Below is something I wrote almost ten years ago–an unfinished draft of an article for my local weekly newspaper. Never got it quite right, but it’s got a nice description of the old book, Modern Eloquence, and for those unfamiliar with how MLKjr wound up being named MLKjr, some interesting tidbits of actual “modern” history. Again, written for a general audience.
On January 15, 1929 Reverend Michael King and his wife, Alberta, welcomed a son into the world. They named him Michael, Jr. Five years later Reverend King traveled with ten other Baptist preachers to the Holy Land, and then to the Wittenberg region of Germany where in the early 1500s a priest and professor of theology had translated the Bible from Greek into vernacular German. This was a turning point in history: any German who could read was now able to read the Bible himself—he was no longer dependent on Catholic priests to dispense God’s Word. The priest and theologian was Martin Luther, and Reverend King was so moved by the story of Luther’s life that he changed both his own and his son’s names to Martin Luther King.
As we commemorate the life of Martin Luther King, Jr., I thought it fitting to learn a little about the man who made such an impression on his father. And wouldn’t you know? I just happen to have a book that has a few of Martin Luther’s words. Modern Eloquence: A Library of the World’s Best Spoken Thought (Vol. X, European Edition, 1941) is a survey of oratory. It begins with Pericles’ “Funeral Oration,” an address memorializing the first Athenian soldiers to die in the Peloponnesian War which ended in 429 B.C. The editor comments, “As a memorial to fallen soldiers, it has perhaps never been surpassed except in the Gettysburg Address of Abraham Lincoln.” The survey ends with Winston Churchill’s “An Appeal to the Italian People,” in which, in 1940, Churchill speaks directly to Italians reminding them that “one man and one alone [Mussolini] has ranged the Italian people in deadly struggle against the British Empire… .” In between these pages are the words of, among others, Socrates, St. Paul, St. Francis, William Pitt, Robespierre, Napoleon, Prince Edward, and a man who describes himself as “wanting in manners that befit a court. … a mere man” defending himself “after the example of Jesus Christ.”
Though the list of Luther’s writings and orations against what he believed to be the Church’s false teaching that the only way to God is through the Church—meaning the Catholic Church and the Church-sponsored State—is extensive, it is his speech “Before the Diet of Worms” which is included in Modern Eloquence. The brief background provided before his speech assumes my knowledge of 16thcentury history is deeper than it is, but from what I glean from several other books—including a handy World Book Encyclopedia—the central question of Luther’s life was “how does an individual find favor with God?” He was convinced that Scripture taught the answer was not by buying “indulgences” to fund construction of new churches and so on. In 1517 Luther posted his “Nintey-five theses to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenburg. The theses challenged, among other things, the Church’s practice of selling indulgences as a way to atone for sin. Later, he denied the “supremacy of the Pope” and by 1521 the Pope had had quite enough of Luther and excommunicated him. He was then commanded by the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire to appear before a “diet,” or meeting, of noble and clergymen in the city of Worms, Germany where he was asked to recant all that he had written and said.
Luther’s speech is a testament to our common interest in determining the course of our lives.
“Therefore, most supreme emperor, and you illustrious princes, and all whether high or low, who hear me, I implore you by the mercies of God to prove to me by the writings of the prophets and apostles that I am in error. As soon as I shall be convinced, I will instantly retract all my errors, and will myself be the first to seize my writings and commit them to the flames.”
Modern Eloquence Volume X: Historical Masterpieces European. Ashley H. Thordike, ed. P.F. Collier & Son, New York. 1941 (with previous copyright dates).
Available free to read or download at openlibrary.org, and at online booksellers.
Added: Who doesn’t love that “commit them to the flames?”