Gardner Taylor Still a Preaching Exemplar

Article excerpt

He's 88 years old and technically retired. But Gardner C. Taylor still shows the preaching skills that have placed him on virtually every list of America's greatest contemporary preachers.

As a guest preacher in pulpits across the nation, Taylor continues to charm--and enlighten--worshipers as he has for more than six decades. But he says preaching is always a tenuous endeavor. "It is quickly lost," he told the PBS program Religion & Ethics NewsWeekly. "It's uttered, heard and sometimes lost. But it is the mystery of preaching that it survives, and that it has survived so much of our bad preaching."

By most accounts, very little bad preaching can be traced to Taylor, who moved to Raleigh, North Carolina, after retirement.

"He almost single-handedly has elevated and made visible great preaching," said Richard Lischer, who teaches preaching at Duke Divinity School in Durham. In addition, Lischer said, Taylor "is one of the first [African-American preachers] whose influence crossed over into the realm of white homiletics and white preaching."

Taylor was born in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, in 1918. He said that while he was growing up, he didn't want to follow in his minister-father's footsteps. "I wanted to be a lawyer, but no person of color had been admitted to the Louisiana bar, ever. And when I told an old family friend ... that I wanted to be a lawyer, he said, 'Where you gonna practice, the middle of the Mississippi River?'" Taylor recounted.

Taylor went to Oberlin College's School of Theology in Ohio, where he discovered he had his father's gift for speaking. "Both of my grandparents were slaves, and neither could read nor write," he said. "But somehow he [his father] had this feeling for the melody of the English language, and I inherited it."

In 1948, Taylor and his wife, Laura, moved to Brooklyn, where he was pastor of Concord Baptist Church of Christ for the next 42 years until his retirement in 1990. His eloquence led to national prominence.

"He manages to keep an enormous range of rhetorical skill under tight, disciplined control, so that when you're listening to a Gardner Taylor sermon, you feel like something is about to break out, or explode," Lischer said. …