Born in Gulfport, Mississippi, and reared in Chicago, Frank A. Thomas arrived in Memphis to become senior pastor at Mississippi Boulevard Christian Church in 1999.
A historian of African-American preachers and preaching styles, Thomas has earned several advanced degrees (including a doctorate in rhetoric from the University of Memphis). He's taught at the Memphis Theological Seminary. He's co-edited, with Martha Simmons of Atlanta, a book called 9.11.01: African American Leaders Respond to an American Tragedy. And he's CEO (Simmons is the publisher) of the journal The African American Pulpit.
Now, Thomas and Simmons are general editors of Preaching with Sacred Fire: An Anthology of African American Sermons, 1750 to the Present, from W.W. Norton, a name synonymous with door-stop-size anthologies. Preaching with Sacred Fire is big too — an impressive thousand-page testament to the rich, long history of black sermonizers in America — from "brush harbor" storytellers to Sojourner Truth to Martin Luther King Jr. to today's T.D. Jakes. The Flyer recently talked to Rev. Thomas just as Preaching with Sacred Fire was hitting bookstores and before his booksigning at one Memphis store, Davis-Kidd Booksellers.
Flyer: Let's start with what you and Martha Simmons hoped to accomplish in Preaching with Sacred Fire. This is the most comprehensive anthology of its kind?
Frank A. Thomas: Yes, first of its kind. We conceived of it as an encyclopedia, and that's what we proposed to Norton — knowing that when Norton says "anthology," you listen. There was no one volume out there to do justice to the high quality of preaching. But we did have to leave some people out. The tradition is just that wide.
A thousand pages of historical background, brief biographies, more than 100 sermons, and a dozen contributing editors. How long did it take you and Simmons to pull this together?
It's been eight years solid. And those contributing editors did a wonderful job. Elton Weaver at the University of Memphis, for example: We reached out to him for his expertise on Pentecostal preaching.
What were you thinking in terms of your target audience?
It's a trade book, so it's aimed at a general readership. While many will be familiar with Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, we're proud of the fact that we included so many female preachers, non-Christian preachers. Our aim was to be inclusive so the reader would have a good sampling.
You "sample" Jeremiah Wright and his famous, infamous sermon, "The Day of Jerusalem's Fall" — timely because of the recent anniversary of 9/11.
Wright was, is my pastor. I was ordained at his church, Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago, and he's been a great mentor. When the controversy over Wright happened, I knew people were taking Wright's words out of context. Because I know that sermon inside and out. I edited it for a journal. I wish we'd had this book ready back in 2001. That was ground-zero time.
But you have to take the whole tradition of African-American preaching. You can't just pull out one swatch from that tradition. Somebody like T.D. Jakes: He's grounded in the African-American preaching tradition too.
So: There's no monolithic black preacher. They're not all progressives or conservatives. Democrat or Republican. Or none of the above. The long history of African-American preaching is a tapestry of thinking and experience and expression. Preaching with Sacred Fire is about that tapestry.
How would you describe your own style of preaching? Martha Simmons, a preacher herself, closes Preaching with Fire with an essay titled "Whooping: The Musicality of African American Preaching Past and Present."
My style is hard to describe. You know, I'm not a whooper. I'm more contemplative.
Martha: She's a whooper, and she argues that everybody would be a whooper if they could. I can't quite. Not everybody has the gift.
Frank A. Thomas will be signing copies of Preaching with Sacred Fire at Davis-Kidd Booksellers on Tuesday, September 21st, at 6 p.m.