Joseph Evans: Gardner C. Taylor and the transcendence of preaching

Gardner C. Taylor. Book cover detail

In his new book, a religion school dean reflects on the gifts that a renowned preacher brought to their craft.

The Rev. Joseph Evans remembers clearly the first time he met the man who would become a mentor to him.

Evans, now the dean of Morehouse School of Religion, was a seminary student when a friend invited him to hear the Rev. Gardner C. Taylor preach at a local church.

“I recall sitting there enraptured by the eloquence and the gift that I would say possessed Gardner Taylor. I’m not sure he possessed it -- I think it possessed him, in reflection,” Evans said. “And for the first time in my life, I knew what my brothers and sisters in the Pentecostal tradition mean by being drunk in the Spirit. I was absolutely drunk in the Spirit.”

In a follow-up conversation with Taylor a few days later, Evans challenged a statement that the noted theologian and preacher had made. Surprised but apparently unoffended, Taylor stayed in touch with the younger man.

“He was very kind to me,” Evans said. “He gave me a lot of time. You know, he was being called 10 times a day by people just like me. But he made time for me, and he gave me confidence in how I was going about the craft of pulpit orator.”

Without that connection, “I don’t think I would have developed into the species of preacher that I’ve worked hard to become,” Evans said.

The Art of EloquenceIn his recently released book, “The Art of Eloquence: The Sacred Rhetoric of Gardner C. Taylor,” Evans writes about his mentor and the style that made Taylor a renowned preacher.

Evans spoke with Faith & Leadership’s Aleta Payne earlier this fall. The following is an edited transcript.

Faith & Leadership: Why a book about the preaching style of the Rev. Gardner Taylor?

Joseph Evans: In 1994, Henry Gates published “Colored People: A Memoir.” I wrote Dr. Gates, first to tell him I had read “Colored People” and how I really enjoyed it. Secondly, I asserted to Dr. Gates I felt that Taylor needed someone to write a book on him and I thought Dr. Gates would be the perfect person to do that, because he is such an exceptional writer.

He wrote me back to thank me for my interest in his writing. And he suggested that I write a book on Gardner Taylor. It felt like my heart had literally leapt up in my chest, because I didn’t think I could write a book on Gardner Taylor, certainly not at that time. Here we are in 2020, so you can add up the years from the first time someone suggested it to me until the time I actually sat down and wrote the book and had it published.

A second reason I wrote the book was that in my Ph.D. training I wrote a dissertation primarily on Dr. Gardner Taylor’s approach to preaching. That was in 2004. I continued to watch in the ensuing years what I felt was a decline in pulpit preparation and oratory.

After leaving an active pastorate to go into the academic world to try to help prepare preachers to do the hard work in the study before coming to the pulpit, over a period of time it was suggested to me again that I might consider writing it. It was at that time I felt, OK, maybe this is my assignment. Maybe this is for me to do. I decided to take what I thought was a narrow aspect of what Dr. Taylor did to prepare for his preaching, and that’s how I came up with “The Art of Eloquence.”

F&L: Could you talk about your formative ongoing relationship with Taylor?

JE: Oh, yes. He would call me at times. Dr. Taylor would call me very late at night, and he had this chair -- every preacher knows of this chair -- it sounded like it needed oil. You could tell when he was going back and forth in it. You could hear it squeaking.

He called more often than not after 11 o’clock. That was before we had caller ID and all that, and as a pastor, I felt that it could be a church member. It wasn’t unusual that someone may call because of an emergency, a hospital run or something like that.

[When] I answered the phone, I heard this familiar baritone voice. He wanted me to tell him about some word that he’d read in the Scriptures. He wanted a fuller understanding of how that word was being used grammatically. I said, “Well, Dr. Taylor, I don’t know right now. I’d have to run downstairs and get my little Greek Bible and lexicon.”

He said to me, “Joseph, what are you doing? That’s your problem, son. You’re sleeping when you should be studying.”

Then he would go on and say, “Now, you go find out for me and you call me back, lad, you hear?” And I’d say, “Yes, sir,” and he’d just hang up the phone and I’d go running down the stairs in the dark trying to hurry up and find out what Dr. Taylor wanted.

That’s a memory that I will cherish, and have cherished, and will continue to cherish for the rest of my life, I’m sure.

F&L: Having that kind of relationship with him would make the pressure in writing this book even more intense.

JE: There are maybe three things I could say to that. No. 1, Dr. Taylor, his preaching, transcended the Black church culture. It was informed by the Black church culture, but his preaching transcended the Black church experience, so people from different Christian traditions felt that he belonged to them as well.

This ability to transcend parochialism meant that he had a broad readership and listenership. I knew that anything that I was going to write would be critiqued. I knew that there would be people who could read what I was to write who may have been able to write something of more quality than I was going to write.

Secondly, it was hard to really discern what he was doing; I knew a lot of people would admit that it was very difficult to fully grasp what Dr. Taylor was doing. Taylor was an intimidating subject who -- only fools would rush in.

Thirdly, I felt, because I had studied preaching for a long time, that a disservice had been done that someone did not write of Taylor. I felt that it was because he came from a minority people.

We can count [few] Black preachers who have been thought of or who have been thought to be on the institutional sphere level of a canon. These are the people we should be studying. I felt that I could sense that an injustice was on its way, because of academic racial bias.

Those reasons really pressed upon me that an effort should be made to canonize the preaching of Gardner Taylor.

F&L: You identify some of the characteristics that make him someone worthy of being canonized. Can you speak to what it was that made him such a fantastic preacher, someone who left you “drunk in the Spirit”?

JE: I had to come to terms with, “The reason you haven’t pressed pen to paper is because you think, ‘Evans, you’re going to write Gardner Taylor in [one] book when Gardner Taylor probably will deserve 10 volumes of books.’” That was intimidating, because I didn’t know how to narrow it down to an aspect of what this once-in-a-lifetime preacher actually accomplished in the pulpit.

Before I ever met Dr. Taylor, when I would hear a preacher, I would reflect upon, “What is it that they are doing? Why does this person seem to be more communicative than another? What underlies their preaching? If so-and-so picks up the Twenty-Third Psalm, why is it that one sermon on the Twenty-Third Psalm -- it’s the same passage of Scripture, same exegetical process -- why is it that this preacher’s sermons are more memorable and have more gravitas and warmth than the other person’s?”

Over time, because of that infatuation with that question, I determined it was because there were preachers who understood the form over the function.

I learned that there were five canons of rhetoric. First, the art of invention: Where does the big idea come from? The second one, the art of arrangement: How do you discover how to expand and arrange that idea? The third one, the art of eloquence, or the art of style: How does one say it, perform it? The fourth one would be the art of memory. The fifth one is the art of delivery.

I discovered that the reason Dr. Taylor was so effective was because his sermons were replete with all five canons, and very few people can do that. That’s when I knew that Taylor had mastered the canons. That puts him in that transcending space, because each of those canons has a psychological effect upon the brain, therefore creating word pictures and boundaries and guideposts so that it will have a direct and intentional effect upon the hearer.

That’s essentially what I focused on in the writing of the book -- on how those canons can be learned, and then from learning them, implemented. It makes our preaching full of substance and artistry that places our preaching above the average effort, or the normal effort, or the common effort, something like that.

Gardner would do that. He would get in the pulpit and he would fiddle with words in the air until he got the right one. It’s just like his mind was clicking, and he was pulling from some kind of teleprompter dictionary. The words would just come down until he would choose just the right word he wanted to fortify that which he was conveying at that particular time.

I learned that from him. I learned how to do that, listening to him. From the apprenticeship or the emulation of his preaching, I found later on that there were academic grounds that reinforced that which I had experienced.

F&L: Why is this exposition on the gifts of Taylor particularly important in this moment?

JE: Let us frame this moment just particularly to, specifically to, pandemic, politics, pandemonium and paranoia. You’ve got four p’s.

In this moment, I’m making this claim: There is not a cadre of preachers who have been able to give the gospel voice to bring clarity to the people the circumstance and situation that we are in -- and with a justice motif attached for how we’re going to come out of it.

If Gardner Taylor was with us now, he could do that. There are others, I think. Samuel DeWitt Proctor could do it. I think that Mordecai Wyatt Johnson could do it. I think Benjamin Elijah Mays could do it. I know Vernon Napoleon Johns could do it. All of whom were pulpiteers. Wyatt Tee Walker could do it. But currently, we do not have a cadre of preachers, in my view, who are either bold enough or capable to preach to this moment a prophetic word. Jeremiah Wright could do it. I think Dr. Marvin McMickle and Dr. Traci Blackmon have made an effort to fill that prophetic void in this moment. But I don’t think we have a preaching cadre.

I’m being careful, because I’m trying to think of one who can stand in this moment, define the moment. And that means defining reality and teaching us, or preaching to us, proclaiming to us God’s presence in this moment, and attaching the justice motif to the moment, and then how we are going to emerge from this time. I want to hear it.

F&L: But you would have heard it from Taylor?

JE: You would have heard it from Dr. Taylor, because Dr. Taylor defined every moment that he preached in. He did it in the 1950s. He did it in the 1960s. He did it in the ’70s. He did it in the ’80s. He did it in the ’90s. And he even did it in the first decade of the 21st century. He framed for us the context in which we live. He was brilliant.