Biography of Gordon James Houtman
Part 1: through Martin Luther King, Jr.
- I was born in January 1961, in Grosse Pointe, Michigan.
- We lived in Detroit. My parents had met at Grosse Pointe High School, where
they were both teachers.
- In June 1963, my parents took my big brother and me downtown to hear
Martin Luther King, Jr. speak.
The crowd was huge. (The lowest estimate of crowd size was
We were among the few white people present. Even though the
crowd was huge, folks let us through as we made our way toward the stage.
- I questioned the fairness of us showing up at the last minute and just walking
to the front, when all these other people had clearly been here for hours.
My follow-on question was why, if they had been oppressed all these years,
they should be nicely letting us white folks “cut in line” like that.
- My parents answered my questions, and answered them well, but I wasn’t
satisfied with the answers. (But what’s a dissatisfied 2½ year old to do?)
- I was bored for a while: a 2½ year old with his family in a big crowd,
with people making speeches in front. After a while, things sounded more interesting
(I think people around us were noticeably more excited), and my dad put me
up on his shoulders so I could see.
- We were very close to the stage. We were maybe fifty feet away, and I could
see the speaker clearly. I was too young to understand the whole speech, but
I concentrated and followed it. Reverend King captured my attention and inspired
me. I especially remember the “I have a dream” part, and I feel that he glanced
over to see me and my family in the crowd when he was saying “I have a dream
this afternoon (I have a dream) that one day, [Applause] one day little white
children and little Negro children will be able to join hands as brothers
- The text of that speech is available online at
- Shortly after the Great March on Detroit, my dad got his doctorate
and my little sister was born. My dad got his first college teaching job,
so we moved to Tennessee. A few years later, we moved to Ohio, and a few years
after that, we moved to Illinois, where I attended grades 6-12 and college.
Part 2: my faith walk
- My parents are Unitarian-Universalist (UU). While I was growing up, we
went to church almost every Sunday. While I was in college, I went to church
- In 9th grade, I took Latin class. After frequent discussions of religion
(I argued for atheism), a classmate publicly suggested that if I wished to
be something other than a closed-minded believer in atheism (as I had said
believers’ minds were closed to examining the anti-belief evidence), then
I should try reading the Bible, the evidence for the existence of God, from
cover to cover, without any preconceived notion, just as I’d read any other
- So I started reading the King James Version of the Bible in the ninth grade,
with the attitude: “if there is any truth here, what is it?” I finished reading
the Bible while I was in college. There was a lot there.
- I wrestled with it for a while. I finally decided, applying Occam’s razor,
that doubting the plain
facts of the scripture narrative (even allowing for errors, inaccuracy, and
contradictions) required a greater leap of faith than accepting the message
- As I continued to study the Bible and take its message seriously, I found
less sustenance in my UU faith, as the services I attended rarely mentioned
the Bible or Christianity favorably.
- Some years after I stopped attending UU services, a friend invited me to
Mass, and I eventually joined the Roman Catholic Church.
Part 3: how I decided to make this website
- Several years ago, I read a book on the civil rights movement,
Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963 (commercial link),
by Taylor Branch (which won a
Pulitzer prize for history in 1989).
Chapter one’s title is: “Forerunner: Vernon Johns.”
- Before Martin Luther King, Jr. took his first pulpit there,
the pastor at
Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama
Reverend Doctor Vernon Johns.
- Vernon Johns was a man ahead of his time. Long before the Civil Rights Movement
of the 1960’s, he strongly opposed “Jim Crow” (the enforced separation of
the races in unequal conditions). At the time, more pragmatic people saw this
stance as quixotic, futile, and/or counterproductive.
- Parting the Waters said that back in 1926, Reverend Johns had been the first
black man to get a sermon published in the annual anthology Best Sermons.
When I read that, I thought, “gee, I’d like to read that sermon.”
- Years later, I visited a seminary library that had Best Sermons 1926. The
sermon was as good as I’d been led to expect. I made a photocopy.
- I looked for “Transfigured Moments” on the web. Nothing there. I thought
I’d put it up on the web. (Since then, it has become available at
also see a biography of Vernon Johns at
- I visited the Library of Congress Copyright Office, and verified that the
copyright on Best Sermons 1926 is expired. (I made a photocopy of the copyright
- I decided that it would make sense to put up the whole book Best Sermons 1926,
not just the sermon “Transfigured Moments,” so the sermon could be appreciated
in context. Also, many of the other sermons are also excellent, by preachers
famous even today.
- I have tried to bring the sermons to you faithfully as they appear on the
printed page of 1926, making judicious use of the best practices of the Internet.
Part 4: Implementation process
Click here (if you’re interested)…
Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-1963
(New York: Simon and Schuster, 1988), 843.