To celebrate the life of Dr. Gardner C. Taylor, who died on April 5, American Baptist Home Mission Societies republishes the following excerpt from a face-to-face interview conducted at his home in Raleigh, N.C., in 2008, shortly before his 90th birthday. A modest man, Taylor was one of the 20th century’s most celebrated preachers, having touched the lives of so many individuals during a half-century in ministry. He received the Judson Press Ministry Award in 2011.
For 42 years, Dr. Gardner Calvin Taylor served as senior pastor at the 14,000-member Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn, N.Y., one of the largest American Baptist churches in the United States when he retired in 1990. Concord gained a deserved reputation for its social activism and community outreach under the leadership of this faithful servant of God.
Looking back over countless accolades and professional honors received throughout his life—the Presidential Medal of Freedom notwithstanding—Taylor considers “Sunday mornings in the pulpit at Concord” his greatest achievement. His successor and longtime protégée, Dr. Gary V. Simpson, now Concord’s senior pastor, reflects on Taylor’s storied preaching:
“Of all the contributions that Dr. Taylor continues to make to my life and ministry, I am most indebted to the sacred, serious discipline he modeled as preacher in the Concord pulpit. There is no question that the people of this congregation have a uniquely earnest expectation of any preacher—to convey a word of life in a culture that portends death. It is overwhelming to think that his preaching is the high bar of what was normative and usual on Sunday mornings. His voice has unequivocally decreed, ‘There is a Word from the Lord.'”
Although Taylor is distinguished by his eloquence in the pulpit—having preached more than 2,000 sermons—his audiences were not limited to his Concord family. Taylor’s sermons are still studied in schools of divinity throughout the country and abroad, and they continue to be read and listened to by an even wider audience, thanks to several books and recordings published by Judson Press. Today the lifetime sales of those resources approach $750,000. Taylor’s longtime Judson Press publisher and friend, Laura Alden, recalls the generous spirit of this man:
“Judson Press has been privileged to serve as Dr. Taylor’s publisher for these many years. In addition to being a great preacher, pastor and author, Gardner Taylor is a gracious and generous man of God. The Judson Press staff who have worked with him are readers, listeners and absolute fans of Dr. Taylor. We have relationships with all our authors, but this relationship is different—it’s in a special category. We are Baptists, so, of course, we don’t officially have saints. But if we did, Dr. Taylor would be our top candidate. He has been a blessing to all of us.”
Taylor seems comfortable letting others speak about his “legacy.” Perhaps the most important of his “earthly” tributes have come from peers. Certainly, being called “one of the greatest preachers in America” and the “dean of the nation’s black preachers” is no small achievement for a Louisiana-born itinerant preacher’s son and grandson of slaves. It is also notable when pastors like the venerable Dr. J. Alfred Smith Sr., a legend in his own right, pay him homage:
“With gentleness, modesty, wit and some humor, Dr. Taylor continues to mentor me, and many ministers in the generations after me, to work for excellence as servants of the church and as representatives of Jesus Christ.”
Although not initially brought up with American Baptist roots, as he puts it, Taylor “inherited” an American Baptist congregation in Concord, which became God’s launching pad for his great success. Fellow pastor and American Baptist Home Mission Societies [then National Ministries] Executive Director Dr. Aidsand F. Wright-Riggins III recounts Taylor’s contributions to the black church and Protestant tradition:
“I am most appreciative to Dr. Taylor for his role in radicalizing the black church and having a revolutionary impact on mainline Protestantism throughout the 1960s and beyond. His co-founding of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, along with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., is still sending reverberations of racial justice and racial reconciliation across this land. I am proud to have benefited by and learned from his legacy.”
These days Dr. Taylor devotes some of his time to mentoring aspiring seminarians and young preachers and the rest to combing through his exhaustive collection of writings, interviews, speeches and sermons for materials that will become part of his archive.
When asked what scripture passage he would choose for his final sermon, Taylor responded without hesitation in that full-throated, resonant, vibrato that is his trademark: “Now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2).
Read Dr. Taylor’s reflections about the challenges facing American Baptist churches, the church’s responsibility in the face of human suffering, and more.