Biden's Sermon At Ebenezer Baptist Church

[ Posted Monday, January 16th, 2023 – 17:22 UTC ]

Today is the official day to remember and celebrate Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King Junior and everything he stood for, since yesterday was the 94th anniversary of his birth. Normally on this date I would feature some excerpts from his speeches or writings, to remind everyone that he was more than just one excerpt from one famous speech ("I have a dream..."). Because his legacy is far wider and far deeper than just those few stirring quotes you hear repeated every single January. It is a legacy that includes many things which made White America extremely uncomfortable when he was alive; and to erase all those things and only leave the things which make White America feel good about themselves in the present day is downright criminal and counterproductive to everything King stood for and struggled so hard to achieve.

While reading an article on King published this week I came across an excerpt from a different article, published four years ago in The Root. And it says all of this much better than I ever could:

There are two MLKs.

There once was a man named Martin Luther King Jr. who actually lived and breathed. He was a radical who believed in the redistribution of wealth, argued for slave reparations and that wrote that moderate whites who didn't speak out on racism were just as bad as the Ku Klux Klan. Seventy-five percent of Americans disapproved of that man when he was killed by a white supremacist in 1968.

Then, there is the Martin Luther King Jr. that exists in the collective white memory. Through a complex combination of whitewashing, self-guilt and the intentional rewriting of history that absolves them of their hatred, they have painted a sanitized, impressionist portrait of a civil rights icon whose dreams were fulfilled by America's unwavering commitment to justice and equality.

Out of whole cloth, they managed to fabricate a fantastic hologram of King that is ahistorical, but still "based on a true story." Their Martin was a lover, not a fighter. They remember a socially conservative, respectable reconciler; not an anti-establishment revolutionary. And, for their sake, his doctrine of nonviolent resistance was eventually reduced to simple "nonviolence."

This is the King they will remember this weekend.

This is why I usually highlight a lesser-known speech from King on his day of remembrance, to do him the honor of remembering all that he stood for. But this year I am going to do something different. Because this year, the pastor of Martin Luther King's own church -- the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia -- invited the president of the United States down on King's actual birthday to give a Sunday sermon. He was the first sitting president to do so, although others have spoken at the church before (it was probably the coincidence of King's actual birthday falling on a Sunday this year, in other words). The pastor of the church is Senator Raphael Warnock, who just won re-election to his seat last year. And Georgia is important to Biden, since (if he has his way) it will become one of the few states in 2024 presidential election cycle to hold an early Democratic primary.

This year, I am going to run excerpts from Biden's sermon in praise of Martin Luther King Junior, to show how a United States president remembered the icon of the Civil Rights movement in his home church.

[Technical notes: I have taken this transcript from the White House site, and have only edited it to remove notations such as: "(Applause.)", and: "(Laughter.)", and one: "(Coughs.) Excuse me." Also, the "Andy" he references is Andrew Young, who was present for the speech.]

-- Chris Weigant



President Joe Biden's sermon honoring Doctor Martin Luther King Junior
January 15th, 2023, Ebenezer Baptist Church, Atlanta, Georgia


He followed the path of Moses, a leader of inspiration, calling on the people not to be afraid and to always, always, as my grandfather would say, "keep the faith."

He followed the path of Joseph. A believer in dreams, in the divinity they carry, in the promise they hold.

And like John the Baptist, he prepared us for the greater hope ahead, one who came to bear witness to the light.

Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a nonviolent warrior for justice who followed the word and the way of His Lord and His Savior.

. . .

Folks, you know, on this day of remembrance, as we gather here at this cherished Ebenezer to commemorate what would've been Dr. King's 94th birthday, we gather to contemplate his moral vision and to commit ourselves to his path -- to his path. The path that leads to the "Beloved Community," to the sacred place and that sacred hour when justice rains down like waters and righteousness was a mighty stream.

Folks, to the King family, I know no matter how many years pass -- it doesn't matter how many years pass -- those days of remembrance are difficult. They bring everything back as if it happened yesterday. It's hard for you.

And I want to thank the King family -- presumptuous of me to do this, but on behalf of the whole congregation -- for being willing to do this year in and year out, because you give so much -- so much to the rest of us. And we love you all. We love you all.

. . .

I say this with all sincerity: I stand here humbled being the first sitting President of the United States to have an opportunity to speak at Ebenezer Sunday service. You've been around for 136 years. I know I look like it, but I haven't.

I'm God-fearing thanks to my parents and to the nuns and priests who taught me in school, but I -- I am no preacher. But I've tried to walk my faith, as all of you have.

I stand here inspired by the preacher who was one of my only political heroes. I've been saying -- and Andy's heard me say it for years -- I have two political heroes my entire life when I started off as a 22-year-old kid in the East Side as -- in the Civil Rights Movement, and got elected to the United States Senate when I was 29. I wasn't old enough to take office.

And I had two heroes: Bobby Kennedy -- I admired John Kennedy, but I could never picture him at my kitchen table, but I could Bobby -- And, no malarkey, Dr. King. Dr. King.

And the fact is that, you know, I stand here at a critical juncture for the United States and the world, in my view.

We're at a what I -- some of my colleagues are tired of hearing me saying -- but we're at what we call an "inflection point," one of those points in world history where what happens in the last few years and will happen in the next 6 or 8 years, they're going to determine what the world looks like the next 30 to 40 years.

It happened after World War Two. It's happening again. The world is changing. There's much at stake. Much at stake. And, you know, the fact is that this is the time of choosing. This is the time of choosing direct choices we have.

Are we a people who will choose democracy over autocracy? Couldn't ask that question 15 years ago. Everyone thought democracy was settled. Not for African-Americans. But democracy, as an institutional structure, was settled. But it's not. It's not.

We have to choose a community over chaos. Are we the people who are going to choose love over hate? These are the vital questions of our time and the reason why I'm here as your President. I believe Dr. King's life and legacy show us the way we should pay attention. I really do.

Dr. Martin Luther King was born into a nation where segregation was a tragic fact of life. He had every reason to believe, as others of the generation did, that history had already been written, that the division would be America's destiny. But he rejected that outcome. He heard Micah's command to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly.

And so, often, when people hear about Dr. King, people think of his ministry and the movement, or most about the epic struggle for civil rights and voting rights. But we do well to remember that his mission was something even deeper. It was spiritual. It was moral.

The goal of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which Dr. King led, stated it clearly and boldly, and it must be repeated again, now: to redeem the soul of America. I'm not joking. To redeem the soul of America.

What -- what is the soul of America? Easy to say, but what is the soul of America? Well, the soul is the breath, the life, the essence of who we are. The soul makes us "us."

The soul of America is embodied in the sacred proposition that we're all created equal in the image of God. That was the sacred proposition for which -- for which Dr. King gave his life. It was a sacred proposition rooted in Scripture and enshrined in the Declaration of Independence. A sacred proposition he invoked on that day in 1963 when he told my generation about his dream -- a dream in which we're all entitled to be treated with -- my father's favorite word -- dignity and respect. A dream in which we all deserve liberty and justice. And it is still the task of our time to make that dream a reality, because it's not there yet.

To make Dr. King's vision tangible, to match the words of the preachers and the poets with our deeds -- as the Bible teaches us, we must be doers of the Word. Doers of the Word.

And the battle for the soul of this nation is perennial. It's a constant struggle. It's a constant struggle between hope and fear, kindness and cruelty, justice and injustice against those who traffic in racism, extremism, and insurrection; a battle fought on battlefields and bridges, from courthouses and ballot boxes, to pulpits and protests.

And at our best, the American promise wins out. At our best, we hear and heed the injunctions of the Lord and the whispers of the angels.

But I don't need to tell you that we're not always at our best. We're fallible. We fail and fall. But faith and history teaches us that, however dark the night, joy cometh in the morning.

And that joy comes with the commandments of Scripture: "Love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, all thy mind, and all thy soul." And: "Love thy neighbor as thy self."

Easy to say. Easy to say. But very hard to do.

But in that commandment, in my view, lies the essence of the gospel and the essence of the American promise. It's when we see each other as neighbors and not enemies that progress and justice come. It's when we see each other as fellow human beings, as children of God, that we bend- -- begin to walk the path of Dr. King's "Beloved Community." A path his dream inspired and whose legacy propel us forward to this day.

And here's what I learned in my life and in my career along that path, as many of you have learned along your path: We're all imperfect beings. We don't know where and what fate will deliver to us, and when. But we do -- we can do our best to seek a life of light and hope and love and, yes, truth. Truth.

That's what I try to do every day to build the future that we all want, while reminding ourselves that nothing -- nothing is guaranteed in our democracy. Nothing.

Every generation is required to keep it, defend it, protect it, to be repairers of the breach, and to remember that the power to redeem the soul of America lies where it always has lie -- lay: in the hands of "We the People." "We the People."

. . .

As Dr. King said, "Give us the ballot, and we will place judges on the bench... who will do justly." And we are. That's the promise of America -- where change is hard, but necessary.

Progress is never easy, but it's always possible. And things do get better on our march toward a more perfect union.

But at this inflection point, we know there's a lot of work that has to continue on economic justice, civil rights, voting rights, on protecting our democracy, and on remembering that our job is to redeem the soul of America.

. . .

Folks, I often think of the question that Dr. King asked us all those years ago. I think it's important. You all remember; I think it's important the nation remember it. He said, "Where do we go from here?" That's a quote. "Where do we go from here?"

Well, my message to the nation on this day is: We go forward, we go together -- when we choose democracy over autocracy, a beloved community over chaos; when we choose believers and the dreams, to be doers, to be unafraid, always keeping the faith.

Every time I walk out of my Irish Catholic grandfather's home up in Scranton, Pennsylvania -- his name was Ambrose Finnegan -- and he'd yell, "Joey, keep the faith." And my grandmother, "No, Joey. Spread it. Spread the faith." No, I'm serious. It's a Catholic Rosary I have on my wrist -- the one my son had on the day -- the night he was dying.

The point is: There's hope. There's always hope. We have to believe.

And, ladies and gentlemen, that was Dr. King's path, in my view -- the path of keeping the faith -- and it must be our path.


Follow Chris on Twitter: @ChrisWeigant


18 Comments on “Biden's Sermon At Ebenezer Baptist Church”

  1. [1] 
    andygaus wrote:

    Beautiful speech, but Ouch!
    "The soul of America lies where it always has lie -- lay ..." (Try "lain," Mr. President, just in case this ever comes up again.)

  2. [2] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    What makes you think he didn't say lain, andygaus, and that the transcript is wrong? Asking for a friend.

  3. [3] 
    John M from Ct. wrote:

    Thanks for that. Very moving, in an Uncle Joe way, and completely sincere I judge.

    It is almost comic to compare this to how Obama delivered the same sentiments, but that's the difference between Barry and Joe. I noticed that Joe picked up on "a more perfect union".

    And he was not unaware that he was an Irish Catholic delivering a sermon to a congregation of Black southern Baptists, and he handled it very nicely I thought.

    Again, thanks.

  4. [4] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Well, John, it's not like this was his first rodeo, as they say. But, I understand that most Americans still don't know who Joe Biden is.

  5. [5] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    John M from Ct.,

    It is almost comic to compare this to how Obama delivered the same sentiments ...

    How so?

  6. [6] 
    John M from Ct. wrote:

    Elizabeth [5],

    Mostly I see Biden's style here as mixing high-flown and eloquent sentiments, classic Obama stuff in other words, with short folksy interjections, 'plain language' translations of what he just said, and affirming repetitions to provide emphasis or to catch himself as to where he is in the speech.

    It's choppier and more relatable for an everyday audience, perhaps, but much less polished, intellectual, and sophisticated compared to Obamarama.

  7. [7] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Yeah, that's what I thought you meant. :(

  8. [8] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Sounds like you don't have too much experience with Biden speeches. And, that's what I would call a shame.

  9. [9] 
    John M from Ct. wrote:

    Regarding your [8],
    No, I'm pretty good with how he speaks usually. His style is his style.

    What I noticed here was the higher bar of addressing the Black experience to a black audience (and the nation as a whole of course in the background). In 2008 Obama's speech "A More Perfect Union" set the gold standard for such a speech, and I teach that speech to my HS students regularly. I wouldn't doubt that Joe's speechwriters knew they were on similar ground and had to find a voice that matched Joe on a subject that Obama owned and owns.

  10. [10] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    I notice you say 'Obama's speech' but when you refer to Biden's speech you wrote his "speechwriters".

    I hope you teach your HS students about Biden's very long history with the Black community as a whole with some emphasis on how he found his voice on this ground many decades ago.

  11. [11] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    I think we can give Biden a pass on the use of 'inflection point' because, well, that's a phrase he kind of owns. :-)

  12. [12] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    Very moving ... and completely sincere I judge.

    Well, you're a good judge, I'll give ya that. :)

  13. [13] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:


    This year, I am going to run excerpts from Biden's sermon in praise of Martin Luther King Junior, to show how a United States president remembered the icon of the Civil Rights movement in his home church.

    Excerpts, eh? What, is there a word limit around here now that I don't know about? :-)

  14. [14] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    okay, okay ... i'm going to bed now

  15. [15] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    But, before I go I have to say that it's been a veritable FOUNTAIN of conversation. Ahem.

  16. [16] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    A freakin' geyser.

  17. [17] 
    Elizabeth Miller wrote:

    What movie am I trying to reference?

  18. [18] 
    MtnCaddy wrote:


    Dunno, Liz. It’s past my bedtime.


    I agree and I maintain that the UncleJoe - plain spoken - even gaffe fest Joe Biden style refreshingly contrasts with Trump slick snake oil salesman style and is part of the reason he snagged 81m votes.

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