As we celebrate Black History Month, I am intrigued by the number of African American Baptists who have made major impacts and contributions in the history of the Baptist Church. The local church for decades has been the foundational glue that has held blacks together. Through Reconstruction, Jim Crowism, The Civil Rights Movement, The Voting Rights Act, The March from Selma, Oppression, Suppression, Black Codes and the 13th Amendment, the local church has been the cornerstone and hope for the black race. Though we suffered and struggled we have always turned to the Sovereign Savior.
There has always been a unique sound through song and melody in the African American culture. The soothing sound of songs brought healing to the souls of black men and women as well as to those that would hear it. Even to this day, it is almost impossible to attend a black church without having a soul stirring experience that grips your heart and forces you to clap your hands or tap your foot. Songs brought us through slavery as the sun beat upon us in cotton fields and even served as a communication technique “codes” among slaves, that slave owners could not understand or articulate.
When I think of African American Gospel artists the first voice that comes to mind is the legendary Mahalia Jackson. For over 40 years Mahalia was the most popular and prolific Gospel singer in the world. (Source: African American Christian Heritage, Marvin A. McMickle). Mahalia began to sing at the age of five in the choir at Mount Moriah Baptist Church of New Orleans. Mahalia is known for many songs such as “How I Got Over,” “Amazing Grace,” “Trouble of the World,” and my personal favorite “Precious Lord.”
Another great voice that has arrested the attention of the world is the legendary “Queen of Soul” Aretha Franklin. Aretha would sing and direct at her father’s church. The late Rev. C.L. Franklin was pastor of the New Bethel Baptist Church in Detroit. She won a Grammy for her album Amazing Grace and another Grammy in 1985 for the song “One Lord, One Faith, One Baptism.” Aretha is the author and artist who gave us the familiar song that is still played across airways and television “Respect.” Since the beginning, black artists and musicians have always had a message in their music.
The art of black preaching in the local church has made an ineffable mark in the Baptist arena. The rhetoric of black preaching gives information biblically, transformation spiritually and inspiration emotionally.
When discussing generals and pillars of black preaching, one must talk about the legendary Dr. Gardner C. Taylor. He was pastor of the Concord Baptist Church of Christ in Brooklyn, New York. Dr. Taylor was known as “The Dean of American Preaching.” He was admired for his eloquence and understanding of the Christian faith and theology. Dr. Taylor experienced his call to ministry after a serious car accident that claimed the lives of two people. Following that traumatic turning point in his life, Dr. Taylor then abandoned his plans to become a lawyer and went to the Oberlin School of Theology. At the age of 30, he took the mantle at the Concord Baptist Church and grew it from 5,000 in attendance to over 14,000 members. Dr. Taylor built a fully-accredited grade school along with a million-dollar endowment for investing in the City of Brooklyn. He taught at prominent divinity schools including Yale and Harvard. He was a close friend and mentor to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and played a prominent role in the religious leadership of the Civil Rights Movement. He also authored many books including We Have This Ministry, Scarlet Thread, and How Shall They Preach. He received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton in 2000. Gardner C. Taylor has left a mark in the Baptist world that will last a lifetime. He was truly the Prince of the Pulpit.
One of the most revered pastors in the African American community of clergy is none other than Dr. Caesar Clark. If any one preacher could be called the modern preserver and practitioner of the African American tradition of preaching that dates back to the slave era, it would be Pastor Caesar Clark. His rhythmic and melodic intonations, his use of repetition and alliteration, and his manner of building his sermons from a slow beginning to a fast-paced and dynamic conclusion puts him in a league of exceptional black Baptist preachers. He pastored the Israelite Baptist Church of Longstreet, Louisiana, at the age of 19 and graduated from Bishop College in Marshal, Texas, in 1946. In 1950, Dr. Clark was called to the Good Street Baptist Church of Dallas. What impresses me the most about the late Dr. Clark is the fact that he averaged 30 weeks of revivals for more than 40 years! Dr. Clark was also the editor of the National Baptist Convention USA, Inc. journal, The National Baptist Voice. Even today, young black preachers and pastors listen to his sermons for both information and inspiration.
As a people we have endured struggle and injustice for over 400 years but, the good news is that God has raised up anointed people of God known and unknown. Our history of struggle has made us who we are today. The struggle has made us stronger and given us songs and sermons from the saints and servants of God that will continue to change the world with the gospel of Jesus Christ. As Joseph said to his brothers in Genesis 50:20, “What you meant for evil, God meant for good, in order to save many people alive.” We thank God for the struggle that made us engage a Sovereign Savior.
Oza Jones is the director of African American Ministries at Texas Baptists.