Dr. Gardner C. Taylor was widely known as the poet laureate of American Protestantism.1 In 1979, he was named by TIME magazine as one of America’s seven greatest Protestant preachers and as dean of the nation’s black preachers in 1980. Across racial and denominational lines, those who came to know or hear Taylor revered him not only as “Dean of Black Preachers” but also “Dean of Preachers.” Whenever people referred to him as the “Dean,” Taylor humbly commented, “You know what they say a dean is, at least of eastern schools? Somebody too smart to be president but not smart enough to teach. So much for being dean.”
Born June 18, 1918, in Baton Rouge, La., the grandson of slaves and the only child of Rev. Washington Monroe Taylor, a Baptist preacher/pastor, and Selina Gesell Taylor, an educator, Taylor grew up in the segregated South. Despite his parents not being highly educated, Taylor said they possessed a natural feel for the essential music of the English language wedded to an intimate and emotional affection for the great transaction of Scripture.2 This eloquence for language was evidenced in Taylor’s preaching ministry as he followed in his father’s footsteps, though it was not his initial desire.
Taylor often told of how his ambition was to become a criminal lawyer, though a devastating experience caused him to change direction. After high school, Taylor received a football scholarship to Leland College. While there, he served as a chauffeur for the president of Leland, Dr. James A. Bacoats, a friend of Taylor’s father who succeeded him as pastor of Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Baton Rouge, La., upon Taylor’s father’s death. Taylor struggled with a call into the gospel ministry during his senior year; he also had received an acceptance to University of Michigan Law School.
Late one spring afternoon, while driving Dr. Bacoats’ car with two white men, another car veered across the highway. Taylor slammed on the brakes and steered the car toward a ditch. One man was dead or dying, Taylor said, blood gushed out of his nostrils, mouth and ears; the other lay groaning on the side of the road. The only witnesses were a white farmer and a Baptist preacher. This was rural Louisiana where lynching black people still occurred. Taylor said God was real again, very real to him during this time. At the inquest, both white men testified that Taylor was not responsible for the fatal accident. This quick brush with death turned Taylor toward consideration of the meaning of life and the ultimate purpose of human existence.
That summer, Taylor acknowledged his call to the gospel ministry. Upon the recommendation of Dr. Bacoats, he enrolled in Oberlin Graduate School of Theology in the fall of 1937. Taylor maximized every opportunity to enhance his preaching skills. In May of 1940, he became the third person of African-American descent to graduate from Oberlin. One year later, he married Laura Bell Scott. They enjoyed 53 years of marriage and raised one daughter together. The marriage tragically ended when Mrs. Taylor was fatally injured after being hit by a truck while crossing a street. God later blessed Taylor with a second marriage to Phillis Strong, a teacher of history for more than 32 years in New York City’s school system.
Taylor served as pastor of four churches. However, during Taylor’s last pastorate at Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn, N.Y, was when his preaching and pastoral ministry flourished and his national profile increased. He arrived at Concord in March 1948 at age 29. Concord held an active membership of approximately 5,000 people. It was a prominent church, but it gained further national notoriety under its young pastor’s leadership.
Taylor’s biggest challenge at Concord began four years after he arrived as the beloved church edifice was destroyed by fire and the church was without a facility for four years. After much sacrifice and sheer determination, in 1965 the members entered their new 2,200-seat sanctuary at the cost of $1,700,000.
Under Taylor’s leadership Concord grew to more than 10,000 members. They expanded their commitment to the community. Taylor led the church deeper into the national struggle for civil rights in the United States. When the National Baptist Convention gave lukewarm support to the civil rights agenda advanced by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Taylor was instrumental in helping found a new national fellowship for Black Baptists—The Progressive National Baptist Convention—of which he eventually became president.
Although an effective pastor, Taylor was a more highly gifted preacher who possessed an indisputable command of the English language. Taylor served as a professor of homiletics at Colgate Rochester Divinity School, Union Theological Seminary, Harvard Divinity School and Shaw Divinity School. He held visiting professor appointments and lectured at hundreds of schools, earning more than 100 honorary doctorates.
In 1976, Taylor was invited to Yale University to deliver the centennial Lyman Beecher Lectures. He published his lectures in his book How Shall They Preach. In 2010, Preaching magazine listed Taylor as one of the nations 25 most influential preachers, “a model of eloquence and passion in preaching,” and recently listed him as one of 30 preachers who most influenced preaching for the past 30 years.
The pulpit preaching and oratory of Gardner C. Taylor enamored those who heard him. His method, style and delivery has been studied, researched and most likely imitated by many. Taylor believed the gospel is a life-and-death matter and that trusting in the grace of God is the fundamental orientation to a life of justice and righteousness. He further believed that preaching goes beyond an account of past-tense events to create within the congregation a present-tense experience of grace.
Taylor argued that the preacher’s job is to point to Christ and to bring attention to the invisible immediacy of God with the people. He believed the secrets of preaching are a deep religious conviction, knowledge of the Bible, and the attempt to express it as well as one is able with words.
There are certain identifiable characteristics in the African-American preaching tradition which sets it apart from other preaching traditions. Two of these characteristics are poetic language and imagery, which Taylor’s preaching embodied. He argued that preachers have no excuse for unnecessarily sloppy language. Words must make definite suggestions, not only in their definition but also in their sound. In a book he coauthored, Taylor wrote:
I urge all preachers to take a single word most seriously. I think that we have seen in preaching in general a sort of de-poeticizing of the language as part of an effort to “dumb down” the content, to make it simple. People don’t want to be dumbed down; they want to be lifted up. In regard, I think that we need to recover a sense of preaching as an art form, one that features grand and piercing language, language that wrestles with and grips the hearer.3
The success of the majority of black preachers in black congregations has been their ability to communicate the biblical narrative with poetic eloquence and imagination. Cicero said that rhetoric is one great art comprised of five lesser arts: invention, arrangement, elocution, memory and delivery. Each one was used in every one of Taylor’s sermons. His sermons were so effectively communicated that a Baylor University survey in Newsweek magazine named Taylor one of the 12 greatest preachers in the English-speaking world.
Taylor eloquently told the biblical story in a manner that caused listeners to slide to the edges of their pews, hanging on his every word. The inflection of his deep baritone voice and vocal quality was clear, distinct, rich and conversational. His use of language and imagery transported listeners’ minds into a text, providing a pictorial scene for their imaginations. His linguistic ability and visualization created for the listener an encounter with God that was genuine and challenging. In African-American homiletics, this is known as incarnational preaching, a phrase popularized by Clyde Fant. It is the preacher communicating the text with poetic eloquence, almost as a living witness of the actual events within the text and communicating these events so richly, vividly and imaginatively that the hearer becomes caught up into the experience.
Taylor’s ability to describe events within a text with eloquence, imagination and poetic vibrancy was a gift. He mastered in combining the prevalent story with the relevant issues of the day. His preaching style was unique because it spoke to the life situations of the listeners. He had the rare capability to identify with an audience, moving its members to levels of mental awareness and spiritual celebration. Unfortunately, this art appears to be less valued and increasingly absent in today’s preaching. What can we learn from the poetic and imaginative preaching style of Gardner Calvin Taylor?
The art of discourse is essential for helping listeners hear and see Jesus, as well as being the conveyance through which listeners see Scripture come alive. Taylor perceived words to be the preacher’s paintbrush. When we preach, we paint, using the beautiful to break the grip of the mundane, ordinary and dreary, infusing the sermon with the power to startle and excite in familiar but also inventive ways. Through words, preachers can bring people to heaven’s door, before the presence of God, and within sight of the heart of Christ.
Preachers must pay greater attention to their words, for in them is life and death. Through our words, we help people either see or not see Jesus in the context. As Taylor would say, it is a tragedy when a text is tortured out of its original meaning and in which an obviously wrong use of it is made. One ought to look at the text in its setting and surroundings. They should walk up and down the street on which a text lives. One need not get lost in atmosphere, but a sense of climate and the right words and usage of imagery will greatly aid a sermon in breathing with life and, therefore, having interest for living people.
Because preaching is an oral event, our words to communicate the gospel must be chosen carefully. The gospel is worthy of the noblest language that the human mind and tongue are capable of comprehending. They must be words given to us by the Holy Spirit. They must not simply impress the listener but empower the listener to better understand and see the text historically and existentially. Our words must be transcendent, lifting the listener’s heart, soul and mind before God.
However, as Taylor once said, the power and pathos of the preacher are to be found not in the volume of voice or those patently contrived tremors of tone preachers sometimes affect, but in passionate avowals which are passionate because they have gotten out of the written word into the preacher’s own heart, have been filtered and colored by the preacher’s own experiences of joy and sorrow, and then presented to and pressed upon the hearts and minds of those who hear.
Taylor retired as pastor of Concord Baptist Church of Christ in 1990 after 42 years and was honored by the congregation with the title of senior pastor emeritus. In the July 2006 Baptist Today cover story, then 88 years of age, Taylor said of his impending demise, I could feel “the spray of the Jordan in my face.” Eight years later, on an Easter afternoon, April 5, 2015, at the age of 96, Taylor crossed Jordan and died after attending an Easter service and luncheon with his wife in Durham, North Carolina.
What can we say about this poet laureate of the pulpit and “Dean of Preachers”? May the words of Gardner Calvin Taylor’s mouth and the meditation of his heart be acceptable in God’s sight, his Lord, his strength and his Redeemer.
1 Michael Eric Dyson, ‘‘Gardner Taylor: Poet Laureate of the Pulpit,’’ in Christian Century 112, no. 1 (Jan. 4, 1995): 12–16.
2 Gardner C. Taylor, How Shall They Preach: The Lyman Beecher Lectures and Five Lenten Sermons (Elgin, IL: Progressive Baptist Publishing House, 1977), 13.
3 G. Avery Lee and Gardner C. Taylor, Perfecting the Pastor’s Art: Wisdom from Avery Lee and Gardner Taylor (Valley Forge: Judson Press, 1995), 43.
Wayne E. Croft Sr. is pastor of the St. Paul’s Baptist Church in West Chester, Pa., and Jeremiah A. Wright Associate Professor of Homiletics and Liturgics at Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia.