Sept. 5. Holiday Inn and Decatur Conference Center auditorium, 130 Clairmont Ave., Decatur.