“The John Taylor Family,” Ensign, Feb. 1980, 50–51
Frank Young Taylor, father of a large family, felt a particular urgency to bring families closer together. As president of Salt Lake City’s Granite Stake, over which he presided for twenty-eight years (1900–28), he believed that parents should be more involved with their children and preached it from the pulpit for years. At the same time, under his innovative leadership, committees of high councilors and other stake members were assessing local needs and recommending action; Granite pioneered the seminary program for high school students, stake missionary work, and systematic stake supervision of temple work.
He brought some of that same system to family closeness. In 1909, he took his concerns about his stake’s families to the Lord and felt inspired to set aside one night a week for “home worship,” a night free from church meetings. A stake committee headed by high councilor Edward H. Anderson, editor of the Improvement Era magazine, prepared a booklet suggesting a format that included prayer, singing and instrumental music, scripture reading and gospel instruction, discussion of family business, an activity, and, of course, refreshments.
The program was launched that same year at the second largest meeting held in the Granite Stake Tabernacle to date—2,164 enthusiastic people, most of them parents, attended. The president of the Church himself, Joseph F. Smith, addressed the people and heartily endorsed the program: “The inspiration that has come to President Taylor … is of the greatest importance to the Latter-day Saints.”1
For the remaining nineteen years of his presidency, Frank Taylor actively encouraged this “home evening,” first on Tuesdays, then on Mondays. Adopted church-wide in 1915, it fell into general disuse for a time but was revived by the Primary and then by the priesthood correlation program of the 1960s. Now, of course, it has become a key to the strength of Latter-day Saint families throughout the world—in a very real sense, a legacy of the Taylor family to the rest of the Church.
Frank Taylor was the son of John Taylor, third president of the Church, and Margaret Young Taylor. He was one of the thirty-four Taylor children—active, interested, interesting, and anxious to serve others both in the community and throughout the Church. We see a revealing glimpse of their home in the reminiscences of Matthias F. Cowley, a neighbor and close friend of the family who grew up best friends with John W., one of President John Taylor’s sons. Later, both of them would serve on the Council of the Twelve. As a teenager, young Matthias was assigned to visit President Taylor’s home as a “ward” teacher. “When we went to his home,” Brother Cowley recalled, “we would sometimes find him playing checkers with one of his boys, for rest and recreation from his serious duties. He would immediately lay it all aside, call his family together, and show us the greatest respect possible.”
That respect meant a great deal from the most “dignified” man Matthias Cowley could remember, yet who, “without affectation, had the most commanding appearance of any man I ever saw in my life.”2
John Taylor, the head of this illustrious family, had the wellsprings of that dignity within him. Utterly fearless in the defense of the truth, he made his commitments carefully and kept them sacredly.
One of the most important of those commitments was his conversion to Methodism as a sixteen-year-old in England in 1824. In 1832 he came to Toronto, Canada, partly to be with his parents, partly for the economic opportunities (he was a woodturner), and partly because he had received a spiritual manifestation assuring him that he would one day preach the gospel in America. But as he studied the scriptures more intensely, he gradually developed doubts that Methodism represented the Lord’s gospel. He shared these doubts with a group of fellow lay ministers; together they began seeking the truth in directions sufficiently unorthodox that the Methodist authorities politely suspended their licenses to preach.
While his spiritual life was deepening and broadening, he encountered a second powerful influence—Leonora Cannon. Also a devout Methodist, she had felt prompted to come to Canada because of a dream. In Toronto she began attending Methodist services. Her class leader, John Taylor, was soon her suitor, but she refused his first offer of marriage, perhaps because she was ten years his senior. Prompted by another dream, however, she accepted his second proposal and they were married 29 January 1833.
Three years later Parley P. Pratt came to Toronto in response to a prophecy by Heber C. Kimball that he would there “find a people prepared for the fulness of the gospel, and they shall receive thee.” A friend had given him an introduction to the Taylors, and they received him kindly but with an absolute lack of encouragement. After a day of scouring the city’s congregations without finding an opportunity to preach, he returned to pick up his luggage and overheard Leonora telling a neighbor, Mrs. Walton, “He may be a man of God; I am sorry to have him depart.” Mrs. Walton, a widow, promptly exclaimed, “Well, I now understand the feelings and spirit which brought me to your house at this time.” Mrs. Walton offered him hospitality, her rooms for preaching, and a congregation for the evening.3
The Taylors soon joined that little group studying Elder Pratt’s message. John took notes on eight sermons, then compared them rigorously with the scriptures, following Elder Pratt about and making his investigation “a regular business … for three weeks.”4 Both he and Leonora were baptized 9 May 1836.
The Church had gained a deeply committed family. “When I first encountered upon mormonism,” John wrote later in his unpublished life story, “I did it with my eyes open, I counted the cost; I looked upon it as a life-long job and I considered that I was not only enlisted for time, but for eternity.”5
Within a few weeks, John was ordained an elder. When Elder Pratt finished his mission, he left John Taylor in charge of the Church in that area. Among his first converts were his own parents, James and Agnes Taylor, whose wholehearted acceptance of the gospel paved the way for the conversion of John’s sisters, Elizabeth and Agnes, and his brother William.
Less than a year after his baptism, John Taylor visited the Prophet Joseph Smith at Kirtland, a town then racked by apostasy. One of those faltering was Parley P. Pratt, his own missionary. Without equivocation, John testified: “If the word was true six months ago, it is true today; if Joseph Smith was then a prophet, he is now a prophet.” (He later learned that Elder Pratt “soon made all right with the Prophet Joseph.”) Even though a visitor and a comparatively new member, John asked permission to speak at a Sunday meeting in the Kirtland Temple, where the absent Prophet’s character was attacked. Courageously, he reminded them that “If the spirit which he [the Prophet] manifests does not bring blessings, I am very much afraid that the one manifested by those who have spoken, will not be very likely to secure them.”
He returned home, both pained at the apostasy and rejoicing “to see the firmness, faith, integrity and joy of the faithful.”6 In August, the Prophet visited Canada, ordained John Taylor a high priest, and reappointed him to preside over the Saints there. That fall John received word he would be chosen to fill a vacancy in the Quorum of the Twelve.
Even as he turned west to gather with the Saints, Elder Taylor sent his influence east, across the ocean, in a letter to James Fielding, brother of Toronto area converts Joseph and Mary Fielding and Mercy Rachel Thompson. Heber C. Kimball preached the first Latter-day Saint public sermon in England in James Fielding’s chapel. Meanwhile, John and Leonora Taylor and their two children traveled by covered sleigh with another member to Kirtland, only to find that the body of the Church had moved on to Far West. They waited in Indianapolis while Leonora gave birth to their third child, Joseph James, then made their way to Far West.
They could hardly have arrived at a worse time than the fall of 1838. The militia-mob was driving the Saints from Missouri. Elder Taylor barely saw his family safe in Iowa before he returned to Far West with other members of the Twelve at the risk of their lives to dedicate the Far West temple site and lay its cornerstone. Determined to fulfill the revelation now recorded in Doctrine and Covenants 118, the faithful apostles began preparing for a mission to England. [D&C 118]
John had to leave his family in “miserable old log barracks” in Montrose, on the Iowa side of the Mississippi River, across from Nauvoo. Dedicating his wife and children “to the care of the Lord,” he left with Wilford Woodruff, who was deathly ill.7 These two were the first to start, and John Taylor himself became violently ill en route, asking Elder Woodruff to go on without him. He recuperated at a hotel in Germantown, Indiana, for two weeks, until he was at least able to stand. Further along the way, at Dayton, Ohio, a fellow member of the Twelve, George A. Smith, joined him and offered him welcome wagon space.
Leonora was undergoing her own trials in Iowa, and their letters to each other reveal both the desperateness of their circumstances and their unwavering faith. In her first letter to her husband, Leonora catalogues her troubles: the housing shortage, five-year-old George’s eye infection, the chills and fever that attacked both her and three-year-old Mary Ann, a fever that threatened one-year-old Joseph’s life. “I never needed more grace, patience or your prayers than I do at present,” she summarized, but she courageously waited to send the letter until she could report that their health was better.8
Elder Taylor, recuperating from his own illness, responded on a homemade letterhead with the names of his children and “My Dear Nora” as part of the design. He told her about his difficulties in traveling and his own illness, then determinedly concluded: “You may ask me how I am going to prosecute my journey, with my trunk a distance of 300 miles or upwards by land, without means. I do not know, but one thing I do know, that there is a being who clothes the lillies of the valley & feeds the ravens & he has given me to understand that all these things shall be added & that is all I want to know.”9
Tenderly, he included short notes to George and Mary Ann, the beginning of a family correspondence that kept them close despite missionary assignments that would keep Elder Taylor away for nine of the next eighteen years.
Through the help of fellow Saints and sympathetic strangers, John Taylor reached Liverpool while Leonora’s impoverished neighbors in Nauvoo occasionally helped her. Her love for John reached out in her letters: “Wont you come back in the fall[?]. … I feel as if I want to get into this Letter and go too.” But she was also helped by her faith: “May the Lord … bring you back in safety [and] make you a blessing while you remain.” She helped the children draw smudgy circle “kisses” on the bottom of the page.10
John Taylor’s mission was a blessing, not only to the Church in England but to the family. From Liverpool he sent the news that among his first converts had been Leonora’s brother George Cannon and his wife Ann Quayle. Joyfully Elder Taylor wrote: “They now stand in a nearer relationship than kindred flesh; they are brother & sister in Jesus Christ.” George added his own thanksgiving: “I believe that the Lord had a hand in sending him [John Taylor] to England and shewing me in what a dangerous state I lived,” he wrote. “With the assistance of Gods Holy spirit … Ann and I are determined to lead a new life and shew a better example to our children.”11 One of those children was George Q. Cannon, later to become President Taylor’s counselor in the First Presidency.
Elder Taylor had arrived in Liverpool in January 1840 and proselyted vigorously in that city. In April, Elders Brigham Young, Heber C. Kimball, Parley P. Pratt, Orson Pratt, George A. Smith, and Reuben Hedlock arrived from America. At the end of July, Elder Taylor set sail for Ireland, opening missionary work in that country. He spent the fall of 1840 and that winter encouraging the Saints and preaching to gatherings of hundreds of investigators. Then, in the spring of 1841, he left for America with the other apostles, joyfully anticipating the reunion with his family.12
Leonora, exhausted, ill, and still in the log barracks, needed the enthusiasm and the comfort he brought. She recovered after prayers and administrations, and both she and her husband became quickly involved in Nauvoo’s bustling life. The Prophet gave the Twelve new responsibilities, and Elder Taylor, energetically building a handsome home, also became a member of the city council, judge advocate of the Nauvoo Legion, and member of the board of regents of Nauvoo University. To earn a living he edited, sometimes simultaneously, the Times and Seasons and the Nauvoo Neighbor. Both he and Leonora attended the official organization of the Relief Society 17 March 1842; Leonora was one of eighteen charter members, and Elder Taylor set apart all three members of the presidency.
Personally, as well as socially, their lives were demanding. Their second daughter, Leonora Agnes, died fifteen months after her birth. Sister-in-law Ann Cannon died at sea; after his arrival in Nauvoo brother George travelled to St. Louis for temporary employment and died there about six months after his arrival. John and Leonora Taylor gave a home to young George Q. Cannon and his sister Ann. George Q., John’s nephew and foster son, learned the printer’s trade from him, an important apprenticeship for his later editorship of the Deseret News and Juvenile Instructor.
One of their most demanding challenges was the principle of plural marriage. But the Taylors’ devotion to the principles of faith and obedience led them to follow the Prophet; he was their standard in this as in other doctrines of the Restoration.
That same faith and devotion sustained the Taylors in the tragic experience of Carthage. In 1844 John Taylor joined the Prophet and Hyrum in their last imprisonment, singing “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief,” at the Prophet’s request, to comfort them, and taking five wounds in the barrage that killed Joseph and Hyrum. While her husband was recuperating, plucky Leonora penned an eloquent appeal to Illinois Governor Thomas Ford, urging that the murderers be brought to justice for the sake of Nauvoo’s security.
But security was not to be found in Nauvoo. Church leadership headed west.
The Taylors had not yet established themselves at Winter Quarters when Elder Taylor was sent from Council Bluffs to England with Orson Hyde, leaving his wives and children to struggle for the bare necessities. As soon as he returned from England, bringing with him the instruments that Orson Pratt would later use to lay out Salt Lake City, the Taylor family, including Elder Taylor’s parents, left Winter Quarters for Salt Lake Valley, arriving 5 October 1847. Here John and other family members helped saw the first lumber, establish fishing operations in Utah Lake, build the first bridge over the Jordan River, and make molasses from sweet sorghum.
Two years later, Elder Taylor was again on another assignment, this time to open the French Mission. Again, his family resourcefully sustained their needs. With characteristic energy he traveled extensively, preached in both English and French, published the Book of Mormon in French and German, and established Church periodicals in both France and Germany. Though his mission was hampered by France’s unsettled political conditions, in England he made arrangements for the manufacture and transportation of equipment to refine sugar from sugar beets, one of the most ambitious undertakings in Utah’s local economy before the coming of the transcontinental railroad.
But the experience was a disappointment. Transporting the heavy equipment was fraught with problems and then, after it was set up, it failed to produce satisfactory sugar.
The sugar episode, disappointing as it was, provides insights into the relationship between Elder John Taylor and President Brigham Young. The gospel, the commitments, and the mission they shared bound them together firmly, despite differences in personality. President Young was a believer in the words of the Apostle Paul: “For whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth. … If ye endure chastening, God dealeth with you as with sons” (Heb. 12:6–7). Probably with some justification, President Young sometimes saw Elder Taylor as an initiator of promising plans who might overlook some of the practical details necessary to carry them out. On this occasion, after many setbacks in transporting the sugar machinery to Utah, President Young removed Elder Taylor from further direction of the enterprise and frankly criticized him for his oversights in a private meeting. John stoutly defended himself. At the end of the plain-spoken discussion which ensued, both men affirmed their basic respect for each other. President Young announced, “Brother Taylor and I are just as good friends as we were twelve months ago.” Each declared himself willing to do anything for the other and John affirmed, “I am thankful I can swim in the same stream with men who know what is right.”
There were other occasions when President Young corrected Elder Taylor, just as he corrected most of the leading brethren when reproof seemed necessary. On the other hand, he made it clear that he respected Elder Taylor for his integrity, his commitment to the gospel, and his vigorous defense of Mormonism in the press. Meanwhile, John consistently sustained and defended Brigham Young as the Lord’s mouthpiece, calling on other members to do the same. “I don’t believe in having things thrown on [against] Brother Brigham,” he asserted during an 1860 discussion on Church doctrine. “If that mouthpiece has not power to dictate, I would throw all Mormonism away.”13
When the Church was under violent attack in the East, President Brigham Young sent John Taylor into the thick of it to publish a spirited New York paper, The Mormon, explaining and defending the Church’s position. He took his oldest son, George, then in his early twenties, with him and his nephew, Angus Cannon. He wrote back affectionately to his family: he wanted the children to have piano lessons and—on credit—a pound of candy.
He returned in August 1857 while federal troops were crossing the plains to suppress the Mormon “uprising.” Again, it meant a disruptive move from Salt Lake until peace was assured. But for most of the next thirty years, until his death, he could be with his family. During those years, following his example, his family served the community and Church unstintingly. While local schools were struggling for quality, the Taylor family maintained a private school for the children. Eventually most of them would attend the University of Deseret (now University of Utah), and the oldest son, George John, was one of its first instructors. The Taylor family valued both religious and secular instruction; John W. and William W. were devoted teachers of young children in their Fourteenth Ward Sunday School.
John Taylor and his wives exerted a refining influence in frontier Utah. Observers noticed a natural dignity in their manners, combined with personal modesty and concern for others. They were gracious hosts, fine housekeepers, excellent conversationalists.
The Taylor service in the Church was equally exemplary. John’s wife Margaret served seven years as first counselor in the Young Ladies’ Mutual Improvement Association from its organization in 1880.* John W. was called to the Council of the Twelve and was known for his intense energy and his gift of prophecy. William served in the First Council of the Seventy but died when he was only thirty years old. Elder Taylor is quoted in the obituary as reflecting with deep gratitude: “I cannot think of anything which I wish he had done differently.”14 When he said this, he may have been thinking sorrowfully of a daughter who married out of the Church in the 1840s and a son who left the Church behind and moved to Oregon.
Elder Taylor himself was president of the Quorum of the Twelve when President Brigham Young died in August 1877. For the next ten years he would direct the Church, first as president of the Quorum, then as president of the Church. He steadfastly urged the completion of the Logan Temple and encouraged missionary expansion, particularly a significant renewal of work among the Indians. In 1880, the Church’s jubilee year, he invoked an ancient Hebrew custom of debt relief: on behalf of the “worthy poor” he canceled half the massive debt owed to the Perpetual Emigrating Fund—some $802,000—and half the unpaid tithing obligations of Church members. Moreover, he directed that the Church provide thousands of cattle and sheep to the poor. In each case, bishops and stake presidents were to recommend those who should receive such relief.15
John Taylor’s presidency saw the climax of a legal crusade in the United States to overcome the influence of the Church and its leaders. Passage of the Edmunds Act in 1882 initiated intense and thoroughgoing persecution. As a result, President Taylor’s last years were largely spent away from his family, as he tried to carry on the work of the kingdom in the face of government harassment. Again, correspondence had to be the link that united the family. President Taylor approved, by letter, of his daughter’s marriage to a worthy young man he had never been able to meet. A son temporarily out of work wrote for advice. The family gathered for a birthday party to honor him in his absence. Through letters to his grown children he inquired about the health and well-being of their mothers, for whose care they were now responsible. But correspondence sometimes fell tragically short of filling the role he would otherwise have played in person. President Taylor found it necessary to stay away from the bedside of a dying wife, Sophia Whitaker Taylor, and from her funeral, in order to avoid possible arrest and to continue to direct the affairs of the Church. The affairs of the Church were directed largely by correspondence. It was under such difficult circumstances that John Taylor died, 25 July 1887, a symbol of determined resistance to injustice.
In later years additional family members made their contributions to the Church. Grandson John Harris Taylor served in the First Council of the Seventy from 1933–46. Daughter Annie Taylor Hyde served on the Relief Society General Board and as first counselor in its general presidency, 1901–09. Mother of eight children, she taught Sunday School and MIA, worked in the temple, promoted nursing in Salt Lake City, and represented the Relief Society at meetings of the National Council of Women. She gave broad scope to the goal of honoring one’s parents by organizing the Daughters of Utah Pioneers at her home in 1901. This organization has fulfilled many of Annie’s hopes by preserving, recording, and publishing accounts of pioneers’ lives, collecting and displaying pioneer art and artifacts, and by erecting historical markers.
Annie’s brothers and sisters were also giving outstanding service to their communities. Leonora T. Harrington served as PTA president and as Salt Lake County’s assistant food administrator during Word War I. Fred W. Taylor, a country doctor in the Provo area, delivered over five thousand babies and spearheaded the building of a library and hospital at Provo; he also began work to preserve scenic areas. Margaret Taylor Gibbs, a gifted musician and actress, promoted culture in Salt Lake City. George John Taylor, a member of the University of Deseret’s board of regents, served as chief clerk of the Utah territorial legislature and as Salt Lake County coroner. William W. Taylor was a state legislator and Salt Lake City assessor. Hyrum W. Taylor helped build the organs in the Salt Lake Tabernacle and Assembly Hall. Samuel Y. Taylor promoted the development of oil lands and irrigation in Utah, while Moses W. Taylor promoted dry farming. Frank, already cited for his role in founding family home evenings, was a mining engineer, railroad surveyor, assistant architect for the Manti Temple, realtor, and financier. He retired as he neared seventy, then directed Church real estate operations for five years and finally dropped his retirement to take active part in Utah’s business life until age ninety.
President John Taylor has indeed left an impressive heritage. During a time of intense difficulty and persecution, when his very devotion to the Church was frequently the means of taking him from the presence of his beloved family, he communicated clearly his values of service and dedication, both as a tender father and as a devoted servant of God.
In addition to the sources footnoted, other important sources are the Granite Stake Historical Records and such stake publications as Reports of Stake High Council Committee on Ward Teaching and Home Evening (1924) and Home Evening Bulletin (1927); History of Relief Society, 1842–1966 (Salt Lake City: The General Board of Relief Society, 1966); “A Record of the Organization, and Proceedings of the Female Relief Society of Nauvoo,” microfilm of holograph, 17 Mar. 1842; “Reminiscences of Ann Cannon Woodbury,” Beatrice Cannon Evans and Janath Russell Cannon, eds., Cannon Family Historical Treasury (Salt Lake City: George Cannon Family Association, 1967); Samuel W. Taylor, The Kingdom or Nothing: The Life of John Taylor, Militant Mormon (New York: Macmillan, 1976); Leonard J. Arrington, Great Basin Kingdom (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1958); Mary Alice Cannon Lambert, “Leonora Cannon Taylor,” Young Women’s Journal, 19 (1908):347; family correspondence in the John Taylor collection and First Presidency Letterpress Copybooks, Church Hist. Dept. Archives; and obituaries in Salt Lake newspapers of Agnes Taylor, James Taylor, Elizabeth Taylor Boyes, Agnes Schwartz, and the children mentioned by name.