The death of Gardner Calvin Taylor, the nation’s iconic preacher/orator, has shone a radiant spotlight on his preaching.
Taylor, often described by highly regarded theologians and ministers as “the Prince of Preachers,” died on Easter Sunday, at Duke University Medical Center. He was 96.
Hailed by the Christian Century as “the Poet Laureate of American Protestantism,” Taylor graced the pulpit of Brooklyn’s Concord Baptist Church for 42 years, from 1948 to 1990. According to Newsweek, he was “one of the 12 greatest preachers in the English speaking world.”
The National Visionary Leadership Project, on its website, noted his “use of metaphor, dramatic timing, dynamic construction and scriptural truths to weave a seamless narrative in his sermons, which exhibit his mastery of the technical aspects of preaching.” With at least 15 honorary degrees, a Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Union Medal, his place among the most stunning speakers of all time is secure.
Without hesitation, Dr. Wyatt Tee Walker, Martin Luther King’s first chief of staff and the author of 27 volumes on African American sacred music, asserted that “Gardner Taylor is the greatest preacher on the planet, living, dead, or unborn.”
Although many preachers were much more well known throughout the larger society, Taylor would not promote himself, which frustrated his admirers. Attending to his parishioners’ needs and the welfare of African Americans citywide consumed most of his time and energy.
Concord, shepherded by Taylor’s sensitive spirit and sharp administrative acumen, grew from 5,000 members to more than 14,000. With Taylor at the helm, the church sponsored the first senior living facility sponsored by an African American congregation. Along with Christ House, which each year outfitted thousands with new and virtually new shoes, suits, shirts and skirts, Concord created a thriving credit union, a million-dollar community endowment fund and an elementary school, among other ground breaking ventures to uplift Brooklyn’s Black neighborhoods.
In the tradition of his father, Washington Taylor, senior minister of Mount Zion Baptist Church, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and the first Black vice-president of the World Baptist Convention, Gardner Taylor was a powerful spokesman for civil rights. Appointed by Mayor Robert Wagner to the New York City Board of Education in 1958, he was the second Black member in its history.
Several years later, Taylor, an influential leader in Brooklyn’s Democratic Party and president of the New York Urban League, wanted to bring the conservative National Baptist Convention into the action-oriented civil rights advocacy then sweeping the nation. With seven million members, the Convention, led by J. H. Jackson, was America’s largest Black Protestant denomination. Taylor hoped with a run for president, he could rouse the giant and equip it for independent economic and political empowerment. His defeat was bitter. Even some of his “friends,” he later discovered, had voted for Jackson.
Taylor answered the loss by joining forces with a group that included Dr. King, Marshall Shepherd, Jr. and Thomas Kilgore, of Philadelphia and Los Angeles, respectively. Together they founded the Progressive Baptist Convention.
In the years following that activism, Taylor, a trenchant theologian, taught homiletics to aspiring ministers at Harvard, Yale and Rochester-Colgate. In 1975 and 1976, he was the Lyman Beecher Lecturer at Yale Divinity School, the second African American so honored to that time.
Told by his wife, Laura Scott Taylor, that his preaching had “gotten a little thin,” he re-focused on his greatest strength, the oratory that distinguished his ministry and guided him into national prominence.
For decades, Taylor’s oratorical style, sermons and their depth have been used as models at Catholic, Protestant and Jewish seminaries.
Dr. Edward Lorenza Wheeler, president of the Interdenominational Theological Center, told Message that he agrees with much of Walker’s bold assertion.
“Yes,” he said, “in many ways I agree with him–and for three reasons: first, Dr. Taylor was a master of the English language; he painted pictures with words to create imagery everyone understands, to tell us what, through Christ, we (African Americans), can become.” Next, Wheeler explained, “he had profound insights into scripture, which made the texts come alive for present generations.” Perhaps most profound, however, Wheeler said, “he preached out of his conviction that Jesus is Lord, but with a humility that humbled even the most arrogant.”
Wheeler recalled a captivating example of that unshakeable conviction. “In one of his most memorable sermons, I heard him say, ‘I loved my mother probably as few men have ever loved theirs. And, after all these years, I still miss her. When I get to Heaven, I’m going to look her up–but after I spend the first 1,000 years praising God!’”
Elder Charles E. Bradford, 90, who knew Taylor well, remembered the occasion in 1948, at Southern University, in Baton Rouge, where Taylor had been invited to speak to the city’s Black intelligentsia. “He came at a very difficult time for us in Louisiana,” Bradford said, when African Americans were locked in a struggle with White officials over equal pay for Black professors and teachers.
Born in Baton Rouge, Taylor returned to the city with a message of calm assurance. Said Bradford, “he used Hebrews 11, verse 40, as his text: “They, without us, shall not be made perfect.” The audience, Bradford said, was electrified. “Even though they did not shout or say amen–which in those circles, most people don’t do–they quickly understood that he was speaking to them, as Black people–and to the nation as well.” The word “perfect” means “complete,” Bradford continued.
Taylor, “realized that this text can be applied to Blacks in the United States,” Bradford said. To be “complete,” Taylor was saying, “this nation must eventually come to terms with, and acknowledge, the enriching, but long-denied genius of African Americans and their seminal contributions to its life and culture.
But, Bradford was asked, “was he, the greatest preacher on the planet?
“Oh sure,” he replied.
Dr. Cain Hope Felder, Professor of Biblical Studies at the Howard University School of Divinity, was uncomfortable with Walker’s assertion. “He doesn’t need hyperbole,” he said of Taylor, “his record speaks for itself.”
What is that record? Dr. Felder was asked.
“He was a distinguished and eminent statesman for Black preachers across the nation,” Felder replied, “irrespective of denominational ties, they looked to him for guidance, given the way he conducted himself, and, of course, his sermon preparation and execution.”
Felder, who has taught at Howard Divinity School for 33 years, continued. “He wasn’t just a pulpit minister, he was a leader; he spoke with the authority that people identified with. . . .You cannot find an African American preacher who would not say that he was not the most distinguished preacher of our time. His legacy is singular,” he said.
While Felder was concerned over what he feared was hyperbole, he, with Wheeler and Bradford, were in
solid agreement on Taylor’s humility.
“When I was a student at Rochester Colgate,” Wheeler said, “I always picked him up at the airport. He could have ordered a limousine, but he was humble enough to want to ride in my 1965 Ford station wagon with artificial wood panels. He could have had dinner anywhere, but he took the time to come to our little, one bedroom apartment, on campus, to share the dinner my wife had prepared for us. Afterward, he complimented her as though she was the chief in five-star restaurant!”
In Concord’s Sunday worship services, Taylor, in his robe and red stole, projected quiet dignity and towering, spiritual strength. Thousands of members and visitors sat in hushed silence, straining to hear his messages.
Riding the wave of the Hymn of Meditation, Taylor would rise, without haste, from his chair on the pulpit. As the choir eased toward the end of a favorite, “Jesus Keep Me Near The Cross,” he would release a deep breath. Then, approaching the lectern, be would begin. Starting slow, then “striking fire”, he soared at the peak of sermonic power for 20 to 25 minutes and was then ready to “come home”.
After a gentle tug on the cord to turn off the lectern’s soft, white light, he walked down the steps to give his call to discipleship. “God is calling you, tenderly calling you, why wait? Come and bask in the peace, joy and sunshine of His love!”