“Little Caesar” was the affectionate nickname many of his ministry colleagues gave him. He stood a little more than 5 feet tall, had a moustache, and wore black thick-rimmed eyeglasses. The only thing small about him was his stature. Everything else related to Dr. Caesar Arthur Walter Clark Sr. (1914-2008) was larger than life: his pulpit eloquence, rich imagination, extraordinary longevity, homiletical musicality, and pastoral wisdom.
When one of my mentors introduced me to his preaching in 2009, I was impressed. Now that I’ve conducted research and listened to his sermons, I’m no longer impressed; I’m inspired. His life is commendable and his preaching remarkable. Moreover, his story is worth being told.
Caesar A.W. Clark was born Dec. 13, 1914, in Shreveport, Louisiana. His parents were tenant farmers. They were so poor that he had to drop out of school during the seventh grade in order to work on the farm. Regardless, Clark continued to educate himself. In 1928, he was converted. One year later, at age 14, he began preaching as an itinerant. Self-taught and highly motivated, he gained admission to Bishop College in Dallas and graduated in 1946. In the 1940s, he married a woman named Carolyn. Together, they had one son, Caesar A.W. Clark Jr., and he was stepfather to Carolyn’s children, Tonya and Maurice.
The first two churches Dr. Clark officially pastored were Israelite Baptist Church in Longstreet, La., where he began in 1933, and Little Union Baptist Church in Shreveport, Louisiana. When he took the bus to Longstreet, he had to walk four miles from the station to the church. When he took the train, it was a six-mile walk. His first church paid him $2.50 a month.1
Before moving to Shreveport, Clark found himself overseeing a family of rural churches.2 In a 1992 interview, Clark looked back with some humor concerning those days. “I came up at a time and in a section of the country where you were not considered one of the leading preachers unless you had at least three churches, better if you had four,” he said. “When I was called to my first church in the city [Little Union in Shreveport]…I had six churches.”3 The good part about having so many churches, Clark said, was that he only had to prepare one sermon. The sixth time he preached was a lot better than the first.
Clark’s best-known and longest-tenured pastorate was at Good Street Baptist Church in Dallas, Texas, where he served from 1950 until his death in 2008. Some considered him a pioneer in the area of holistic ministry.4 When African Americans in Dallas were unable to gain access to fair and equal housing, Clark sprang into action. In 1964, the leaders of Good Street purchased the run-down Good Haven Apartments; using government funds, they renovated and added air conditioning to the 322 units. That action created opportunities for fair and equal housing.
Also under Clark’s leadership, the church established a primary school, a learning center, a community center, a legal advocacy clinic, a credit union, and a non-profit charitable foundation. Clark himself served as editor of The National Baptist Voice. Still, this says nothing about his strategic role in Dallas during the Civil Rights Era, including his invitation to Martin Luther King Jr. to preach at Good Street in 1958. So many constituencies respected and admired Dr. Clark that in 2003 Congress voted to name a Dallas post office after him, a designation usually granted posthumously.
Despite all his achievements, it was his preaching that won him acclaim, especially among African-American Baptists. In addition to his pastorate at Good Street, he was considered “one of the top five African-American revivalists, averaging 30 weeklong revivals a year.”5 On one occasion, he preached to 40,000 people at the Houston Astrodome.6 In 1984 and again in 1993, Ebony magazine named him one of the “15 greatest black preachers” in America.7 At the risk of oversimplification, let me offer five virtues that characterized his preaching ministry.
1. Pulpit Eloquence: Early on in his tenure at Good Street, Dr. Clark distinguished himself as a “brilliant orator.”8 His skills in crafting poetic language, artful phrasing, and judicious use of rhetorical devices won him respect and renown among laypeople and clergy. Even as late as the 1990s, preachers and journalists referred to him as a “giant in the world of Baptist oratory.”9 Mostly self-taught but widely read, he studied deeply. He was articulate and thoughtful, a wordsmith of the English language.
2. Rich Imagination: He could portray imaginative landscapes and paint memorable pictures. In one sermon on Acts 12:23-24 titled, “The Worms Got Him,” Clark opens by taking us into the graveyard to view the tombs of Herod’s family members. One by one, he walks us by each tombstone until arriving at the tomb of the Herod of Acts 12, the one “eaten of worms” for failing to give God the glory. Then, Clark surprises us with the contrast: “But, the word of God grew and multiplied” (Acts 12:24). His vivid pictures varied with his sermons. He would take listeners on the Via Dolorosa with Jesus as He walked up Calvary’s hill, or Clark would imagine the sound of the last trumpet on the Last Day as the Son of Man descended on the clouds to deliver His people. His listeners could hear the trumpet; they could see the clouds.
3. Surprising Longevity: Clark came to Good Street Baptist in 1950 and remained there until his death in 2008, which means Clark served as pastor at one church for about 58 years—almost six decades. Remember that he preached for 21 years before that impressive tenure. Starting his itinerant ministry in 1929 when FDR was president and remaining an active preacher until he died in 2008, three months before President Obama was elected, meant that he preached more than 79 years—almost eight decades.
4. Homiletical Musicality: No article about Caesar A.W. Clark would be complete without at least the mention of “whooping,” the metrical, rhythmic, tonal chant found especially in African-American folk preaching. Clark’s sermons were musical. Some experts claim that Clark was “by far one of the best whoopers the African-American faith community has produced.”10 Still others contend: “If any one preacher could be called the modern preserver and practitioner of the black folk tradition of preaching that dates back to the slave era, it would be Caesar Clark.”11
5. Pastoral Wisdom: Not only did Clark make his preaching practical and accessible to those who heard his sermons, but he also made himself accessible. When asked by an interviewer about how to sustain one pastorate for so long, he responded: “Love God supremely and love God’s people fully.”12 He reminded pastors that laypersons aren’t your enemies just because they disagree with you. If the people know you love them and are committed to them, he would say, they’ll be more likely to follow you. He had a pastor’s heart and a pastor’s love.
Caesar Clark was highly respected and greatly admired by the people of Good Street, the people of Dallas, and by a widely divergent range of pastors and laypeople around the country and the world. He might also be “one of the most imitated preachers” in the history of African-American folk preaching.13
Although he died in 2008, his preaching still can be heard in pulpits today. His legacy lives on in the sound and style of a new generation of African-American folk preachers. He may be a past master, but his preaching is more current than we think. Some of today’s preachers echo Clark’s stile more than they realize.
1 For Clark’s recollections of his first two pastorates, see “Caesar A.W. Clark Sr.: Walking in Faith Ministries Radio Interview,” Interview with Robert A. Gilbert, August 9, 1992.
2 According to Ebony magazine, Clark also served and oversaw churches as far away as Tennessee. See “America’s 15 Greatest Black Preachers,” Ebony, September 1984.
3 “Caesar A. W. Clark Sr.: Walking in Faith Ministries Radio Interview.”
4 Larry G. Murphy, J. Gordon Melton, and Gary L. Ward, Encyclopedia of African American Religions (New York: Routledge, 2013), 178.
5 Martha J. Simmons and Frank A. Thomas, eds., Preaching with Sacred Fire: An Anthology of African American Sermons, 1750 to the Present (New York: W.W. Norton, 2010), 627.
6 Jennifer Bridges, “Clark, Caesar Arthur Walter,” Handbook of Texas Online (Published by the Texas State Historical Association), June 12, 2013, http://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/online/articles/fcl63.
7 “America’s 15 Greatest Black Preachers,” Ebony, September 1984; “The 15 Greatest Black Preachers,” Ebony, November 1993.
8 Murphy, Melton, and Ward, Encyclopedia of African American Religions, 178.
9 Bruce Nolan, “Master of Oratory Fills Pews at Revivals,” The Times Picayune, June 9, 1995.
10 Simmons and Thomas, Preaching with Sacred Fire, 627.
11 Marvin A. McMickle, ed., An Encyclopedia of African American Christian Heritage (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2002), 54–55.
12 “Caesar A.W. Clark Sr.: Walking in Faith Ministries Radio Interview.”
13 Simmons and Thomas, Preaching with Sacred Fire, 627.
Jared E. Alcántara is an assistant professor of homiletics at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, Illinois. His new book, Crossover Preaching (IVP Academic) is a homiletical conversation with Gardner C. Taylor’s preaching. Follow him on Twitter @jaredealcantara.