In the city of Detroit, C.L. Franklin’s Sunday night radio broadcasts live from New Bethel Baptist Church were a phenomenon. Other preachers rescheduled their Sunday evening services so as not to compete with Rev. Franklin’s.
Then he pioneered the practice of recording full-length sermons for sale as LPs. This brought him “a national celebrity within black America on the level of a Sam Cooke, a Mahalia Jackson, or a Little Richard,” according to Franklin’s biographer, Nick Salvatore.
I’m streaming a 7-minute segment of one of Rev. Franklin’s most popular sermons, “The Eagle Stirs Her Nest,” on my Vox audio stash. Click here to hear it. You can purchase the full half-hour sermon for download from eMusic.
In his 2005 book, “Singing in a Strange Land: C.L. Franklin, the Black Church, and the Transformation of America,” Salvatore describes Rev. Franklin’s growing stardom (and the backlash) after he got into business with record-label entrepreneur Joe Von Battle:
NICK SALVATORE: The recordings were an immediate sensation. Detroiters bought them in large numbers, and Von Battle distributed them on his JVB label to other record shops in the Midwest and the South. Von Battle’s operation was small, and he could neither press enough records nor handle the bookkeeping and advertising to take full advantage of the opportunity. But there was no question that Franklin was a major success.
When Von Battle put a new sermon on his [record store’s] sound system, flooding the Hastings Street sidewalk with the mellifluous power of that voice, crowds frequently gathered to listen. “More than once,” Marsha L. Mickens, Von Battle’s daughter, remembered her father saying, he “had to call the police to break up the crowds that would gather to hear” the recorded sermon.
All this attention made C.L. an even more attractive figure as he leaned across the pulpit or sauntered down Hastings Street during the course of a day’s business. This handsome, virile man, in effect single since 1948, had never been bashful about his sexuality, which he considered... “one of the great psychological needs” all humans experience. That some women, in and outside the church community, responded with a matching passion, C.L. considered one of life’s great delights. ...
Talk about C.L.’s involvements with women provided his critics, particularly those in the ministry, with additional cause to dismiss him. The critics were not necessarily innocents themselves, but the open, public manner in which C.L. squired his women about town upset them. From their perspective, C.L. was not exploring the boundary of the sacred and the secular – he had, rather, fallen over into the abyss.
This, in turn, reinforced criticism of his preaching style and doubts about his recording career. Even before his appearance on the JVB label, many had dismissed him as a mere entertainer, a panderer to popular emotions, a preacher who lacked an intellectual core to his sermon.
More so in 1953, following C.L.’s carefully produced radio program, his record sales, and New Bethel’s mushrooming membership rolls, these critics – with not a little jealousy – regarded C.L. as a celebrity hound, an embarrassment to the ministry they sought to serve.
Were these charges accurate, C.L.’s stretch toward national fame would quickly falter, for no sermon so empty of meaning could withstand repeated scrutiny by the insightful if often unschooled people whose perceptive folk commentary on preachers and their messages was a staple of the black oral tradition.