“There is a power growing out of our experience of Blackness in this land,” the Rev. Dr. Gardner Calvin Taylor wrote in 1968 at the seventh Session of the Progressive National Baptist Convention. A vital portion of that power existed in Taylor’s unwavering spirituality and political commitment. Those elements are now at rest. The good reverend joined the ancestors after attending Easter services at Mount Vernon Baptist Church in Durham, N.C. He died of an apparent heart attack at the Duke University Medical Center. He was 96.
Many New Yorkers, especially in Brooklyn, remember Taylor’s long tenure at the Concord Baptist Church of Christ, where his stirring sermons were composed of deeply rooted scriptural messages and ballasted by intelligent and commanding knowledge of the current conditions of Black America.
His biblical prowess matched his devotion to the welfare of his constituents, both near and far. During his more than 70 years on the pulpit, he traveled all over the world, spreading the gospel, a gospel imbued with Christian duty and social progress.
Born June 18, 1918, in Baton Rouge, La., Taylor was the descendant of freed slaves and his father was a Baptist preacher. He was 13 when his father died. His mother and aunt raised him.
Like so many ambitious young Black boys, Taylor wanted to be a lawyer, but when told that it was a useless and impractical pursuit in a town saturated with racism and discrimination, he turned his focus toward the ministry. He attended Oberlin College in Ohio and earned his divinity degree there in 1940.
Taylor, who married Laura Bell Scott in 1941 (she died in 1995), was still a student at Oberlin when he became pastor of Bethany Baptist Church in nearby Elyria, Ohio. After a three-year tenure, he returned to his native state and served as pastor of Beulah Baptist Church in New Orleans until 1943. Four years later, he was the minister at his father’s former church, Mount Zion Baptist in Baton Rouge.
His next and final pulpit stop was at Concord, where he arrived in 1948, just in time to lead a church with 8,000 members, the second largest Baptist congregation in the country, as senior pastor. A church with a tradition that began more than a decade before the outbreak of the Civil War, Concord was a perfect fit for Taylor. And that fit would last for 42 years, enduring financial challenges and a fire that totally demolished the building in 1952. But three years later, thanks to Taylor tireless and resourceful leadership, a new church was built.
Taylor’s eminence grew with each roaring sermon. So much so that by 1958, Mayor Robert F. Wagner named him to the New York City Board of Education. This post gave him the platform he needed to push for educational reform and an end to segregation in the school system.
His national prominence kept pace with his growing influence in church affairs, which, as the Civil Rights Movement gained traction, put him in direct contact with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Theirs would be a formidable tandem by 1961, when they were among the founders of the Progressive National Baptist Convention. They were no longer content to abide by the lack of social activism and political commitment of the National Baptist Convention, particularly its reluctance to become engaged in the fight for civil rights and social justice. Taylor would head the organization from 1967 to 1969.
During this time, the Black Theology movement emerged, and Taylor and King were firmly ensconced among the cadre of militant ministers who began to voice their displeasure with a number of governmental policies, including the war in Vietnam.
Taylor was arrested several times for his involvement in civil rights rallies and demonstrations. Even so, his tendency was to lead from behind, to use the podium at his church to announce his opposition to racial injustice.
Because of this calm but determined resolve, he was appointed to several civic organizations and leadership positions. At one time he was a director of the Urban League of Greater New York and a leader of the Kings County Democratic organization.
“For over 40 years, Reverend Gardner Taylor uplifted the Bed-Stuy community with his spiritual guidance and commitment to justice,” Public Advocate Letitia James said in an email. “As one of the foremost civil rights leaders, not just in New York but across the nation, Rev. Taylor was instrumental in ending segregation and creating opportunity for communities of color. Our thoughts and prayers are with his loved ones during this difficult time.”
Rev. Herbert Daughtry told the Amsterdam News, “Rev. Taylor was a prince of preachers, a superlative administrator, a sagacious organizer, an astute politician and a wise businessman. He was a passionate fighter for justice, indeed, a father of the Civil Rights Movement. But, most of all, he was a man who loved the Lord Jesus Christ, his family, and his people.”
When David Dinkins began his quest to become New York City’s first African-American mayor, Taylor was among the first to endorse his candidacy and stood with him throughout the campaign to victory.
Taylor was victorious on other fronts as well. He was an unyielding opponent of the brutal system of apartheid in South Africa and often spoke out against what he perceived as injustices across the African continent.
His sermons have been collected in numerous books, many of them under his name, and he was the recipient of 15 honorary doctorates. Among his colleagues, he was deemed a peerless preacher, a recognition that was often certified by church groups and other religious institutions.
“His life’s work has been a sermon as well,” former President Bill Clinton said of him upon presenting him with the Medal of Freedom in 2000, “teaching that none live in dignity when they are oppressed, and that faith can transcend racial, social and economic boundaries.”
To complete the phrase voiced by Taylor in 1968: “There is much that is wrong, distorted, disfigured, crippled about us, but there are gifts and powers in the very limp which is our history here.” Taylor was one of those gifts.
Besides his wife, Phillis, who he married in 1996, Taylor is survived by his daughter, Martha Taylor LaCroix, and a step-grandson, Marcus LaCroix.