Gardner C. Taylor, known as “the dean of American preaching” and a close friend and confidant to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., died Sunday. He was 96.
His death was confirmed by Carroll Baltimore, a past president of the Progressive National Baptist Convention, who said Taylor was a significant figure in the civil rights movement and had a major impact on seminary students.
“He was such a legendary figure for us,” Baltimore said. “We refer to him as the ‘prince of preachers.’ His influence is felt in pulpits.”
Born in Baton Rouge, Taylor was the grandson of former slaves and grew up in the segregated South. Across the racial spectrum, Taylor was considered an important preacher, said Derrick Harkins, senior pastor at Nineteenth Street Baptist Church in Washington.
“He was spellbinding in terms of his ability to bring a text to life,” said Harkins, who will become a senior vice president at Union Seminary in June. “I doubt you can find anybody who would be able to say anything but that Dr. Taylor was absolutely exceptional as a preacher.”
Southern Baptist leader also Russell Moore noted his death:
Taylor served as pastor of the Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn for 42 years before he retired in 1990. He helped to found the Progressive National Baptist Convention with King, providing an important base of support for King’s civil rights work.
“He moved easily among white Christians at a time when it was unusual for a black American to do so,” Rachel Zoll wrote in 2007 for the AP. He prodded white churchgoers, using his eloquence and deep knowledge of Scripture, to live up to their avowed religious beliefs and fight racism.”
Taylor preached the pre-inauguration sermon in January 1993 for President Bill Clinton at Metropolitan A.M.E. Church in Washington. Clinton awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom on Aug. 9, 2000.
Baylor University named Taylor among the dozen most effective preachers in the English-speaking world.
His legacy will include his influence on a younger generation of preachers, Samuel G. Freedman wrote for the New York Times. One of his protégés included the Rev. Suzan Johnson Cook, who formerly served as U.S. ambassador at large for international religious freedom.
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