Breathtaking: The life and times of the Rev. Gardner C. Taylor

Taylor reflects on a lifetime of changes. In a wide-ranging conversation, the legendary 90-year-old preacher also comments on the current state of the church.

Editor's note: The Rev. Gardner C. Taylor died on April 5, 2015.

The view from the Rev. Gardner C. Taylor’s study is breathtaking. Not the scene outside the window -- a suburban landscape of homes much like his own -- but the one you get if you’re lucky enough to sit with him, the vicarious glimpse of what Taylor sees, looking back across his life and out at the world today.

Gardner TaylorGrandparents born into slavery. Jim Crow. The black diaspora from the South to the urban North. The civil rights movement. More than 40 years in one of the premier pulpits in the United States, Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn.

You can see it all, sitting in Taylor’s study.

“It is hard to believe where we have come in my lifetime,” Taylor said. “I think of my father and former slaves that I knew as a child, and I imagine what it would be like for them to see these great changes. I’m not sure they could take it. It’s just so different. It’s not what it ought to be, but it is far different from when I was a lad.”

Taylor -- the legendary “dean of the nation’s black preachers” -- has seen enough that he peppers his words with frequent qualifiers: “On the other hand. . .And yet . . .But then again. . .” Human life and the gospel, he likes to say, are not simple things.

From his home north of Raleigh, N.C., where he has lived since 2006, Taylor sees a troubled church in need of a jolt. He sees too many preachers delivering homiletical fluff that avoids not just the message but even the mention of Jesus.

And yet . . . he sees changes unimaginable and tremendous reason for hope. Even at 90, perhaps especially at 90, Taylor still has the capacity for surprise and wonder.

“Gardner Taylor captures the whole American experience in one lifetime,” said Rick Lischer, professor of homiletics at Duke Divinity School. “He has not only seen enormous change, he was at the forefront of it.”

Reform and setback

Born in Baton Rouge, La., in 1918, Taylor grew up during the Jim Crow era. His father, Washington Monroe Taylor, also a minister, was born in 1870, only five years after the Civil War. It was an era when, as the elder Taylor described it, “you could almost hear the echo of hounds baying on the trail of runaway slaves.” Driving once a month to a small, rural church he pastored in addition to his congregation in Baton Rouge, Taylor’s father would pass through the rich farmland of Louisiana State University’s agricultural college and notice its solid barns and well-tended cattle.

“He’d say to himself, ‘They have better quarters for their livestock than they have for our people,’” Taylor said. “But he and others always said, ‘There’s a better day coming.’ I know they didn’t see any signs of it, but they believed.”

No wonder Taylor marvels at the election of President Barack Obama. In the long arc of his life, few events have surprised or delighted him more.

“It is really beyond belief,” he said in December, midway between President Obama’s election and inauguration. “A peculiar combination of circumstances came together, and out of my faith, I distinctly see the hand of God in all this.”

But then again . . . Taylor’s joy is tempered by nine decades of life. However much he celebrates Obama’s election -- and he does -- he does not attach “undue significance to it.”

“I’m enthusiastic, heaven knows I am, about Mr. Obama’s election,” he said. “I’m amazed and moved, but something in me says do not look for this to be the New Jerusalem.”

That isn’t the voice of cynicism or world weariness talking. Instead, Taylor explained, it is simply a matter-of-fact perspective grounded in experience. It’s a knowledge that comes from a lifetime of seeing progress and setbacks, periods of reform and relapse, both in the world and in the church.

It’s all part of a cosmic scheme much bigger than presidential politics, Taylor said. We all live with this tension whether we know it or not. We need to work toward constructing a perfect society, establishing the kingdom of God on earth, when in fact we cannot and never will succeed.

“It’s what people are up against, and I’ve been up against it all the years of my life,” he said. “We’re up against believing we can do it here, that we can construct a perfect society. And we can’t stop believing that. We have to believe that, but we cannot do it permanently here.”

Throughout its history, from the very beginning, the church has been caught in this cycle of reform and setback, Taylor said. Today, American Christianity is at one of those moments of low ebb, he said.

“The white expression of the Christian church in America is co-opted to the state,” Taylor said. “The black expression of the faith in so many instances is co-opted to this new prosperity gospel on one side or else is living back in the civil rights days on the other side.”

Both are out of kilter, he said.

“I hope I’m wrong, but sometimes it takes something apocalyptic, cataclysmic to get the church to be the church in relation to society,” Taylor said. “It can’t be a mild shock, either. It will have to be something that almost threatens its very being.”

But then again . . . the same cycle will begin anew, periods of reform and setbacks. “And so it goes, on and on, back and forth, back and forth.”

Contemporary preaching: What’s missing is Jesus

Only 30 when he was called to Concord Baptist, Taylor served 42 years as senior pastor before retiring in 1990. Only five years later, his wife of 54 years, Laura, died after being hit by a truck on the street outside the church. After later remarrying, he and his second wife, Phillis, a Brooklyn native, moved to Raleigh in 2006 to be near her sister.

Since moving to Raleigh, Taylor has stayed busy. He counsels young preachers across the nation, reads and follows events with interest and writes articles on preaching. As always, he also reads sermons, both from pastors today and from the past. It’s a habit he developed long ago, while in divinity school at Oberlin.

The label, “dean of the nation’s black preachers,” was used to describe Taylor in a 1979 Time magazine article on preaching and has since appeared in virtually every article about him.

The title is, if anything, an understatement, Lischer said. Taylor is the dean not only of African-American preaching but of all preaching in the United States. Taylor -- who now preaches only on rare occasions -- brings to the pulpit immense rhetorical ability, devotion to Scripture and a rich history of pastoral experience, he said.

“The thing about him as a preacher is that he is able to keep his feet on the ground, relating to the struggles for dignity and equality,” Lischer said. “But he also soars in the spirit and takes his congregations to new heights. That is not only the work of a prophet but also a poet. And he is both.”

Obviously, only a handful of preachers are or ever were in Taylor’s league in the pulpit. Fortunately for them, he does not necessarily expect them to be. Yet, even so, he still has a dim view of the state of contemporary preaching.

Many sermons today are mere “candy,” Taylor said, sugary homiletical goodies that pastors hand out and congregations love. It’s sweet stuff, Taylor said, but has no nourishment.

“People like candy,” he said. “You can feed a child candy every day and the child will enjoy it. But eventually, you’ll have a child with no teeth.”

What primarily is missing in preaching today is the person of Jesus, he said. Though the gospel is ultimately a gospel of success, it’s a different kind of success than the success the world wants to hear about. It’s a success that comes by way of the cross, Taylor said.

“There is a cross at the center of the whole thing,” he said. “We are a wonderful resurrection people but not crucifixion folks.”

To Taylor, much preaching in the U.S. is shifting from Trinitarianism to what Taylor calls “Binitarianism,” where the person of Jesus essentially disappears.

Even in parts of the country where Jesus still is emphasized, particularly the South, it always has been in a sacramental sense but never as the basis for a civic or social critique, Taylor said. That would require a denunciation of culture.

“The Jesus person, the full sweep of his life, is almost completely ignored,” Taylor said. “Because it’s awkward. It’s not convenient. It’s not helpful. It isn’t smooth. It isn’t nice.”

‘We cannot do it ourselves’

Taylor lives day-to-day with an awareness of his own mortality. When a young pastor friend called in early December to ask if Taylor planned to attend the Obama inauguration, he replied that he wasn’t really interested. Having preached at the Inaugural Prayer Service for President Bill Clinton in 1993 and having received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2000, Taylor has been to that secular mountaintop before. Rather than going to an inauguration, Taylor told the man, he is instead on his way to a coronation -- his own.

“I really am more interested in that now,” Taylor said. “I know that, my God, I am 90 years old now. There is no use my looking too much to here, because my occupancy is running out.”

So what, then, is his hope? Same as it ever was, Taylor said: In God and his grace.

“We cannot and will not do it ourselves,” he said. “Our only hope is that the grace of God will see us through.”

But then again . . . grace is a hard sell for modern people, including Taylor.

“I want to believe it,” he said. “And yet I want to believe in success. I am caught in the dichotomy.

“The gospel is not a simple, easy way of life. It just isn’t.”