To listen to the Eulogy presented by E. L. Taylor, PhD at Dr. Taylor's funeral you will find it available online here.
There are many people who shape our lives both directly and indirectly as pastors and ministers. My own life has been no exception to this pattern. There have been men up close and far away who have made me who I am today as a minister of the gospel. There are ones we know love, encourage, and model things up close for us and then there are those we do not know which come to us through books, sermons, and the recommendation of others. It is good to have both living and dead mentors; the dead kind are especially helpful. Those who have completed the journey from cradle to eternity have much to teach us through lives well lived and works left for posterity. In this essay, I will share a few things I have learned from a recently deceased preacher. Not long ago I asked several pastor friends who they would suggest I look to for wisdom in the black church tradition in America. In that group text message exchange, many names were mentioned. One name was given almost by all: Gardner C. Taylor.
This essay will be a brief look at his life, ministry, and what I have learned and hope to learn from him in the years ahead. I will first give a very brief biographical sketch and then move into a look at aspects of his theological and ministerial vision. I will conclude with an evaluation of what I have learned, and then share what I think are his main contributions to my life and ministry.
Brief Biographical Sketch
Gardner Calvin Taylor was born June 18, 1918 in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, the son of Baptist minister Washington Monroe Taylor and school teacher Selina Gesell Taylor. Taylor was educated in the segregated public-school system of the early 20th century south. His life was deeply impacted in 1931 when his father died suddenly. At the time, Taylor was a twelve-year-old boy. This left an empty place in his mind and heart and burdened the family deeply. His mother went to work as a public-school teacher to help ends meet, and his aunt Gerty moved in to help the family. Taylor’s keen intellect began to take root after some early struggles in grade school. At the conclusion of his high school career, he graduated valedictorian of his class. He also captained the football team showing his prowess as a scholar-athlete. A sharp mind and strong leadership abilities were on display early in his life. He received degrees from Leland College (1937), an all-black school he attended on a football scholarship. His original desire was to be the first African American attorney to practice law in Louisiana and was even admitted to the law school at the University of Michigan to that end. This noble desire, however, was interrupted by his call to pastoral ministry after a near fatal car accident. After being so shaken by the car accident his calling was clear to move towards preparation for a life of gospel ministry. It would be a school of theology at Oberlin College for Taylor and not Michigan law. He graduated from the Oberlin Graduate School of Theology in 1948. Dr. Taylor considered the car accident, more than anything else, almost a direct summons to the ministry and his life’s work.
Though Oberlin was on the forefront of the antislavery movement and was thought to be quite progressive at the time, Taylor was still only the eighth African American to graduate from the School of Theology. A few important life shaping events happened in during Taylor’s time at Oberlin. First, he met Laura Scott, his first wife of fifty-four years. His wife was, like his mother, a gifted educator and the two faithfully served the Lord together until her untimely death in 1995. Second, it was during his time at the School of Theology that he received his first pastorate upon the call of Bethany Baptist Church in Oberlin.
Taylor would serve two additional churches in Louisiana: Beulah Baptist in New Orleans and Mt. Zion Baptist in Baton Rouge. After these stints, he would receive the call to one of the more influential churches of the time. In 1948, God called him and his wife to The Concord Baptist Church in Brooklyn New York. At the age of 30, Taylor assumed the pastorate of a 5000-member church in the Bedford-Stuyvesant (Bed-Stuy) neighborhood. It would grow to almost three times this size under Taylor’s leadership. Concord Baptist church would go on to establish a nursing home, elementary school, a federal credit union, clothing exchange, low income housing, and a fund for youth and community development under Taylor’s guiding hand.
Taylor went on to be an active player in the Civil rights movement, an adjunct professor at several seminaries and divinity schools as well as a member of the New York City school board where he was an advocated for educational equality. In 1996, he married a second time to Phyllis Strong, a woman he had baptized some fifty years early. She would remain by his side until his passing on April 5th, 2015. Taylor died on an Easter Sunday, a fitting departure date for one whose life was dedicated to preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. Just fifteen years earlier, Taylor was awarded the presidential medal of freedom by President William Jefferson Clinton. This is the highest honor and award which can be bestowed upon an American civilian by his country.
Understanding Taylor's Ministry
To live such a long, varied life and ministry creates numerous sermons, in a plethora of circumstances. There is simply quite a treasure trove of content that Taylor produced. Jared E. Alcantara has undertaken the task of understanding Taylor’s ministry in six major categories: Pain, Redemption, Eloquence, Apprenticeship, Context, and Holiness. These were so helpful to understand Taylor, but I felt compelled to break down his work in my own terms. I will discuss his work in three categories: his balance, his person, and his preaching. I do not consider this an improvement on Alcantara, far from it, but an exercise in my own thinking about Taylor’s life and theological vision.
Taylor, as an African American preacher of the gospel was constantly balancing the needs of the people here and now with the deep concern for personal faith and piety. He cared about both souls and soles. The hearts of men and the cultural ground they walked upon. Many times in church history this balance has been lacking. There can be an extreme focus on personal salvation, heaven, and the life to come with a neglect of justice, mercy and compassion for other human beings. At the same time, there can be such a focus on shaping a just society that the sin, death and hell defeating gospel is relegated as well. Taylor would have us care for both.
His work in the arenas of justice is seen in his work as a pastor serving and influencing the civil rights movement. His support and friendship with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was well known. Dr. Richard Lischer describes his influence on Dr. King by saying:
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.
In comparing the two, Lischer also noted the difference between King and Taylor’s approach. Citing Lischer, Timothy George gives this wonderful description.
King’s prophetic witness burned brightly like a meteor against the night while Taylor’s more theological and exegetical approach was shaped by a ministry of preaching and pastoral care sustained over many decades.
Taylor’s work for racial equality and civil rights was a steady, behind the scenes, gospel influence through his person and pulpit. He insisted that his approach to political and social issues rise from the Scriptures. In a chapter entitled, “The Pastor and Political Realities,” he gives a sharp critique who engage in political posturing but unhinged from true biblical concerns. I will quote him at length:
Today, it seems to be in vogue to do political moralizing and call it "prophetic preaching." Pastors must learn to distinguish between the two. Prophetic preaching rises out of the Scriptures; moralizing is self–generated and arises from social mores or personal predilections. Whatever response the minister makes to the political situation (or any life situation) ought to rise up out of the Scriptures. This is not the same as fastening our own biases and predilections on to Scripture. Unfortunately, many people use the Scriptures as a basis for their moralizing. New Testament scholars distinguish between "eisegesis," reading meaning into a text, and "exegesis” bringing out the meaning in a text. This is a very dangerous thing.
Taylor’s desire to be biblical in his approach allowed him to remain a faithful pastor and influence an America around him that so deeply required a prophetic challenge and change. He cared about educational equality in New York City because he cared about people flourishing, equality, and justice. He cared about the family because he cared about people and their wellbeing. He cared about people because it is the transcultural, always relevant Jesus who saves people; and Taylor thought that people did indeed need to be saved. 
In summary, Taylor maintained this balance between social action and justice with a personal faith and pious devotion to God. He did so because he saw this is as the biblical course of life. The Scriptures demand that we show kindness and mercy to the poor, and justice to the oppressed. These were and are signs of the Kingdom of God and his Christ (See Proverbs 14:31, 17:5; Isaiah 61:1,2; quoted again by Jesus in Luke 4). The Bible also teaches us that all we need, we have in Christ. Taylor thundered this forth as well.
It is rare that a person can relate as well with people from all stations of life yet Gardner C. Taylor was just such a man. Ralph Douglas west described Taylor’s deep and personal interest towards “common people” in the foreword to Alcantara’s volume, Learning from a Legend. Taylor was a man who found favor with presidents, civil rights leaders as well as the people in the pew. This was a testimony to his character as a servant of God and man.
In a chapter entitled “The Pastor’s Commission” in the book We Have this Ministry Taylor has a laser focused honesty about a minister’s own weaknesses and temptations. Quoting Thomas Chalmers, he exhorts ministers to be “more than what we are—to exceed who we are. Then by the grace of God we will be delivered of the gospel to a world that is perishing without it.” His hope was not who he was, but who he might become in Christ. This was his key to character in a world in moral decline all around us. Alcantara liked him to the church father Basil, of whom someone once said, “His words were like thunder because his life was like lightening.”
Alcantara summarizes several warnings Taylor gave to other preachers regarding tendencies which would harm their character and witness. First, he warned against trying to be a “Fancy Dan”, an early 20th century term used to describe “showboating” or “hotdogging” in baseball. We should aim to be selfless, not the main attraction of a show. Second, he warned against a self-righteous disposition for preachers so they would not forget they themselves needed the gospel. Finally, he warned against a scholarship in the pulpit that would cool the heart towards God and sacred truth. Preachers should give great care to their own spiritual lives, walks with Jesus, and study. In doing so, they would deepen their own souls and be able to speak from what Taylor called “the depths.”
Finally, Taylor’s own character was shaped in life by suffering. He suffered the loss of a parent at a young age, saw a car accident turn the direction of his life, walked in the rebuilding of a church ruined by fire, endured and fought against he insidious stain of racism and injustice in America, and buried his first wife after she was literally hit by a bus. Like many preachers before him and many who are yet to come, Taylor’s faith was forged in the trials of pain and suffering. In his own words:
We have found our faith in the keeping power of God in flames and trials. Our faith, which holds, is born in the fire. All of us who have won our winning our faith in the fires, which have swept our lives. Those fires that scorch our inmost souls and sear our noblest dreams can declare that we know no other strength but that strength which is from above.
Character is either compromised or hardened by seasons of difficulty and disappointment. God’s word declares and demonstrates this to be true. The hall of faith in Hebrews 11 lists saint after saint who trusted God in terrible fiery ordeals. Jesus himself went to a bloody cross and he learned obedience through suffering (Hebrews 5:8,9). He was pleased to raise sinners from the dead and save them to the uttermost, provided we also suffer with him. (Romans 8:12-17). Taylor knew that suffering had its place in a believer’s life, but only in light of the eternal hope we have in Christ. Faith holds on in the fire and hope moves us forward towards full and final victory. These great truths made Taylor into man that was both listened to and emulated. He embodied a faith in the fire in his own person.
If he balanced justice and piety and lived a life worthy of the calling he had received, my final point is this. That calling was to preach; and preach he did. His vocational pulpit ministry spanned over four decades. His awards were numerous and he consistently bridged cultures and traditions with his craft. These are but a few of his awards:
- In 1979 he was labeled by Time Magazine as the Dean of Black Preachers.
- In both 1984 and 1993 he was listed as first among the fifteen greatest black preachers in America by Ebony.
- Baylor University named him one of the twelve most effective preachers in the English-speaking world.
Yet he was not simply an orator or public speaker. He was not simply a moralistic preacher working for political ends alone. No, he was an orator of the Scriptures, a prophetic preacher of biblical justice, and a person who preached from the holy text. The Rev. Dr. Ralph Douglas West had this to say of Taylor’s sermons:
The Bible undergirded every sermon, the Bible not in some proof-texting cleverness or decontextualized attempt at mere novelty but the Bible in its robust wholeness echoed in each message. Taylor became a mouthpiece not only for the text but for the Book. To borrow a phrase from Spurgeon, his blood was bibline.
In an essay honoring Taylor, Marvin McMickle argues that the sermon should be a substantive work rooted in the biblical text that sets forth its main point early in the message. Taylor’s messages reflect this counsel.
Furthermore, Taylor’s preaching was centered on Jesus Christ. Yes, he applied the gospel to the narrative of his people and contextualized it for them. The gospel he preached was one that saw the sufficiency of Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection as central. In his sermon, The Sufficiency of Christ, he makes clear that it is Christ alone the Christian needs over and above any religiously motivated things. I will quote him at length as there simply was not a good stopping point in his rhetoric. I would read this out loud if I were you:
Christian people need no substitutes, no supplements, no boosters. Christ is all we need. We need no blessed handkerchiefs, Christ can wipe away all our tears. We need no consecrated rings. Christ is a ring all around us like the walls are roundabout Jerusalem. We need no holy water, Christ is the "living water, thirsty one, stoop down and drink and live." We need no one to bless a gold or silver cross. The Cross of Calvary cleanses us from all unrighteousness, gives us full rights in the family of God.
Christ is all we need. Christian adoration has strained the language, piled meanings into many figures and metaphors to speak of the "allness" of Christ, His sufficiency, our completeness in Him. And so we call him Prophet, Priest and King, Revealer, Representative and Ruler. Christ is all we need, the Captain of our Salvation, the Head of the Church, the Bridegroom at the final marriage, the Judge of all the world, the Firstborn of the dead, the New and Final Adam, the Captain of the Lords host, the Living Bread, a Fountain opened in the house of Israel, Mary's Baby, Calvary's Hero, Death’s Conqueror, the Grave’s Spoiler.
Christ is all we need. He begins with childhood, and says, "Suffer the little children to come unto me." He continues in adulthood and says, "Come on to me, all ye that labor." He follows the wanderer out through the darkness and says, "For the Son of Man is come to seek and to save that which was lost." Christ is all we need. He finds us in our sins and kneels and writes with that wondrous finger and says to us, "Go and sin no more." When we are sick, he comes and says, "Wilt thou be made whole?" And assures us that all "Sickness is not unto death." When we must go down to the slippery shores of death, Christ says, "I will come again and get you. In my Father’s house is a place for you."
Christ is all and more than all the world to His people. Christ is all. All our hope, all our strength, all our light, all our life, all our help. "Christ is all, and in all."
This was Taylor’s preaching: full of biblical quotations, full of Jesus Christ in all his revealed glory, full of passion and delivered with oratory zeal. I only wish I could have listened to the one above!
Taylor was involved in various political causes and movements during his life. He did so in a way that was balanced as a preacher of the Bible, lifting up Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. Both prophetic calls for justice, personal piety, and faith in God flowed out from his work. His life, character, and person were shaped by his faith in Jesus and the fires and trials of this life under the sun. Finally, his compelling call was to preach. Though he could have ventured into politics, he remained a man of the pulpit. As such, his ministry was a person of embodied faith, hope, and love as a leader in his community.
To be quite honest I feel a bit shy to offer any sort of critique of a man so well respected in an essay of this sort. Who am I to say anything about this man to whom I have only recently become introduced? Others I have read in preparation for this paper have offered plenty of kind words and adulation. I have found much difficulty to find anyone with much of anything critical to say. Have I come across a bit of hagiography of a recently deceased 96-year-old saint? Or was he simply a wonderful man. I lean towards the latter after my introductory foray into his life. The strengths are many as I have already noted in my summary of his main theological and ministerial contributions. If there are any weaknesses I have observed they were few. One I noted was his use of the pronouns “he or she” when referring to pastors in his sermons. This would strain my own theological convictions about men being pastors. Second, I am not sure that certain schools of thought would consider many of his sermons to be proper expositional preaching. That said, these are the very people who are in great need to learn a thing or two about preaching from men like Taylor. Finally, there was also a hint that Taylor may not have held to what theologians see as the verbal inspiration of the Bible but that he preached and believed as if it were so. In my study, this was inconclusive and I found his view of the Bible was consistently very high.
Why is Taylor a mentor for me?
There are many reasons I think Taylor and his works are of help to me in my ministry. First, his ministry crossed with both black and white churches in America and influenced the discipline of homiletics in both communities. I have personally been involved in multi-ethnic and transcultural ministry for many years and I am always hungry to learn from others in how to do this well. Most recently I had the joy and privilege of leading a transcultural multi-ethnic church plant in New Jersey where I preached before a diverse congregation from various ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds. My small contribution to help others do the same is found online at Power of Change. Jared E. Alcantara’s detailed study of Taylor’s work in Crossover Preaching, Intercultural-Improvisational Homiletics in Conversation with Gardner C. Taylor is a volume I plan on spending more time with in the days ahead to further help me in cross cultural ministry and service.
The second aspect of Taylor’s ministry I want to glean from is how he preached Christ faithfully for almost six decades, 42 years of which in his home church pulpit. His perseverance in ministry and consistent preaching of Jesus is something I want to learn from. His goal in sermons was to "To bring the people before the presence of God and within sight of the heart of Christ. No sermon can do more. None should want to do less." His goal in preaching was not simply to give people information but to introduce them to the person to whom the Word of God guides us. In his book for pastors, he wrote:
The role of the minister involves more than preaching the gospel as a written record; it includes seeking a relationship with the God about whom the Word has dealt and the Christ toward whom it points. In other words, one is not called just to preach the Word, but to preach what the Word seeks to say.
I can personally grow in this in my own preaching and I look forward to reading more sermons from Taylor for my own edification and grow in preaching Christ.
Finally, I want to learn from an excellent orator from recent history to learn how to speak, well, better. I don’t want to find a surely contentment with my own preaching and speaking. I want to improve. I want to find ways to communicate the Scriptures and the gospel of our risen King Jesus in ways that impact and influence. I wish to see others affected by the work of His Spirit, through the Word. I want to do a better job handling the task of preaching the gospel. Paul Tripp writes of the tragedy of Sunday mediocrity in our time in his book, A Dangerous Calling.
I am very concerned about the acceptance of Sunday morning mediocrity, and I am persuaded that it is not primarily a schedule or laziness problem. I am convinced it is a theological problem...If your heart is in functional awe of the glory of God, then there will be no place in your heart for poorly prepared, badly delivered, functional pastoral mediocrity.
I hope to have Gardner C. Taylor’s works around to help my awe of God and to help me learn to be a better orator who is called to speak the very oracles of the Lord.
As I have grown older and into middle age, my desires in life have grown somewhat simpler. In a time of transition in 2016, I wrote down three things that I want out of the rest of my life.
- I want to know Jesus and remain faithful to the end of my life and be saved.
- I desire deepening friendship with the wife of my youth.
- I want my children to know me in depth and character as a human being including my flaws and virtues.
It was important for me to isolate these from vocation in order to remind me of what really matters. To these I wish to add one more phrase that I happened upon through the title of an essay in honor of Taylor.
- I want to be a “Good Man Speaking Well”
It is true that there are none good but God (Mark 10:18, Luke 18:19). It is also true that we are to become partakers of the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4) and we are being transformed into the image of the Lord (2 Corinthians 3:12-18). When all is said and done I hope that I’ve been changed to be much more like Jesus and I hope that I have learned and practiced speaking well of Him. Yes, even in preaching, loving, and leading well.