Dean of U.S. preachers faces challenges of aging
RALEIGH, N.C. — The Rev. Gardner C. Taylor is giving away most of his books.
He’s gathering copies of all his sermons — about 2,000 of them — for an archive. He has already sent his Presidential Medal of Freedom to an Atlanta school for display there.
“You come to a time,” Taylor said, “when you want to be shedding and unloading.”
At age 89, the African American pastor known as the dean of American preaching is winding down his life’s work. His public appearances are rare now, after decades of traveling the world to speak, and he is struggling with his new limitations.
“Since my health is not what it was and I had to give up engagements, I at first felt rather crestfallen,” Taylor said in a recent interview at his Raleigh home. “I forced myself, or led myself, to believe that there are seasons and eras, and we have to see what they are as best as we can and to find what is positive in them.”
For his many admirers both inside and outside the black community, Taylor is not only a role model, but also a living link to 20th century African American history.
The grandson of slaves, Taylor overcame the segregated South of his childhood to earn a bachelor’s degree at Oberlin College. He moved easily among white Christians at a time when it was unusual for a black American to do so. He prodded white churchgoers, using his eloquence and deep knowledge of Scripture, to live up to their avowed religious beliefs and fight racism.
He was a friend and confidant of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. He helped found the Progressive National Baptist Convention, which gave King a national religious base for his advocacy at a time when several older black Baptist leaders had rejected his tactics.
When Taylor moved north, like so many African Americans of his generation, he turned a New York congregation — the Concord Baptist Church of Christ — into a center of black economic and political empowerment. In 2000, President Clinton awarded him the Medal of Freedom.
With his powerful voice, described by one preaching expert as an organ with all the stops pulled out, he influenced generations of preachers from all backgrounds.
In October, the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, a consortium of predominantly African American seminaries, opened the Gardner C. Taylor Archive and Preaching Laboratory, with audio, video and text of his sermons. Recordings of his preaching are still top-sellers at Concord Baptist, 17 years after Taylor retired as senior pastor.
“This man is equally gifted, if not more so, as a Billy Graham,” said Cleo LaRue, a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary and author of “The Heart of Black Preaching.” But Taylor isn’t nearly as well known as the evangelist, “owing to the fractures of race,” LaRue said.
Taylor uses a cane now, but is still imposing at 6-foot-1. His crown of gray curls is thin, and a weariness has crept into his voice. Yet, when he speaks, even in everyday conversation, the rumble and rhythmic flow that won him so many accolades remains. Richard Lischer, a professor of preaching at Duke Divinity School, said Taylor could win applause just by reading out loud and “deliver it up without making himself the center of attention.”
The pastor and his wife, Phillis, live on a cul de sac in a subdivision of brick homes and two-car garages, where the only sound breaking the quiet on a recent weekday was the cawing of birds. Despite his surroundings, he has been troubled lately by what he calls a “nervousness.”
“The strangest thing about it is it attacks me as the weekend comes, because I was so long at this. I think it’s an occupational hazard,” Taylor said. “Since I’ve had this, I’ve talked to a number of pastors who tell me that they have a restlessness on Saturday. They don’t sleep well, which I knew all of my years.”
Researchers who study his preaching call him a walking thesaurus.
In his interview with the AP, he described the Bible as a “document for the outcast” that “only an oppressed people can more easily grasp.” The segregated South was a “a strange kind of entity.” And the Gospel “has been captured by the culture, so it has become sometimes a pale reflection, sometimes an all too vivid reflection, of what the culture is.”
As a preacher, he often reached back to his childhood in Baton Rouge, La., to underscore the ethical absurdity of segregation to white audiences. He said that when city leaders wanted to kill disease-carrying mosquitoes, they sprayed pesticide almost exclusively in white neighborhoods, stopping at a street that was an unofficial border between the white and black areas. Taylor said it made his uncle laugh.
“He said, ‘What do these people think? They think these mosquitoes will stop at Reddy Street?’” Taylor said. “Over and over again, I had that kind of experience to use.”
The closest Taylor came to having a national platform was when NBC broadcast his sermons on the radio starting in the 1950s. He said many of the listeners had no idea he was African American. One Mississippi woman wrote to him, saying she was the daughter of a Confederate soldier and her maiden name was Taylor and she wondered if they were related.
“I did not send her a picture of myself,” he said, laughing. “But I wrote and told her I doubted it.”
Taylor is working with his doctors to get well enough to preach more often, but likely won’t return to the full schedule of teaching, lecturing and speaking that filled the early years of his retirement. Despite a lifetime of accomplishments, he said he is both “eager and scared” about the prospect of preaching now.
“I haven’t done it in a while,” he said. “I have the fear that I guess all people have of, ‘How competent am I?’ I don’t want, to be honest, to mar the face of what I’ve tried to do or say because I am weaker. I don’t want to do that.”