John Taylor: Defender of Truth
January 2003

“John Taylor: Defender of Truth,” Ensign, Jan. 2003, 20

John Taylor:

Defender of Truth

As third President of the Church, John Taylor stood unshakable in his testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith, leading the Church through some of its most trying times.

John Taylor was born on 1 November 1808 in Milnthorpe, a small town in the county of Westmorland, England. His parents, James and Agnes Taylor, had 10 children, John being the second son. They reared their large family on Bible study and prayer. “Young Taylor possessed a portion of the spirit of God. … Manifestations of its presence were frequent, not only in the expansion of his mind to understand doctrines and principles, but also in dreams and visions. … When but a small boy he saw, in vision, an angel in the heavens, holding a trumpet to his mouth, sounding a message to the nations. The import of this vision he did not understand until later in life.”1

At the age of 16, he left the Church of England and later became a lay preacher for the Methodist Church. On one occasion when he was with one of his parish members on the way to an appointment, he stopped in the road and said, “I have a strong impression on my mind, that I have to go to America to preach the gospel!”2 This impression remained with him.

When John Taylor did leave England in 1832, he traveled to Canada, following his family, who had emigrated in 1830. There he met and married Leonora Cannon. Canada was also where he encountered a missionary named Parley P. Pratt, an Apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Many in the Methodist congregation where Elder Pratt preached were thrilled with his message until he told them of the Prophet Joseph Smith and the gold plates. Several of the men refused to listen further. John Taylor reminded them: “We are here, ostensibly in search of truth. Hitherto we have fully investigated other creeds and doctrines and proven them false. Why should we fear to investigate Mormonism? This gentleman, Mr. Pratt, has brought to us many doctrines that correspond with our own views. … We have prayed to God to send us a messenger, if He has a true Church on earth. … If I find his religion true, I shall accept it, no matter what the consequences may be.”3

John Taylor continued investigating the gospel, and on 9 May 1836 he and Leonora were baptized. In his later years, President Taylor remarked, “When I had investigated the subject, and became convinced that it was true, I said, ‘I am in for it; I must embrace it; I cannot reject the principles of eternal truth.’”4

Defender of Truth

Truth, eternal truth, is the groundwork of the Christian’s hope.5

John Taylor served as the Church’s presiding officer in Canada for two years. In March 1837, he went to Kirtland in the United States to meet with the Prophet Joseph Smith. At the time, the Church was suffering heavy persecution, and even some of the Apostles were leaning toward apostasy. Elder Pratt approached John Taylor and expressed some disapproval concerning the Prophet Joseph, to which Elder Taylor replied: “I am surprised to hear you speak so, Brother Parley. Before you left Canada you bore a strong testimony to Joseph Smith being a Prophet of God. … Now Brother Parley, it is not man that I am following, but the Lord. The principles you taught me led me to Him, and I now have the same testimony that you then rejoiced in. If the work was true six months ago, it is true today; if Joseph Smith was then a prophet, he is now a prophet.”6

On 19 December 1838, 30-year-old John Taylor was ordained an Apostle at Far West, Missouri. Elder Brigham Young and Elder Heber C. Kimball performed the ordination under the direction of the Prophet Joseph Smith, who was in Liberty Jail.

Champion of Liberty

We have a right to liberty—that was a right that God gave to all men.7

On one occasion, arrangements had been made for Elder Taylor to speak to a large group near Columbus, Ohio. Shortly before the meeting, some of the brethren overheard that several men were planning to tar and feather Elder Taylor.

Undaunted, Elder Taylor stood before the congregation and began his remarks by stating:

“I see around me the sons of … noble sires, who, rather than bow to the behests of a tyrant, pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honors to burst those fetters, enjoy freedom themselves, bequeath it to their posterity, or die in the attempt. …

“… I have been informed that you purpose to tar and feather me, for my religious opinions. Is this the boon you have inherited from your fathers? Is this the blessing they purchased with their dearest hearts’ blood—this your liberty?”

Then, tearing open his vest, he said, “Gentlemen come on with your tar and feathers, your victim is ready.”8

The audience was silent, and no one moved. Elder Taylor paused for some moments, and then he continued to preach with power for nearly three hours.

Missionary Experiences

[Missionaries] go forth as the angels of mercy bearing the precious seeds of the gospel.9

Once Elder Taylor accepted the restored gospel, he was eager to share it with others. He served many missions, totaling 87 months from 1839 to 1857, trusting in the Lord to care for his family since he often had to leave them in difficult circumstances.

At age 31, Elder Taylor embarked on his first mission to the British Isles, where he was the first missionary to preach the gospel in Ireland and on the Isle of Man. He also helped prepare the first edition of the Book of Mormon published outside the United States.

Upon returning home from his first mission to England, he found his wife, Leonora, gravely ill. Elder Taylor called in the elders and anointed Leonora and blessed her. Through their faith and prayers, she was restored to health.

The suffering of his family weighed heavily on Elder Taylor’s shoulders. However, it seemed that the more challenging the task, the more steadfast Elder Taylor became in spreading the gospel. He remarked: “I, myself, have traveled hundreds of thousands of miles preaching the gospel; and without purse or scrip, trusting in the Lord. Did he ever forsake me? Never, no never. I always was provided for, for which I feel to praise God my Heavenly Father.”10

Between missions, Elder Taylor was appointed associate editor of the Times and Seasons, the Church’s main publication at that time. After a year, he was appointed editor and remained so until 1846, when the Saints were driven out of Nauvoo. His writing skills were a blessing to the Saints. He also became editor of another paper, the Nauvoo Neighbor, which contained information about the arts, science, religion, and general news of the day in Nauvoo.

Not all was well in Nauvoo, even though the Saints were prospering. Persecution was increasing, and the Prophet Joseph had been accused of being an accessory in the attempted assassination of Lilburn W. Boggs, the former governor of Missouri. Elder Taylor’s allegiance to the Prophet never wavered; he showed his support through editorials in the newspapers he edited. However, mobs and apostates stirred anger into the hearts of the Missourians.

The Martyrdom

The Seer, the Seer, Joseph the Seer!

I’ll sing of the Prophet ever dear.11

On 27 June 1844 Elder Taylor, Elder Willard Richards, also of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, the Prophet Joseph Smith, and the Prophet’s brother Hyrum were in Carthage Jail awaiting word from the governor. While the four friends waited in prison, Elder Taylor sang the hymn “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief.” The mood was somber and melancholy. “Shortly Hyrum asked him to sing the song again, to which he replied:

“‘Brother Hyrum, I do not feel like singing.’

“‘Oh, never mind; commence singing and you will get the spirit of it.’

“Soon after finishing the song the second time, as he was sitting at one of the front windows of the jail, he saw a number of men, with painted faces. … The mob reaching the landing in front of the door, and thinking it was locked, fired a shot through the key hole. Hyrum and Doctor Richards sprang back, when instantly another ball crashed through the panel of the door and struck Hyrum in the face; at the same instant a ball … entered his back, and he fell exclaiming, ‘I am a dead man!’ …

“… Elder Taylor took his place next [to] the door, and with a heavy walking stick … parried the guns as they were thrust through the doorway and discharged. …

“… Streams of fire as thick as a man’s arm belched forth from the ever increasing number of guns in the door-way, yet calm, energetic and determined, Elder Taylor beat down the muzzles of those murderous guns.

“‘That’s right, Brother Taylor, parry them off as well as you can,’ said Joseph, as he stood behind him.”

But as the gunfire continued and more mobbers pushed their way up the stairs, Elder Taylor sprang for the open window.

“As [Elder Taylor] was in the act of leaping from the window, a ball fired from the door-way struck him about midway of his left thigh. He fell helpless on the window sill and would have dropped on the outside of the jail—when another shot from the outside, striking the watch in his vest pocket, threw him back into the room. … He drew himself as rapidly as possible in his crippled condition under the bedstead that stood near the window.

“While on his way three other bullets struck him; one a little below the left knee—it was never extracted; another tore away the flesh to the size of a man’s hand from his left hip and spattered the wall with blood and the mangled fragments; another entered the forepart of his left arm, a little above the wrist, and, passing down by the joint, lodged in the palm of his left hand.”

While he lay in pain, he heard the mob shout that the Prophet had leaped from the window.

“Dr. Richards … confirmed his worst fears—the Prophet was dead!

“‘I felt,’ says Elder Taylor, ‘a dull, lonely, sickening sensation at the news.’”12

Several days later, Elder Taylor discovered that one ball of shot, aimed at his heart, had smashed into the crystal of his pocket watch, preventing him from falling from the jail window. He said, “I felt that the Lord had preserved me by a special act of mercy; that my time had not yet come, and that I had still a work to perform upon the earth.”13

As a witness to the Martyrdom, Elder Taylor wrote the powerful and eloquent words that are now section 135 of the Doctrine and Covenants: “Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it” (D&C 135:3).

Trials and Afflictions

We have learned many things through suffering. We call it suffering. I call it a school of experience.14

The Saints were soon forced to leave Nauvoo. Elder Taylor and his family and their group of pioneers arrived in Salt Lake City on 5 October 1847. The following August the Saints enjoyed a bounteous harvest after a serious infestation of black crickets. Amid all the worries of planting and harvesting and building homes, “many leaned on [John Taylor’s] strength in those days. When despair settled over the colony he infused it with hope; when the weak faltered, he strengthened them; when the fearful trembled, he encouraged them; those cast down with sorrow, he comforted and cheered.”15 His strength was always there to help buoy up the Saints.

At age 71, John Taylor became President of the Church. On the day he was sustained, 10 October 1880, he shared his philosophy concerning trials:

“So far as I am concerned, I say, let everything come as God has ordained it. …

“I used to think, if I were the Lord, I would not suffer people to be tried as they are. But I have changed my mind on that subject. Now I think … it purges out the meanness and corruption that stick around the Saints, like flies around molasses.”16

Integrity and Character

I love you for your integrity to the cause of Zion.17

One issue on which President Taylor remained steadfast was that of being honest. He was someone in whom the Saints could trust.

President Heber J. Grant (1856–1945), seventh President of the Church, told of how President Taylor resolved a quarrel between two friends:

“These men had quarreled over some business affairs, and finally concluded that they would try to get President John Taylor to help them adjust their difficulties. …

“… They … asked [President Taylor] if he would listen to their story and render his decision. President Taylor willingly consented. But he said: ‘Brethren, before I hear your case, I would like very much to sing one of the songs of Zion for you.’

“Now President Taylor was a very capable singer, and interpreted sweetly and with spirit, our sacred hymns. He sang one of our hymns to the two brethren. Seeing its effect, he remarked that he never heard one of the songs of Zion but that he wanted to listen to one more, and so asked them to listen while he sang another. Of course, they consented. They both seemed to enjoy it; and, having sung the second song, he remarked that he had heard there is luck in odd numbers and so with their consent he would sing still another, which he did. Then, in his jocular way, he remarked: ‘Now brethren, I do not want to wear you out, but if you will forgive me, and listen to one more hymn, I promise to stop singing, and will hear your case.’

“The story goes that when President Taylor had finished the fourth song, the brethren were melted to tears, got up, shook hands, and asked President Taylor to excuse them for having called upon him, and for taking up his time. They then departed without his even knowing what their difficulties were.”18

Role of a Father

Let us as parents train up our children in the fear of God and teach them the laws of life.19

One of President Taylor’s sons, Moses W., described his father’s character through sharing family memories. He wrote:

“When gathering the fruit in the fall, father would come and inspect the baskets and selecting the largest and best fruit would say:

“‘Take the tithing out of this and be sure and pay it in full.’

“When planting trees, he was very careful to make the rows straight, each tree had to be plumb. When filling the dirt around the roots we were required to take great care of the little fibres and carefully lay each one in its place. He would remark:

“‘Take care of the little roots and the large ones will take care of themselves.’

“The first time I left home, father called me in and gave me the following counsel:

“‘Do what is right. Live your religion and the bad men will honor you for it as well as the good.’

“That is all he said, but it made such a strong impression on me, that it has saved me many a time from falling into temptation. At other times, he would say:

“‘Take the high stand and always live so that others can see that you are on a high plane.’

“He had a strong desire to keep his children under the family influence and provided play grounds for us. Even when he was past seventy years of age he would join us in our games. …

“… He was held in such high esteem by his children that to please him seemed to be their greatest desire.”20

Prophet, Seer, and Revelator

When men go forth in the name of Israel’s God, there is no power on earth that can overturn the truths they advocate.21

When President Brigham Young died in 1877, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles led the Church until President Taylor was sustained as Church President in 1880. During this year, the Pearl of Great Price became part of the standard works, and a new edition of the Doctrine and Covenants was published, including 27 new sections.

President Taylor continued to use his writing skills and authored The Mediation and Atonement in 1882. Referring to the importance of his subject, he wrote, “Having noticed the great blessings, privileges, powers and exaltations that are placed within the reach of man, through the atonement of Jesus Christ, it next becomes our duty to enquire what is required of man to place him in possession of them.”22

In 1885 President Taylor preached his last public sermon. Because of the repercussions of the antipolygamy Edmunds Act, President Taylor was forced into exile. He died on 25 July 1887 in Kaysville, Utah.

When the sad news of President Taylor’s death was announced to the public, his counselors stated in the Deseret News:

“Steadfast to and immovable in the truth, few men have ever lived who have manifested such integrity and such unflinching moral and physical courage as our beloved President who has just gone from us. He never knew the feeling of fear connected with the work of God. … He met every issue squarely, boldly and in a way to call forth the admiration of all who saw and heard him. Undaunted courage, unyielding firmness were among his most prominent characteristics, giving him distinction among men. …

“And though we have lost his presence here, his influence will still be felt. Such men may pass from this life to another, but the love which beats in their hearts for righteousness and for truth cannot die.”23


  1. B. H. Roberts, The Life of John Taylor (1963), 27–28.

  2. Life of John Taylor, 28.

  3. Teachings of Presidents of the Church: John Taylor (2001), 209–10.

  4. Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 215.

  5. Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 213.

  6. Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 77. Elder Pratt resolved his feelings and remained faithful.

  7. Deseret News, 26 April 1882.

  8. Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 221.

  9. Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 74.

  10. Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 74.

  11. John Taylor, The Gospel Kingdom, sel. G. Homer Durham (1943), 386.

  12. Life of John Taylor, 137–40.

  13. Life of John Taylor, 150.

  14. Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 203.

  15. Life of John Taylor, 199.

  16. Gospel Kingdom, 332–33.

  17. In Conference Report, Apr. 1906, 7.

  18. “Songs of the Heart,” Improvement Era, Sept. 1940, 522.

  19. Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 196.

  20. “Stories and Counsel of President Taylor,” Young Woman’s Journal, May 1905, 218–19.

  21. Gospel Kingdom, 242.

  22. Teachings of Presidents of the Church, 53.

  23. Life of John Taylor, 410–11, 415–16.

  • Karla C. Erickson is a member of the Mueller Park Eighth Ward, Bountiful Utah Mueller Park Stake.

The teachings of John Taylor are the Melchizedek Priesthood and Relief Society curriculum for 2003, the fourth in the series of Teachings of Presidents of the Church.

Photograph by Thomas B. Cardon, courtesy of LDS Church Archives

Facing an angry group opposed to the Church, Elder Taylor disarmed them with his words and boldly said, “Gentlemen come on with your tar and feathers, your victim is ready.” (“I Am Ready,” by Del Parson.)

Elder Taylor was appointed associate editor, then editor, of the Times and Seasons, the Church’s main publication at that time. John Taylor’s home in Nauvoo was adjacent to the printing office. (City of Joseph, by Eric Dowdle; photograph of printing press by Craig Dimond.)

While on his first mission to the British Isles, John Taylor helped prepare the first edition of the Book of Mormon published outside the United States. (John Taylor Preaches in Liverpool, by Robert T. Barrett; photograph of Book of Mormon by Christina Smith.)

Several days after the Martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph and his brother Hyrum, John Taylor discovered that one ball of shot, aimed at his heart, had smashed into the crystal of his pocket watch, preserving his life. (The Mob Storms Carthage Jail, by C. C. A. Christensen; inset: Exterior of Carthage Jail, by C. C. A. Christensen, both © courtesy of Brigham Young University Museum of Art, all rights reserved.)

The First Presidency in 1880: President George Q. Cannon, First Counselor; President John Taylor; and President Joseph F. Smith, Second Counselor. (Photograph courtesy of LDS Church Archives.) Background: President Taylor used his writing skills to spread the message of the Restoration. (Photograph by Welden C. Andersen.)

President Taylor dedicated the Logan Utah Temple in 1884. (Photograph courtesy of LDS Church Archives.) Inset: A doorknob from the temple interior is an example of pioneer builders’ attention to detail. (Photograph by Welden C. Andersen.)