Scott’s primary circle of influence was the African-American church, where he was well-known and widely regarded as “a ‘royal peculiar’ who brought dignity and grace to the office of pastor and held high the standards of the black preaching enterprise.”1 However, at the height of his ministry in the 1970s and 80s, his influence expanded considerably with citywide revivals in Los Angeles and Dallas, interracial state conventions, as well as preaching for the Southern Baptist Convention, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, and the International Congress for World Evangelism. Scott was a past master of preaching whose name and story should be better known among today’s pastors.
Born in Waco, Texas, in 1926, Scott grew up poor in a segregated society during the Great Depression. He came to Christ at age 9 and was licensed to preach at the age of 18. Unable to attend Baylor University on account of segregation laws, he enrolled at Bishop College, an all-black school in Marshall, Texas, an institution that produced some of the best African-American preachers of Scott’s generation.
After Bishop, Scott served as pastor at two different churches: Calvary Baptist Church of Los Angeles, Calif., for 33 years, and St. John Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, for 13 years. He was extremely active: itinerant preaching at conventions and conferences, guiding and mentoring Bishop College students, evangelizing at crusades and revivals, and writing Christian books. He published two books: From a Black Brother (1971) and The Gospel for the Ghetto (1973), wrote numerous book chapters and articles, and gave lectureships nationally and internationally.
He and his wife, Thelma, raised six children. One son, Manuel L. Scott Jr., also a preacher and evangelist, carries his father’s legacy in the black church today.
Why do so many of today’s older generation preachers, especially African-American Baptists, look to Scott’s preaching with such interest and admiration? Let me offer three reasons.
First, Scott was an eloquent poet. In 1993, Ebony magazine cited “the poetic brilliance of his sermons” as a central reason for naming him one of 15 “greatest black preachers” in the country.2 According to homiletician Cleophus J. LaRue, Scott was a “unique coiner of phrases.”3 As a way to benefit the next generation of preachers, in 2010, Manuel L. Scott Jr. published his father’s best-known sayings and sermons in The Quotable Manuel Scott Sr.4
Scott’s poetry is evident in his writing and his preaching. For instance, in a 1971 article titled, “What Jesus Means to Me,” Scott refuses to use plain speech to describe Jesus’ significance as Savior. Jesus is “a radical, a rebel, and a revolutionist” who seeks to “reconstruct a world of humans who live in harmony and mutual helpfulness and trust.”5
In a sermon delivered at the Hampton Institute in June 1982, Scott contended: “Man, unlike God, has an epistemological disability.” “We don’t know much!” he exclaimed. Then, the poetic restatements begin. Man is the “victim of invincible ignorance”; “we have partial perspective on the pilgrimage”; “limited illumination on the lordship of our King.” “We don’t know much, I tell ya!,” Scott exclaimed.6 Like a riff on a familiar tune, each new phrase provides a slightly different poetic variation on the same theme.
Scott was also a narrative painter. He had a peculiar ability to take ordinary experiences and enlarge their significance through artful storytelling.
He described the fervency of his prayers this way: “Like Jacob, I wouldn’t let God go until He blessed me…Like the woman with the issue of blood, I pressed my way through a crowd of doubts and uncertainties…Like the widow before the judge at midnight, I importuniously prayed my prayer…Like Job, I walked and waited until my change came.” Then, at last, the moment of joyful discovery: “Ah! I found a penny! I found a penny!” he exclaimed. For the rest of the sermon, he celebrated this epiphany with the phrase, “I found a penny!” and tied it back to the power of prayer. For those who heard it, the penny illustration was so vivid, and the story so memorable that some still refer to it as the “I Found a Penny Sermon.”7
Finally, Scott was a compelling pulpiteer. “Masterful delivery” was another reason Ebony magazine recognized Scott’s preaching prominence.8 His effusive style captivated listeners. Among well-known African-American preachers of his generation, he was perhaps the most animated in how he used his body. He could sing and shout. He could introduce a sermon in slow monotone and conclude it with exuberant homiletical musicality.
One moment he would be snapping his suspenders and smiling. The next moment he would be swinging his arms rapidly and grasping at thin air to get his point across. Those who listened to Scott preach in real-time insisted that one had to see and hear him in person to get the full experience.
What made Scott’s preaching so dynamic? He was an eloquent poet, narrative painter and compelling pulpiteer. These were some of the distinguishing marks of his preaching, but those who knew him best also remembered the depth of his integrity and humility. Scott was more concerned about character than the capacity to draw a crowd. “No matter how much you know,” he told preachers, “if you do not know God, you don’t know enough.”9
1 From the dedication page in Cleophus J. LaRue, ed., Power in the Pulpit: How America’s Most Effective Black Preachers Prepare Their Sermons (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2002), iv.
2 “The 15 Greatest Black Preachers,” Ebony, November 1993, 166.
3 LaRue, Power in the Pulpit, iv.
4 Manuel L. Scott Jr., The Quotable Manuel Scott Sr.: Words From a Gospel Genius (Los Angeles, CA: Manuel Scott Jr Ministries, 2010).
5 Manuel L. Scott Sr., “What Jesus Means to Me,” in Seven Black Preachers Tell: What Jesus Means to Me, ed. William Cannon (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1971), 121.
6 Manuel L. Scott Sr., “God at Work in Circumstances of Unknown Possibilities (Audio Recording),” Hampton Institute Minister’s Conference (Hampton, VA, June 1982).
7 Scott Jr., The Quotable Manuel Scott Sr., 152-53.
8 “The 15 Greatest Black Preachers,” 166.
9 Scott Jr., The Quotable Manuel Scott Sr., 55.