Thursday, April 9, 2015

Remembering Gardner Taylor

Gardner Taylor, long considered the dean of African American preachers, died on Easter Sunday morning, April 5, 2015.  With his passing, many generations of preachers and congregants mourned the loss of a veritable giant in the pulpit, ministry and the academy of preachers.  

At the White House Prayer Breakfast earlier this week, President Barak Obama remembered Taylor, saying:

"Anybody who had the privilege of hearing him speak knows what power he had. He was a civil rights hero. He was a friend of Dr. King, who used his spellbinding sermons to spread the gospel and open people’s hearts and minds. He taught and mentored countless young ministers.  So as we mourn his absence today, we also take solace knowing that he lives a living legacy and that he is in a better place."

The American Baptist Churches/USA and the American Baptist Home Mission Societies joined with other Baptist and ecumenical leaders, giving praise and thanksgiving for Dr. Taylor's rich ministry and faithful life.  To read the ABC/USA responses, visit

A great video clip of Taylor reflecting about his call to preach and his senior years appeared on PBS in 2006:   (Transcript and video available)

As for myself, I had the privilege of hearing Dr. Taylor in the pulpit of The Riverside Church of New York City.  He spoke at a large event full of noted preachers and scholars convened as the 5th Fosdick Convocation (October 23-26, 2006).  Taylor certainly brought the house down while bringing the congregation to their feet.  I had the great pleasure of meeting Dr. Taylor at his book signing, where he autographed copies of his sermons published in a best-selling multi-volume set by Judson Press.

Later on, when I began reading the volume I had autographed by Dr. Taylor, I was stunned at one particular story he shared of the difficult days he spent with the family of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Sr. In late June 1974, the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta was in the midst of worship when gunshots rang out. A gunman aimed for King, yet it was Mrs. King, the church organist, who was killed in the gunfire.

As Gardner Taylor and other colleagues came from around the nation to support the King family, Taylor recalls the way the Ebenezer Church members pulled together with its singing hymns of faith, led by the choir who had been in the midst of the tragedy just a few days before. The church resonated with hymns of faith, sung in full knowledge of their loss, yet giving testimony to the beliefs that helped them make sense out of yet another tragedy in their congregation’s life.

That same week, Taylor was a visitor to the King family home. He recalls:

Midst the tall Georgia pines, in the King family home, touched with the strange stillness of death, I sat with Martin Luther King, Sr., on Tuesday evening. He bit his lips and said, “They killed Martin, [my other son] A.D. is dead, and now they’ve killed Bunch [his wife’s nickname]. “ He stopped awhile. Then he said, clutching my hand, “A.D.’s third son came to me the other day, and he said he is going to preach [or, that is called to ministry].” Then he looked at me and said, “They won’t be able to kill us off.”

(From Gardner Taylor, Fifty Years of Timeless Treasures, Words of Gardner Taylor, vol. VI, Valley Forge, PA: Judson Press, 2002).


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