Sandy F. Ray (1898-1979) was a preacher whose name should be well-known among preaching enthusiasts and historians. He was at his peak from the 1940s to the 1970s during a 35-year pastorate at Cornerstone Baptist Church, a historic African-American church in Brooklyn, New York. People came from all over the city and country to hear him preach, and he was considered “one of the great pulpiteers” of his day.
Unfortunately, less than one generation after his death, his preaching legacy largely has been forgotten. His name is not mentioned in O.C. Edwards’ 870-page book A History of Preaching or Hughes Oliphant Old’s seven-volume history of preaching.
Born in 1898 in Palestine, Texas, Ray went on to attend Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga., where he became close friends with his fellow classmate Martin Luther King Sr. After Morehouse, Ray served churches in Georgia, Chicago and Ohio. Before coming to New York, he spent seven years at the prestigious Shiloh Baptist Church in Columbus, Ohio, where he was an acclaimed Sunday radio preacher. In 1942, he became the first black representative elected to the Ohio State Legislature.
Ray came to Brooklyn in 1944, leaving behind a large church in order to go to a less prestigious, smaller one. Under Ray’s leadership, Cornerstone grew in size and stature. Between 1944 and 1954, the church more than doubled in size from 2,500 to 5,500 members, and it added a daycare and credit union.
At least two anecdotes and one family connection are worth mentioning from the Cornerstone years. In July 1949, Ray and Dodgers baseball star Jackie Robinson went to Capitol Hill to appear before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. They went there to refute publicly claims made by Paul Robeson that “American Negroes would never take up arms against the Soviet Union.”
After unequivocally affirming his (their) loyalty, Ray seized an opportunity to transform a public spectacle into a platform. He declared: “We believe that the pattern of segregation in our National Capital itself gives comfort to our enemies and weakens our position in world councils…those who lead in democracy should be criticized and prodded by citizens of that democracy.” Usually soft-spoken in social settings, Ray used this platform to appeal to the national conscience and to stand up for what was right.
In July 1957, Ray decided to invite Billy Graham to preach on the steps outside his church. Throughout the summer of 1957, Graham had preached to more than a million people at Madison Square Garden in Manhattan. Preaching at Cornerstone was a courageous move for both men, Ray taking a risk to invite a white evangelist to Brooklyn and Graham alienating segregationist members of his constituency.
On that occasion, Graham preached a surprising, politically charged sermon in which he spoke out against racist segregationist laws and called for changes to legislation at the national level. Twenty local pastors and leaders supported the event, and more than 3,000 people attended. Ray’s commitment to ecumenism was on display on that particular day, as was his courage to transgress racial divides.
Another interesting thread that runs through Ray’s life is his relationship with the King family. In the 1950s, Ray’s friendship with the Kings took on political overtones. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested for nonviolent protest in Montgomery, Alabama. Not only did he publicly rebuke southern white supremacists after King’s arrest, but he also flew to Montgomery whenever he could to lend support. Whenever King Jr. came to New York, Ray helped him raise money and provided hospitality. In September 1958, when a deranged woman stabbed King with a letter opener during a book signing in New York, King convalesced for three weeks at the Ray family home.
King looked up to Ray as a father figure; in fact, he called him “Uncle Sandy.” In 1966, when Cornerstone opened a new community center, King preached his famous sermon “Guidelines for a Constructive Church” in the sanctuary of the church. The friendship that began at Morehouse with King Sr. in the late 1920s grew into a lifelong relationship of support and solidarity between the two families.
Sandy F. Ray was a pulpit master whose name should be known better in preaching circles. Some of his sermons became instant classics in their time such as “The Challenge of the Wood Country” and “A Voice in the Wilderness.” He also published a sermon collection called Journeying Through a Jungle. Because most of Ray’s sermons were not recorded, much of his preaching wisdom is mediated through his close friend, Gardner C. Taylor.
In a 1996 lecture, Taylor recounted: “Dr. Ray used to say…that he preached in the right lane because that was where the exits were. That is a tremendous word, to know when to get off.” Taylor also made the following observation about Ray’s preaching: “Sandy had an amazing gift for taking the most ordinary circumstances and enlarging them. That was the way Jesus did, enlarging small things into eternal meanings.” In one sermon, a fox getting in through a weak spot in a fence becomes an analogy for how the devil attacks followers of Christ. In another sermon, a connecting flight from a Midwestern city to New York becomes an encouragement to Christians that the Earth is not their terminating city; they are waiting on their final connection to an eternal city.
Ray died April 11, 1979. At his funeral, Taylor made this comment about his pulpit eloquence: “It was hard to tell whether one heard music half-spoken or speech half-sung. And when the glad thunders of that voice reached its climactic theme, the heavens seemed to open, and we could see the Lord God on His throne.”
1 “Know Your Pastor,” New York Amsterdam News, November 20, 1954, 16.
2 See O.C. Edwards, A History of Preaching (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2004). See also Hughes Oliphant Old, The Reading and Preaching of the Scriptures in the Worship of the Christian Church: Our Own Time, vol. 7 (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2010).
3 Richardson describes Cornerstone in 1944 as a “small, unattractive edifice in a declining neighborhood, a church that offered no prestige.” W. Franklin Richardson, “Introduction,” in Sandy F. Ray, Journeying Through a Jungle (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1979), 20.
4 Milton K. Curry describes Ray’s impact this way: “He transformed it into one of the truly great churches of the nation while remaining active in politics and developing a close personal friendship with top government officials.” See Milton K. Curry Jr., “Foreword,” in Ibid., 12.
5 Chequita Cynthia, “‘Race Dissatisfied, Not Disloyal’ Ray,” New York Amsterdam News, July 16, 1949, 9.
6 See Ibid., 9.
7 Some of the excerpts from Graham’s sermon include: “Some say God loves certain people or certain races more. But God has no pets…We are all the same in the sight of God, whatever the color of our skins. He does not look on the outside but into our hearts.” See “Billy Graham: Heaven Won’t Let Racists In,” New York Amsterdam News, July 20, 1957, 9.
8 A fuller account of this story can be found in David J. Garrow, Bearing the Cross: Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (New York, NY: Quill, 1999), 109-111.
9 Ray, Journeying Through a Jungle.
10 “Great Preachers Remembered,” in Gardner C. Taylor, The Words of Gardner Taylor: Lectures, Essays, and Interviews, ed. Edward L. Taylor, vol. 5 (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2004), 114.
11 Gardner C. Taylor, The Words of Gardner Taylor: Special Occasion and Expository Sermons, ed. Edward L. Taylor, vol. 4 (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2004), 141.