On Easter Sunday afternoon, the Reverend Gardner Calvin Taylor, age ninety-six, slipped away from this world to a better one, for “a taller town than Rome and an older place than Eden,” as he was wont to refer to heaven. His passing marks the end of an era in the history of the American pulpit. Often called the “dean of black preachers,” in reality Taylor transcended racial, social, and denominational categories. At his death, tributes poured in from all across the spectrum—from President Obama to conservative Southern Baptists. What made Gardner Taylor so great?
Born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana in 1918—the same year Billy Graham was born—Taylor was the son of a Baptist pastor and the grandson of slaves. As a young boy, he would listen to the stories of those who had survived the dark night of human bondage. “You could almost still hear the echo of hounds baying on the trail of runaway slaves,” he recalled. Such stories shaped Taylor’s view of the world and gave him a social conscience that would inform his life’s work.
Aiming at first to be a lawyer—though no African American had ever been admitted to the Louisiana State Bar at that time—Taylor instead turned to the ministry in the wake of an automobile accident in which he was the driver and a white man was killed. Remembering the lynchings he had witnessed and heard about as a youth, Taylor feared for his life. But at the inquest he was exonerated of wrongdoing on the testimony of two other whites. Taylor saw the hand of God in these events and decided to go to Oberlin—a school founded by abolitionists—to study theology.
For forty-two years, from 1948 until his retirement in 1990, Taylor served as pastor of Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn. Under his leadership, the church grew into a congregation of some 14,000 members. In 1952, he invited young Martin Luther King, Jr. to preach at Concord, and over the next sixteen years the two became close friends and collaborators in the Civil Rights movement. Taylor raised funds for King’s efforts in the South and was arrested with him during demonstrations in the 1960s. Richard Lischer has described Taylor’s mentoring influence in this way: “What King and many young preachers besides would have learned from Taylor was the genius for channeling evangelical doctrine and the great stories of the Bible into socially progressive and prophetic utterance.”
Never one to shy away from political involvement, Taylor nonetheless knew the difference between prophetic preaching and political moralizing. “Prophetic preaching arises out of the Scriptures,” he said. “Moralizing is self-generated and arises from social mores or personal predilections.” Taylor preached not only about the Bible but also from the Bible. On occasion he would present to his congregation an entire sermon series focused on a particular passage or book of the Bible, such as his sermons on the Book of Revelation.
When Taylor became too involved in politics, his wife Laura told him that his preaching was getting very thin. On one occasion, he was encouraged to run for Congress but backed away after due consideration, believing that he could make a greater difference in the lives of his people through his ministry of influence as their pastor. Taylor understood his mission not as bringing the Kingdom of God on earth (the utopian goal of nineteenth-century liberalism), but rather as the prophetic task of “making straight in the desert a highway for our God” (Isaiah 40:3; John 1:23).
Near the end of his poem East Coker, T. S. Eliot describes the art of learning how to use words well as “a raid on the inarticulate.” In this view, Gardner Taylor was one of the great pulpit pillagers of all time. He understood that words not only convey meaning; they also embody reality. Through the power of the Spirit, the preacher’s words make present in time things that are separated in space, the realities of judgment and mercy, origins and end, paradise and perdition. For this reason, Taylor said, “words must make definite suggestions, not only in their definition but in their sound. There are words that caress, words that lash and cut, words that lift, and words that have a glow in them.”
Taylor once described preaching as “the sweet torture of Sunday morning.” What was it like to hear a Gardner Taylor sermon in person? Richard John Neuhaus, who served for many years as his pastoral colleague in Brooklyn, would sometimes visit Concord to hear the great proclaimer.
Gardner Taylor begins by picking up the word, such as reconciliation, or communion, or sisterhood. First he just says it, but then you can see him warming up to it. Clearly he loves that word and he is going to do wonderful things for it and to it. He tries just rolling it out of his mouth; then, staccato-like, he bounces it around a bit; then he starts to take it apart, piece by piece, and then put it together in different ways. And pretty soon you have a lot of people engaged in wondering and puzzling with Dr. Taylor, trying to figure out what this word and idea of reconciliation is all about. They walk around the word, looking at it from different angles. Taylor gets on top of it, and looks down, then he lifts up a corner and peeks underneath; you can see this is going to be a difficult word to get to know. He whispers it and then he shouts it; he pats, pinches, and probes it; and then he pronounces himself unsatisfied, and all the people agree. ‘It’s time to look at what the great apostle Paul has to say about this here word reconciliation.’ And all the people agree.
Gardner Taylor preached like this steadily, with a pitch-perfect fusion of passion and eloquence, for more than half a century. James Earl Massey, a younger contemporary and fellow Oberlinian with Taylor, shares with his friend a high view of the preacher’s calling and stewardship. In a letter he wrote to Taylor several years ago, Massey identified the secret of Taylor’s pulpit greatness:
You have shown a gift for prioritizing what matters most in treating a text: respect, trust, centeredness, conciseness, clarity, conviction, and readiness to climax the message with a Christ-honoring call to faith and hope. Your sermons have never seemed to be self-regarding; when you preach, nothing ever seems to say, “Well, here I am!” Avoiding selfish ambition and calculated maneuvers, you have remained faithful in the service of the gospel. While the individual quality of your gifts has been nurtured with care, you have had the wisdom to look beyond those gifts for God’s enabling. Yours has been a voice dedicated to spreading the gospel, helping people know the nurturing challenge and assuring benediction of God’s grace.
In 1993, Gardner Taylor inaugurated the William E. Conger, Jr. Lectures on Biblical Preaching at Beeson Divinity School. He spoke brilliantly on the theme, “The Privileges and Perils of Preaching.” What I remember most was the way he handled a rather impertinent question from a brash young minister. With the ease of an elephant swatting a flea, Taylor could have demolished his questioner, making him look silly. But instead, he responded with pastoral wisdom and gentleness. He left intact the humanity of the young student while leading him to see that in times of crisis the wise minister should speak slowly, never forgetting his or her own struggles in the awful swellings of the Jordan. This, I thought, is why Gardner Taylor belongs among the royalty of the pulpit.
Timothy George is the founding dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and editor, with James Earl Massey and Robert Smith, Jr., of Our Sufficiency Is of God: Essays on Preaching in Honor of Gardner C. Taylor (Mercer University Press, 2010). His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.