In his baritone voice, oftentimes we heard him talk about his humble beginnings as a part of the “Louisiana swamp country.” It was his watermark, his imprimatur. From Baton Rouge to New York, and to the world, his voice was a clarion call above human pretentiousness and pretenses, noise and distractions. His voice symbolized lightning in a bottle and peals of thunder.
He made choices. He decided where he would stand on sociopolitical issues; his decisions were informed by his theological convictions in part formed by his moral understanding of the world; a world first introduced to him in a certain time, and place, surrounded by special people. Near perfect, all of it came together to shape the ethical mind and heart of an orator who would become perhaps, the 20th century’s greatest preacher of the gospel.
He rose meteoric. From the beginning, he was among the most gifted. He seemed to have avoided awkwardness that goes along with the majorities who learn how to publically speak. His photographic memory may have aided him – one of the surest gifts afforded to the platform speaker. His pulpit presence cannot be taught. In this way, he is among Frederick Douglass, Mordecai Wyatt Johnson and Vernon Johns. Indeed these gifts were always there and so much more.
He studied. He nurtured his craft. Though he broadly read, he seemed to find his voice among the Victorian preachers. These preachers practiced, participated and perfected what is often called the Elocutionary movement. Of the movement, he was attracted to the Scottish preachers – their language use. He mastered it. Their spoken and written composition – he mastered it. Like the Scottish preachers, he too kept presence and participation in the academy. He practiced. He taught. He gave the Lyman Beecher and Mullins Lectures.
He felt (June 18, 1918-April 5, 2015). He did not lose his common touch. He remembered the least of these. He moved among ostracized people in a similar manner as he moved among the elites. This is what his watermark means, his “Louisiana swamp country.” Through this lens, he identified preachers who he believed had his similar gifts, ambitions, and disciplines. He mentored them. No one who heard him laugh, witnessed his wit, twinkling eyes, his smile, his genius could deny his genuine warmness – no one who heard him preach will forget his sheer power– his power to capture lightning in a bottle– his powerful like thunder and we heard it peal, and we hear it echo.
Joseph Evans is pastor of Mount Carmel Baptist Church in Washington, DC and Dean of the Morehouse School of Religion.