Jeremy Taylor

Jeremy Taylor, portrait gallery, 1835

Jeremy Taylor
(15th August, 1613 – 13th August, 1667)
Cleric in the Church of England and author

IF this great ornament of our church did not boast of an exalted lineage, he numbered among his forefathers one at least, the worthy ancestor of such a descendant, Dr. Rowland Taylor, chaplain to Cranmer, and rector of Hadleigh, distinguished among the divines of the Reformation for his abilities, learning, and piety, as well as for the courageous cheerfulness with which he suffered death at the stake
in the reign  of Queen Marc.

Jeremy Taylor was the son of a barber, resident in Trinity parish, Cambridge; and was baptized in Trinity church, August 15, 1613. He was " grounded in grammar and mathematics " by his father, and entered as a sizar at Caius College, August 18, 1626. Of his deportment, his studies, even of the honours and emoluments of his academical life, we have no certain knowledge. It is stated by Dr. Rust, in his Funeral Sermon, that Taylor was elected fellow : but this is at least doubtful, for no record of the fact exists in the registers of the college. He proceeded to the degree of M. A. in 1633; and in the same year, though at the early age of twenty, we find him in orders, and officiating as a divinity lecturer in St. Paul's Cathedral. His talents as a preacher attracted the notice of Archbishop Laud, who sent for him to preach at Lambeth, and approved of his performance, but thought him too young. Taylor begged his Grace's pardon for that fault, and promised that, if he lived, he would mend it. By that prelate's interest he was admitted to the degree of M. A. ad eundem, in University -College, Oxford, October 20, 1635, and shortly after nominated to a fellowship at All Souls College. It was probably through the interest of the same powerful patron that he obtained the rectory of Uppingham in Rutlandshire, tenable with his fellowship, March 23, 1638. The fellowship, however, he vacated by his marriage with Phoebe Langsdale, May 27, 1639, who died in little more than three years, leaving two sons.

Taylor attracted notice at Oxford by his talents as a preacher ; but he does not seem to have commenced, during this period of ease and tranquillity, any of those great works which have rendered him illustrious as one of the most laborious, eloquent, and persuasive of British divines. The only sermon extant which we can distinctly refer to this period, is one preached by command of the Vice-chancellor on the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, 1638. This piece requires notice, because it is connected with a report, circulated both during Taylor's residence at Oxford and afterwards, that he was secretly inclined to Popery. It is even said that he " wished to be confirmed a member of the church of Rome," (Wood, Athenae Oxon.) but was rejected with scorn in consequence of the things advanced against that church in this sermon. Of this whole statement Bishop Heber, in his Life of Taylor,' has expressed his disbelief; and the arguments on which his opinion is founded appear to us satisfactory. Not even during his peaceable abode at Uppingham do Taylor's great works appear to have been projected, as if his amiable, affectionate, and zealous temper had been fully occupied by domestic cares and pleasures, and by the constant though quiet duties of a parish priest. The year 1642, as it witnessed the overthrow of his domestic happiness by his wife's death,' saw also the beginning of those troubles which cast him out of his church preferment, a homeless man. We do not know the date of the sequestration of his living; but as he joined Charles I. at Oxford in the autumn of the year; published in the same year, by the King's command, his treatise Of the sacred Order and Offices of Episcopacy, &c.;' was created D. D. by royal mandate; appointed chaplain to the King, in which capacity he frequently preached at Oxford, and attended the royal army in the wars; it is probable that he was among the first of those who paid the penalty of adhering to the losing cause. Little is known of this portion of Taylor's history. It appears that he quitted the army, and retired into Wales, where he married, became again involved in the troubles of war, and was taken prisoner at Cardigan, Feb. 4, 1644. We do not know the date of his release, or of his marriage to his second wife, Joanna Bridges, a lady possessed of some landed property at Mandinam, near Golden Grove, in the Vale of Towy, in Carmarthenshire, who was commonly said to be a natural daughter of Charles I., born before his marriage. But Heber conjectures that Taylor's marriage was anterior to his imprisonment, and that his wife's estate was amerced in a heavy fine, in consequence of his being found engaged in the royal cause at Cardigan. It is at least certain that until the Restoration he was very poor, and that he supported himself during part of the time by keeping a school.

During this period of public confusion and domestic trouble, Taylor composed an Apology for authorized and set Forms of Liturgy,' published in 1646, and his great work, a Discourse on the Liberty of Prophesying,' published in 1647, " the first attempt on record to conciliate the minds of Christians to the reception of a doctrine which, though now the rule of action professed by all Christian sects, was then, by all sects alike, regarded as a perilous and portentous novelty," As such, it was received with distrust, if not disapprobation, by all parties; and if it was intended to inculcate upon the Episcopalians the propriety of conceding something to the prejudices of their opponents, as well as to procure an alleviation of the oppression exercised on the Episcopal church, we may see in the conduct of the government after the Restoration, that Taylor preached a doctrine for which neither the one nor the other were then ripe. It is the more to his honour that in this important point of Christian charity he had advanced beyond his own party, as well as those by whom his party was then persecuted. But though his views were extended enough to meet with disapprobation from his contemporaries, he gives a greater latitude to the civil power is repressing, error by penal means, than the general practice, at least in Protestant countries, would now grant. " The forbearance which he claims, he claims for those Christians only who unite in the confession of the Apostles' Creed," and he advocates the drawing together of all who will subscribe to that ancient and comprehensive form of belief into one church, forgetting differences which do not involve the fundamental points of Christianity. And he inculcates the " danger and impropriety of driving men into schism by multiplying symbols and subscriptions, and contracting the bounds of communion, and the still greater wickedness of regarding all discrepant opinions as damnable in the life to come, and in the present capital." For a fuller account of this remarkable work, we refer to the Life by Heber, p. 201-218, or still better, to the original.

It was followed at no long interval by the Great Exemplar of Sanctity and Holy Life, described in the Life and Death of Jesus Christ.' This, the first of Taylor's great works which became extensively popular, is almost entirely practical in its tendency, having been composed, as the author tells us, with the intention of drawing men's minds from controverted doctrines, to the vital points on which all men are agreed, but which all men forget so easily. It is not an attempt to connect the relations of the four Evangelists into one complete and chronologically consistent account ; but a " series of devout meditations on the different events recorded in the New Testament, as well as on the more remarkable traditions which have usually been circulated respecting the Divine Author of our religion, his earthly parent, and his followers," set off by that majestic style, that store of illustrations derived from the most recondite and miscellaneous learning, and, above all, that fervent and poetical imagination, by which Taylor is distinguished perhaps above all the prose writers in our language. Such qualities, even without a digested plan and connected strain of argument, which, requiring a more continuous and attentive perusal, would not perhaps have made the book more acceptable or useful to the bulk of readers, ensured for it a favourable reception; and the author followed up the impression which he had produced, at no distant period, by two other treatises of a similar practical tendency, which, from their comparative shortness, are better known than any other of Taylor's works, and probably have been as extensively read as any devotional books in the English language. We speak of the treatises on Holy Living and on Holy Dying.

It has been mentioned that near Mandinam stood Golden Grove, the seat of the Earl of Carbery, a nobleman distinguished by his abilities and zeal in the Royal cause, He proved a constant and sincere friend to Taylor; and the grateful scholar has conferred celebrity upon the name and hospitality of Golden Grove by his Guide to Infant Devotion,' or manual of daily prayers, which are called by the name of that place, in which they, and many other of the author's works, were meditated ; especially his Eniautos, or course of sermons for all the Sundays in the year.

Considerable obscurity hangs over this portion of Taylor's life: but it appears that in the years 1654-5 he was twice imprisoned, in consequence of his advocacy of the fallen causes of Episcopacy and Royalty. At some time in 1654 he formed an acquaintance with Evelyn, which proved profitable and honourable to both parties; for the layman, as is evident from his Memoirs and Diary, highly valued and laid to heart the counsels of the man whom he selected as his " ghostly father," and to whose poverty lie liberally ministered in return out of his own abundance.

We learn from Evelyn's Diary that Taylor was in London in the spring of 1637, and his visits, if not annual, were at least frequent. He made many friends, and among them the Earl of Conway, a noble-man possessed of large estates in the north-east of Ireland, who conceived the desire of securing Taylor's eminent abilities for the service of his own neighbourhood, and obtained for him a lectureship in the small town of Lisburne. Taylor removed his family to Ireland in the summer of 1658. He dwelt near Portmore, his patron's splendid seat on the banks of Lough Neagh; and some of the islands in that noble lake, and in a smaller neighbouring piece of water called Lough Beg, are still recorded, by the traditions of the peasantry, to have been his favourite places of study and retirement. To this abode his letters show him to have been much attached.

In the spring of 1660 Taylor visited London, to superintend in its passage through the press the Rule of Conscience, or Ductor Dubitantium.' This, it appears from the author's letters, was considerably advanced so early as the year 1655. It was the fruit of much time, much diligence, and much prayer ; and that of all his writings concerning the execution of which he seems to have felt most anxiety. In this case, as it often happens, the author seems to have formed an erroneous estimate of the comparative value of his works. Neither on its first appearance, nor in later times, did the Ductor Dubitantium ' become extensively popular.

Its object, which even at the first was counted obsolete, was to supply what the Romish church obtained by the practice of confession, a set of rules by which a scrupulous conscience may be guided in the variety of doubtful points of duty which may occur. The abuses are well known, to which the casuistic subtlety of the Romish doctors gave birth; and it may be doubted whether it were wise to lay one stone towards rebuilding an edifice, which the general diffusion of the Scriptures, a sufficient rule, if rightly studied, to solve all doubts, had rendered unnecessary. The work, in spite of its passages of eloquence and profusion of learning, is too prolix to be a favourite in these latter days, but it is still, says his biographer, (p. ccxciii.) one " which few can read without profit, and none, I think, without entertainment. It resembles in some degree those ancient inlaid cabinets, (such as Evelyn, Boyle, or Wilkins might have bequeathed to their descendants,) whose multifarious contents perplex our choice, and offer to the admiration or curiosity of a more accurate age a vast wilderness of trifles and varieties with no arrangement at all, or an arrangement on obsolete principles, but whose ebony drawers and perfumed recesses contain :specimens of every thing that is precious or uncommon, and many things for which a modern museum might be searched in vain."
Taylor's accidental presence in London at this period, when the hopes of the Royalists were reviving, was probably serviceable to his future fortunes. He obtained by it the opportunity of joining in the Royalist declaration of April 24; and he was among the first to derive benefit from the restoration of that King and that Church, of whose interests he had ever been a most zealous, able, and consistent supporter. He was nominated Bishop of Down and Connor, August 6, 1660, and consecrated in St. Patrick's Cathedral January 27, 1661. In the interval he was appointed Vice-chancellor of the University of Dublin, which during past troubles had been greatly dilapidated and disordered, in respect both of its revenues and discipline. He was the principal instrument in remodelling and completing the statutes, and settling the University in its present form.

In the spring of 1661 Taylor was made a member of the Irish Privy Council, and the small diocese of Dromore, adjacent to Down, was assigned to his charge, " on account," in the words of the writ under the Privy Seal, " of his virtue, wisdom, and industry." This praise was well deserved by his conduct in that difficult time, when those who had displaced the episcopal clergy were apprehensive of being in their turn obliged to give way, and religious differences were embittered by thoughts of temporal welfare. Taylor had to deal chiefly with the wilder and most enthusiastic party, and his advances towards an intercourse of Christian charity were met with scorn and insult. But his exemplary conduct, and persevering gentleness of demeanour, did much to soften at least the laity of his opponents ; for we are told that the nobility and gentry of the three dioceses over which he presided came over, with one exception, to the Bishop's side.
His varied duties can now have left little time for the labour of the pen ; still he published sermons from time to time, and in 1664 completed and published his last great work, a Dissuasive from Popery,' undertaken by desire of the collective body of Irish bishops. He continued after his elevation to reside principally at Portmore, occasionally at Lisburne. Of his habits, and the incidents of this latter part of his life, we know next to nothing ; except that he suffered the severest affliction which could befal a man of his sensibility and piety, in the successive deaths of his three surviving sons, and the misconduct of two of them. One died at Lisburne, in March, 1661; one fell in a duel, his adversary also dying of his wounds ; the third became the favourite companion of the profligate Duke of Buckingham, and died of a decline, August 2, 1667. Of the latter event the Bishop can scarcely have heard, for he died on the 13th of the same month, after ten days' sickness. He was buried at Dromore. Two of his daughters married in Ireland, into the families of Marsh and Harrison ; and several Irish families of repute claim to be connected with the blood of this exemplary prelate by the female line.

The materials for Bishop Taylor's life are very scanty. The earliest sketch of it is to be found in the funeral sermon preached by his friend and successor in the see of Dromore, Dr. Rust, who sums up the virtues of the deceased in a peroration of highly-wrought panegyric, of which the following just eulogy is a part—" He was a person of great humility ; and notwithstanding his stupendous parts, and learning, and eminency of place, he had nothing in him of pride and humour, but was courteous and affable, and of easy access, and would lend a ready ear to the complaints, yea, to the impertinence of the meanest persons. His humility was coupled with an extraordinary piety ; and I believe he spent the greatest part of his time in heaven. . . . . To all his other virtues he added a large and diffusive charity ; and whoever compares his plentiful income with the inconsiderable estate he left at his death, will be easily convinced that charity was steward for a great proportion of his revenue. But the hungry that he fed, and the naked that he clothed, and the distressed that he supplied, and the fatherless that he provided for, the poor children that he put to apprentice, and brought up at school, and maintained at the university, will now sound a trumpet to that charity which he dispensed with his right hand, but would not suffer his left hand to have any knowledge of it.

" To sum up all in a few words, this great prelate had the good humour of a gentleman, the eloquence of an orator, the fancy of a poet, the acuteness of a schoolman, the profoundness of a philosopher, the wisdom of a counsellor, the sagacity of a prophet, the reason of an angel, and the piety of a saint; he had devotion enough for a cloister, learning enough for an university, and wit enough for a college of virtuosi; and had his parts and endowments been parcelled out among his poor clergy that he left behind him, it would perhaps have made one of the best dioceses in the world, But, alas ! Our Father ! our Father ! the horses of our Israel, and the chariot thereof ! ' he is gone, and has carried his mantle and his spirit along with him up to heaven; and the sons of the prophets have lost all their beauty and lustre which they enjoyed only from the reflection of his excellencies, which were bright and radiant enough to cast a glory upon a whole order of men." There is a life of Taylor by Archdeacon Bonney ; and a copious memoir, enriched by a minute analysis of all the more remarkable compositions of our author, is prefixed to Bishop Heber's edition of Taylor's works. From this the materials of the present sketch are taken. Nor can we better conclude than with the eloquent estimate of Taylor's merits, with which the accomplished biographer concludes his work. " It is on devotional and moral subjects that the peculiar character of Taylor's mind is most, and most successfully, developed. To this service he devotes his most glowing language ; to this his aptest illustrations, his thoughts, and his words, at once burst into a flame, when touched by the coals of this altar; and whether he describes the duties, or dangers, or hopes of man, or the mercy, power, and justice of the Most High; whether he exhorts or instructs his brethren, or offers up his supplications in their behalf to the common Father of all, his conceptions and his expressions belong to the loftiest and most sacred description of poetry, of which they only want, what they cannot be said to need, the name and the metrical arrangement.

" It is this distinctive excellence, still more than the other qualifications of learning and logical acuteness, which has placed him, even in that age of gigantic talent, on an eminence superior to any of his immediate contemporaries ; and has seated him, by the almost unanimous estimate of posterity, on the same lofty elevation with Hooker and with Barrow.

" Of such a triumvirate, who shall settle the precedence ? Yet it may, perhaps, be not far from the truth, to observe that Hooker claims the foremost rank in sustained and classic dignity of style, in political and pragmatical wisdom; that to Barrow the praise must be assigned of the closest and clearest views, and of a taste the most controlled and chastened ; but that in imagination, in interest, in that which more properly and exclusively deserves the name of genius, Taylor is to be placed before either. The first awes most, the second convinces most, the third persuades and delights most : and, according to the decision of one whose own rank among the ornaments of English literature yet remains to be determined by posterity (Dr. Parr), Hooker is the object of our reverence, Barrow of our admiration, and Jeremy Taylor of our love."