The Prince of the Pulpit: Gardner C Taylor
Gardner C Taylor was the only son of a black Baptist preacher. He was born June 18, 1918 and raised in segregated Baton Rouge, Louisiana. A car accident in 1937, in which a man died, catalyzed him to embark on his ministry journey. His initial dream was to go to law school at the University of Michigan to become an attorney but, as Proverbs 16:9 says, “The heart of a man plans his way, but the LORD establishes his steps.” He received his undergraduate degree at Leland College and his formal theological education from Oberlin Graduate School of Theology in 1940, where he earned a divinity degree while simultaneously pastoring a church in a small town in Ohio. After that experience, he took a call to pastor a church in New Orleans for several years, while still serving in his father’s church, before receiving a call to become senior pastor of the second largest Baptist congregation in America at the time, Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn, New York. In Concord’s heyday, it had around 10,000 members. Taylor pastored there for forty-two years before retiring in 1990. There are many attributes that can describe this Prince of the Pulpit or, as Dr. Michael Eric Dyson calls him, “The Poet Laureate of the Pulpit.”
For our purposes, I want to highlight two attributes to introduce you to this man of God. He was a powerful preacher and a Gospel activist.
Gardner C. Taylor stands among the greatest of servants that proclaimed the Word because he did so in an elegant, persuasive, and powerful way that captivated the ears of his listeners. Jared Alcantara noted, “His peers named him the greatest African-American preacher in Ebony magazine in 1984 and again in 1993. In 1996, Baylor University listed him as one of the twelve most effective preachers in the English-speaking world.” There is power in the name of Jesus, there is power in His Scriptures, and there is a divine authority that God gives to shepherds as they feed the sheep the Word of God. If you’ve ever heard someone say, “So-and-So is a dynamic preacher,” the person’s personality, presence, voice, engagement with his audience are likely in view. But there is also a mysterious spiritual reality that is necessary for powerful and dynamic preaching.
The preacher cannot muster this up in themselves. It comes from God Almighty. Taylor preached with this type of conviction and salient force that mesmerized his hearers. His preaching took him all around the globe. He preached in South Africa, Zambia, Malawi, Scotland, Denmark, Australia, China, and Japan. He preached in churches, colleges and universities, conventions, conferences, and even the pre-inauguration sermon in January 1993 for soon-to-be President Bill Clinton.
His Own Clothes Sermon
Of all of his sermons Taylor preached, one that he is known for is titled, “His Own Clothes,” from Mark 15:20. This was preached at the 1982 Hampton University Ministers’ Conference. In this message, he depicted the crucifixion of Jesus in a rare, unique, and vivid way. It was the type of sermon in which you can feel the presence of God as Taylor proclaimed with power and authority. This section of Scripture comes from the passage where the soldiers are mocking Christ before killing Him. Listen to the words from Taylor’s sermon (as quoted in Preaching with Sacred Fire):
They took the mock, regal robe of the soldier’s dress-uniform cloak off and put His own clothes back on Him and led Him out to crucify Him. Thanks be to God, in His own clothes, He died. In His own clothes, He climbed the hill at Golgotha. In His own clothes, He asserted His role as Redeemer. In His own clothes, He declared Himself the Savior of the world. . . . In His own clothes, He paid the price. In His own clothes, He lifted up every valley and brought down every mountain, made the crooked way straight, the rough places plain, pulled down the barrier, opened a highway from earth to bright Glory! Called the prisoner, made the prisoner free, called the Prodigal home, restored the exile to his citizenship. In His own clothes, He fixed it and it’s alright, now! It’s alright, now! It’s alright, now!
The repetition of “His own clothes” engages the listener and paints the picture that Jesus Christ paid the penalty of sin for human beings in His own clothes. What a beautiful reality it is that He sacrificed His own life for us. To get a sense of the power of his preaching, you can listen to snippets of this sermon on audio and hear the boisterous and thunderous voice of Taylor because he was a powerful preacher.
Another quality to admire about Gardner Taylor is that not only did he have a firm grasp on the Gospel message, but that message propelled him to take action in his community and beyond. He understood the biblical truth of proclaiming the gospel and, in light of the gospel, demonstrating the good works that the Lord prepared for him to do. He preached and he loved his neighbor as himself. This is not an either/or choice as many may think. In fact, it is a both/and choice. We are called to proclaim and do good works. We are to preach the Gospel and do justice and mercy. Taylor was a man who did both, by the grace of God. Jared Alcantara writes, “He’s a man known for many things: his leadership during the Civil Rights Era, his advocacy for equal opportunities in education in New York, his community work in Brooklyn, and his commitment to standing and speaking up for the least, the lonely, and the lost.”
During the Civil Rights Movement, he helped to establish the Progressive National Baptist Convention with Dr. King, which provided an essential foundation of support for the civil rights efforts. He was the president of that organization from 1967 to 1969. His action in this effort is a model for many to follow as a Gospel activist.
A key area that he was vocal about and in which he made progress was racism, both individual and systemic. In 1970, he gave his address, “Goals for Social Change” in Tokyo, Japan. Listen to the words of Gardner C Taylor (from The Words of Gardner Taylor), on this important subject:
The rehumanization of human beings is the goal of social change.
Institutions of religion which disallow human beings full dignity and status as a child of God blaspheme their faith and rebuke God for the creation in diversity in which He chose to fashion His sons and daughters.
The person who cooperates in individual or institutional injustice seeks to dehumanize the victim.
The supporter of doctrines of racial superiority builds a fool’s paradise founded upon a lie whose fall must, again and again, leave the bigot angry, frustrated, frightened, and frantic.
In another sermon, when race tensions were at an all-time high in America, he delivered this sentiment, the same words that are on our church building in our parking lot. His larger point in the message was simply this: “The cross is also a symbol of unity in diversity and a catalyst for pursuing justice in the face of injustice.” Taylor was a Gospel activist. He did not just talk about it. His actions exemplified his Gospel activism through the various initiatives that he contributed to in Brooklyn and beyond. He also proclaimed the Gospel messages to all who needed to hear. He was a quintessential role model for followers of Jesus.
In conclusion, what are some ways you can imitate Taylor? You may be thinking, Well I’m not a pastor, so his powerful preaching does not apply to me. Well, you may not be a pastor, but, as a Christian, you are called to make disciples which includes teaching people what God has commanded. You may not hold the official office of pastor, but that does not erase the reality that all Christians are called to preach in some capacity. It may look differently than a typical Sunday morning, but it still can be done with power and conviction.
What are some ways you can be a Gospel activist like Taylor? This will take some prayer and research in your social context. There are many issues that plague our neighborhoods. It could be criminal justice reform, racism, abortion, or education—and the list goes on. I’m sure there are others that you can think of. The idea is that we, too, can be powerful preachers and Gospel activists. That is my challenge: for us to get involved in the fight of bringing peace to a chaotic world. Gardner C. Taylor can teach us much, and being a powerful preacher and Gospel activist are needed for our current cultural climate.
The following pieces were consulted in the writing of this portrait:
- Jared E. Alcántara, Learning from a Legend: What Gardner C. Taylor Can Teach Us about Preaching (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2016). by Jared E. Alcántara (2016).
- Michael Eric Dyson, “Gardner Taylor: Poet Laureate of the Pulpit,” Christian Century, vol. 112, no. 1, 4 Jan. 1995, pp. 12–16.
- Martha Simmons and Frank Thomas, eds., Preaching with Sacred Fire: An Anthology of African American Sermons, 1750 to the Present (New York: W. W. Norton, 2010).
- Gardner C Taylor, The Words of Gardner C Taylor: Special Occasions and Expository Sermons, vol. 4 (King of Prussia, PA: Judson, 2001).
WAYS YOU CAN PRAY:
- Pray for the Lord to continue to raise up faithful leaders to shepherd his church
- Pray for gospel preaching that’s tethered to Jesus and justice
- Pray for people to be inspired by the ministry of Dr. Gardner C. Taylor.