He is the last pulpit prince. At 96 years old, Gardner C. Taylor has outlived almost all his contemporaries. The closest equivalent is Billy Graham, who (though better known than Taylor) self-identified as an itinerant evangelist.
In Taylor’s heyday as senior pastor of Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn, N.Y. (1948-1990), his name was synonymous with preaching excellence. In fact, in 1996, Baylor University named him one of the 12 “most effective preachers in the English-speaking world.”1
The age of the pulpit princes is gone, but the lessons we can learn from preachers of that era are like treasures on the ocean floor awaiting our discovery. Preachers such as Taylor have much to teach us about the task of preaching.
Taylor’s preaching teaches today’s preachers to elevate three values in particular: apprenticeship, language and gospel-centricity. Certainly much more can be gleaned from Taylor’s preaching such as his Christological focus, his commitment to lifting up the gospel’s relevance to the modern situation, and his insistence on crossing boundaries of racial and ethnic difference. However, this article focuses on these three values, highlighted as lessons we can learn from America’s last living pulpit prince.
Taylor’s preaching is committed to apprenticeship. In I Believe I’ll Testify: The Art of African-American Preaching, Cleophus J. LaRue observes that in many white churches, certification (e.g., an M.Div. or ordination) is the primary marker that determines fitness to preach; in many black churches, the key markers are emulation and demonstration.2 How do aspiring preachers learn to preach? They emulate accomplished preachers and demonstrate their fitness before the congregation through the practice of preaching.
Taylor learned to preach in much the same way LaRue describes. His earliest influence was his father, Washington Taylor (1870-1931), a man with a natural gift for pulpit eloquence. Taylor’s father served as pastor at one of the largest churches in Louisiana, and he was the vice president-at-large of the National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc. According to Timothy George, Taylor’s father’s ministry extended “far beyond the bounds of his local church.”3 Although his relationship with his father was an informal apprenticeship, it was still a close one that left an indelible mark on his life and ministry.
Taylor’s apprenticeship to seasoned preachers expanded when he enrolled at the Oberlin (Ohio) Graduate School of Theology in the fall of 1937. At Oberlin, he spent countless late nights in the library reading homiletics periodicals. These journals contained sermons by nationally known preachers such as Frederick Norwood, George Buttrick and Harry Emerson Fosdick.4
When he arrived at Concord Baptist in New York City in 1948, Taylor apprenticed himself to some of the best-known African-American preachers in the city, people such as Sandy F. Ray and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. He also formed strategic partnerships with some of the best-known white mainline preachers of the day, people such as Paul Scherer, George Buttrick and Ralph Sockman. Taylor was an equal-opportunity apprentice. If the person was a master preacher, he was ready and willing to sit at his feet.
Taylor’s preaching strategy reminds junior preachers who want to grow in the art of preaching that practical wisdom is often caught rather than taught. Learn as much as you can from senior preachers, whether they come from inside or outside of your tradition. To find your voice, read and listen to great preachers from the past, and sit under the tutelage of the current preachers you admire. Apprenticeship begets excellence.
Second, Taylor believed in the value of language as a form of currency. In a 1996 lecture on preaching, Taylor suggests the preacher has two main currencies: “the currency of his own integrity or her own integrity and the integrity of language.” As to the latter, Taylor said, “if you debase the currency [of language], if you start using words wrongly, and the currency isn’t worth much, then you don’t have much to deal with.”5
The sermon for the preacher should be like the sonnet for a poet or the song for the lyricist. Words not only communicate concepts and convey ideas, but under God’s grace and through the Spirit’s enablement, words disclose worlds and unleash power when they are used in the right way at the right time, with the right intentions.
Taylor believed preachers should value language in two ways: grammatical correctness and poetic inspiration. He was old school in believing preachers should speak the King’s English; that is, preach with perfect pronunciation, grammar and syntax. Granted, this conviction is increasingly difficult to maintain in today’s diverse world and, in many ways, marks Taylor as a product of his time. However, his point about poetic inspiration should prompt further reflection.
Taylor cared so much about the sound and sense of language that Michael Eric Dyson once referred to him as the “Poet Laureate of the Pulpit.”6 He believed well-chosen, artful language was indispensible to the task of preaching.7 If language truly is a currency as Taylor suggests, then the onus is on preachers to value it more highly, to cultivate it with care and tenderness. Perhaps preachers should ask: Do we care deeply about words, which words we use and how we use them; or are we reckless with our words?
Finally, Taylor’s preaching teaches us to value gospel-centricity. By gospel-centricity I mean Taylor chose to shift to the background any cultural markers of identity that might prevent the gospel of Jesus Christ from occupying the central place. This does not mean Taylor avoided the significance of cultural identity or ignored the ways that being black in America had shaped him. In fact, Taylor made clear throughout his ministry that he was proud to be black. One of his sermons from the 1960s is titled “The Power of Blackness.”8
Gospel-centricity is about which markers of identity are foregrounded and which are backgrounded. Taylor’s conviction was not that cultural markers were insignificant; it was that they were less significant than we imagine them to be. In one instance, he said: “If the gospel is not able to get us beyond our culture, it is no gospel at all.”9 In another instance, he said, “Our culture is a given; we are all children and products of it. But…culture is not a prison. It does not have to restrict us…to circumscribe us…We are not owned by our culture; it is a secondary identity over which we rank the demands of God.”10
Taylor was the first to say his racial and cultural identity marked and shaped him. In the end, however, he believed they did not have to define him. These markers were like planets orbiting around the gospel of Jesus Christ as the one true Sun.
Herein lies another important lesson from Taylor’s ministry. Yes, preachers are carriers of culture. Yes, a complex web of cultural markers shape them such as race, ethnicity, class, gender, education, region and church tradition. Taylor does not suggest we should hide from, ignore or be embarrassed by these markers.
Rather, his point is more nuanced: Culture shapes us, but does not define us. It marks us, but does not circumscribe us. It is “a secondary identity over which we rank the demands of God.” Christian preachers are called to embrace a stance of gospel-centricity, to background secondary markers and to foreground their Christian identity. Secondary markers are the planets. The gospel is the Sun.
It is hard to believe, but Taylor’s retirement from Concord Baptist in Brooklyn was 24 years ago. He kept preaching nationally and internationally until 2008, which means he retired from itinerant ministry at the age of 90. Now that’s longevity!
In recent interviews, when reflecting on this current phase of his life, Taylor describes it by using the language of waiting: waiting to go home, wading in the water of the Jordan River as he waits his turn to cross to the other side. Taylor knows which way the Sun is facing. He knows his wait soon will be over, and he will join the great company of preachers.
In the meantime, young preachers should learn as much as possible from him. Ascribing value in our preaching to apprenticeship, language as currency, and gospel-centricity are three lessons among many that preachers can glean from Taylor’s preaching. The time may be drawing to an end for America’s last pulpit prince, but the time to learn from him is just beginning.
1 Study conducted by Baylor University. See “Baylor Names the 12 Most Effective Preachers,” Baylor University Media Communications, Feb. 28, 1996.
2 Ibid., 28-30.
3 Timothy George, “Introduction: Honor to Whom Honor Is Due,” in Our Sufficiency Is of God: Essays on Preaching in Honor of Gardner C. Taylor, ed. Timothy George, James Earl Massey, and Robert Smith Jr. (Macon, GA: Mercer University Press, 2010), x.
4 Gardner Calvin Taylor: Oral History Memoir, Interview 1, interview by Joel C. Gregory, Baylor University Institute for Oral History, Jan. 22, 2007, 20.
5 “Great Preachers Remembered,” Gardner C. Taylor, Essential Taylor Audio CD (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2001).
6 Michael Eric Dyson, “Gardner Taylor: Poet Laureate of the Pulpit,” Christian Century 112, no. 1 (Jan. 4, 1995): 12-16.
7 For more on the artful use of language, see LaRue’s chapter, “Why Black Preachers Still Love Artful Language,” in LaRue, I Believe I’ll Testify, 81-98.
8 Gardner C. Taylor, The Words of Gardner Taylor: Special Occasion and Expository Sermons, ed. Edward L. Taylor, vol. 4 (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2004), 16-23.
9 Gardner C. Taylor, The Words of Gardner Taylor: Lectures, Essays, and Interviews, ed. Edward L. Taylor, vol. 5 (Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2004), 53.