“Chapter 3: John Taylor: Third President of the Church,” Presidents of the Church Student Manual (2004), 39–55
“Chapter 3,” Presidents of the Church Student Manual, 39–55
He was born 1 November 1808 in Milnthorpe, Westmoreland, England, to James and Agnes Taylor.
He immigrated to Toronto, Canada (1832).
He married Leonora Cannon (28 Jan. 1833).
He was baptized into the Church by Parley P. Pratt (9 May 1836); he was later called to preside over the Church in the eastern part of Canada (1836).
He was ordained an Apostle by Brigham Young and Heber C. Kimball (19 Dec. 1838).
He served his first mission to the British Isles (Dec. 1839–Apr. 1841).
He was editor of the newspapers Times and Seasons and Nauvoo Neighbor (Feb. 1842–spring, 1846).
He was wounded by a mob in Carthage Jail (27 June 1844).
He served a second mission to Great Britain (1846–47).
He served a mission to France and Germany (Oct. 1849–Aug. 1852).
He wrote The Government of God (1851–52).
He published the newspaper The Mormon in New York City (Feb. 1855–Sept. 1857).
He served as a member of the Utah Territorial Legislature (1857–76).
The Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act was passed, restricting the Church’s rights to own property (3 June 1862).
He led the Church as President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles after Brigham Young’s death (29 Aug. 1877).
He became President of the Church (10 Oct. 1880); the Pearl of Great Price was accepted as scripture (10 Oct. 1880).
He published An Examination into and an Elucidation of the Great Principle of the Mediation and Atonement of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (1882); the U.S. Congress passed the Edmunds Act, which declared plural marriage illegal (16 Feb. 1882).
He dedicated the Logan Temple (17 May 1884).
He delivered his last public sermon; he then withdrew into exile because of persecutions for plural marriage (1 Feb. 1885).
The Edmunds-Tucker Act, which disincorporated the Church, became law (17 Feb. 1887); he died in Kaysville, Utah (25 July 1887).
John Taylor was the first, and only, President of the Church who was not born in the United States. He was born in Milnthorpe, Westmoreland, England, in 1808 to James and Agnes Taylor; his mother’s maiden name was also Taylor. John was one of ten children; he had seven brothers and two sisters. Three of his brothers died in infancy, and his oldest brother died at age twenty-two. Although they were not wealthy, the Taylor family was close-knit and religious, and the children were taught the value of hard work. John labored on a farm on the family estate, and later he mastered the wood turner’s trade.
His parents were members of the Church of England but, although he was baptized as an infant, John Taylor cared little for the creeds of his parent’s faith. As a youth he was instructed through dreams and visions.
“‘Often when alone,’ he wrote, ‘and sometimes in company, I heard sweet, soft, melodious music, as if performed by angelic or supernatural beings.’ 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” (B. H. Roberts, The Life of John Taylor , 27–28).
John Taylor’s family moved frequently during his childhood. At age fourteen he was apprenticed to a barrel maker. John then left home to learn the art of working with a wood lathe. He pursued and mastered that occupation from his fifteenth to his twentieth year.
While in his mid-teens, John Taylor joined the Methodist Church and actively labored to involve his friends in prayer and other religious activities. His zeal and native abilities of expression made such an impression upon Church leaders that he was appointed a lay preacher at the age of seventeen. While walking to an appointment, he was overcome by a powerful influence. He turned to his companion and said, “I have a strong impression on my mind, that I have to go to America to preach the gospel!” (quoted in Roberts, Life of John Taylor, 28).
John Taylor’s parents moved to Toronto, Canada, in 1830. In 1832 the way opened up for John to join them. While still in the English Channel, his ship encountered weather so severe that several vessels around it were wrecked in the storm. The officers and crew expected their own ship to sink at any time but John remained unshaken.
“The voice of the Spirit was still saying within him, ‘You must yet go to America and preach the gospel.’ ‘So confident was I of my destiny,’ he remarks, ‘that I went on deck at midnight, and amidst the raging elements felt as calm as though I was sitting in a parlor at home. I believed I should reach America and perform my work’” (Roberts, Life of John Taylor, 29).
John Taylor settled in Canada near his parents. There he practiced his craft. Aligning himself with the local Methodist Church, he was soon occupied as a class teacher and itinerant preacher. It was while he was engaged in this work that he met Leonora Cannon. Leonora, twelve years older than John, rejected his first proposal of marriage, but afterward, as a result of a dream, was convinced that she should be his wife.
John Taylor and a few close friends discovered from their studies that their faith differed significantly from the New Testament church and teachings of Jesus Christ. Of this experience he later said: “Not being then acquainted with this Church [The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints], a number of us met together for the purpose of searching the Scriptures; and we found that certain doctrines were taught by Jesus and the Apostles, which neither the Methodists, Baptists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians, nor any of the religious sects taught; and we concluded that if the Bible was true, the doctrines of modern Christendom were not true; or if they were true, the Bible was false. Our investigations were impartially made, and our search for truth was extended. We examined every religious principle that came under our notice, and probed the various systems as taught by the sects, to ascertain if there were any that were in accordance with the word of God. But we failed to find any. In addition to our researches and investigations, we prayed and fasted before God; and the substance of our prayers was, that if he had a people upon the earth anywhere, and ministers who were authorized to preach the Gospel, that he would send us one. This was the condition we were in” (in Journal of Discourses, 23:30).
Elder Parley P. Pratt, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, went to Canada to proclaim the restoration of Christ’s ancient church. He found John Taylor, who studied, compared, reflected, challenged, and then sought the inspiration of heaven. John’s search for Christ’s church was fulfilled.
John Taylor said: “About this time [May 1836] Parley P. Pratt called on me with a letter of introduction from a merchant of my acquaintance. I had peculiar feelings on seeing him. I had heard a great many stories of a similar kind to those that you have heard, and I must say that I thought my friend had imposed upon me a little in sending a man of this persuasion to me. I, however, received him courteously as I was bound to. I told him, however, plainly, my feelings, and that in our researches I wanted no fables; I wished him to confine himself to the scriptures. We talked for three hours or upwards, and he bound me as close to the scriptures as I desired, proving everything he said therefrom. I afterwards wrote down eight sermons that he preached, in order that I might compare them with the word of God. I found nothing contrary. I then examined the Book of Mormon, and the prophecies concerning that; that was also correct. I then read the book of ‘Doctrine and Covenants;’ found nothing unscriptural there. He called upon us to repent and be baptized for the remission of sins, and, we should receive the Holy Ghost. But what is that? we inquired; the same, he answered, as it was in the Apostles’ days, or nothing. A number of others and myself were baptized [on 9 May 1836]” (“Three Nights’ Public Discussion … ,” in A Series of Pamphlets, by Orson Pratt … , 17–18).
Soon after his baptism, John Taylor was called to be the presiding elder of the Church in Canada. The inspired call of Elder Pratt to preach the gospel to the people of Toronto, Canada, did not only bring in the man who would become the third President of the Church; it also led to the conversion of Mary Fielding, who married Hyrum Smith and was the mother of President Joseph F. Smith and the grandmother of President Joseph Fielding Smith.
Nearly a year after his conversion, John Taylor met the Prophet Joseph Smith in Kirtland, Ohio. When they had clasped hands and had spent some time together, the spirit that radiated from the Prophet, together with his teachings and explanations of the gospel, greatly strengthened John’s testimony of the restored Church.
He visited in Kirtland during the dark days of apostasy there and defended the Prophet Joseph Smith with his testimony before gatherings of apostates who threatened death to anyone who spoke for the Prophet. He also met with members of the Church whose faith was failing and who had begun to be critical of the Prophet. Among their number was Elder Parley P. Pratt, who made it a point to express his complaints and criticisms. To this Apostle and missionary whose teachings and testimony had, only a short time before, brought him into the Church, John 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, and to the truth of the work he has inaugurated; and you said you knew these things by revelation, and the gift of the Holy Ghost. You gave to me a strict charge to the effect that though you or an angel from heaven was to declare anything else I was not to believe it. 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” (quoted in Roberts, Life of John Taylor, 40).
Elder Pratt “sought no further to lead Elder Taylor astray; nor did he use much argument in the first place. ‘He with many others,’ says Elder Taylor, ‘were passing under a dark cloud; he soon made all right with the Prophet Joseph, and was restored to full fellowship” (Roberts, Life of John Taylor, 40).
During those dark days in Kirtland, the apostates sought to be heard. One man spoke who was full of lies and lashed out viciously against the character of the Prophet Joseph Smith, who was not present. John Taylor stood it as long as he could, then sought and received permission to address the group. He began by recalling the rebellion of ancient Israel against the Lord and his prophet Moses. He then asked the audience to identify the source of their present knowledge of the kingdom of God and of all spiritual matters. To his own question, he replied: “It was Joseph Smith, under the Almighty, who developed the first principles, and to him we must look for further instructions. If the spirit which he 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. The children of Israel, formerly, after seeing the power of God manifested in their midst, fell into rebellion and idolatry, and there is certainly very great danger of us doing the same thing” (quoted in Roberts, Life of John Taylor, 41).
These incidents in Kirtland established John Taylor’s reputation as a man of great courage and eloquence in defending the gospel. It was under different circumstances, however, that he became known as the “Champion of Liberty.” As Brother Taylor was called upon to defend the rights of the Church and its members against their enemies, this Englishman quickly learned to appreciate the constitutional freedoms guaranteed by law to everyone living in the United States.
At age twenty-nine, John Taylor received a summons from the Prophet Joseph Smith to join the Saints in Missouri. Those were dark days; the faithful had been driven from Ohio, and shortly after he arrived in Missouri after an arduous journey of nearly two thousand miles, the Saints were driven from Missouri as well.
Elder Taylor was called and ordained to the apostleship on 19 December 1838, a few days after his thirtieth birthday. The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles had been directed by revelation to leave Far West, Missouri, on 26 April 1839 and journey to England (see D&C 118).
The brethren who went on these missions left their families in poverty and illness. Elder Taylor wrote of his mixed feelings at the time of his departure for England: “The thought of the hardships they had just endured, … the uncertainty of their continuing in the house they then occupied—and that only a solitary room—the prevalence of disease, the poverty of the brethren, their insecurity from mobs, together with the uncertainty of what might take place during my absence, produced feelings of no ordinary character. … But the thought of going forth at the command of the God of Israel to revisit my native land, to unfold the principles of eternal truth and make known the things that God had revealed for the salvation of the world, overcame every other feeling” (quoted in Roberts, Life of John Taylor, 67–68).
Elder Taylor himself was penniless and in very poor health. Yet, like his companions, he felt that their trials were but for a small moment, and he knew that the Lord would provide for their needs. With Brigham Young and others, he made his way back through Missouri so they could leave for their mission to England on the day and from the place the Lord had commanded (see D&C 118:4–5).
After an arduous journey, Elder John Taylor and his missionary companion arrived in England and were assigned to labor in the port city of Liverpool. There they met with members of a Protestant congregation who were seeking for the restoration of the Holy Ghost and the coming of Christ’s kingdom. Speaking to some leaders of the group, Elder Taylor bore a powerful testimony of the restoration of the gifts and blessings they sought:
“Brethren and friends, we are the humble followers of Jesus Christ and are from America. I lately arrived in this place, and have come five thousand miles without purse or scrip, and I testify to you, my brethren, that the Lord has revealed Himself from heaven and put us in possession of these things you are so anxiously looking for and praying that you may receive. (‘Glory be to God,’ was shouted by many present, and great emotion manifested.)
“That thing has taken place which is spoken of by John in the Revelations, where he says: ‘I saw another angel fly in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach unto them that dwell upon the earth, and to every nation and kindred and tongue and people, saying with a loud voice, Fear God and give glory to him, for the hour of his judgment is come.’ Brethren, we the servants of God are come to this place to warn the inhabitants of their approaching danger, and to call upon them to repent and be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ, and they shall receive the gift of the Holy Ghost.
“I feel an anxious desire to deliver this testimony. I feel the word of the Lord like fire in my bones and am desirous to have an opportunity of proclaiming to you those blessings that you are looking for, that you may rejoice with us in those glorious things which God has revealed for the salvation of the world in the last days” (quoted in Roberts, Life of John Taylor, 77–78).
It was fitting that in one of his first sermons in England Elder John Taylor should bear witness of the vision of an angel with a trumpet that he had seen many years before he joined the Church. That vision had been fulfilled; the angel had come and the gospel had been restored. Through Elder Taylor’s continued efforts, ten people from that congregation were soon baptized. From this initial beginning, the work moved ahead rapidly and a large branch of the Church was established in Liverpool.
While serving as a missionary in the British Isles, Elder John Taylor labored for a period of time on the beautiful Isle of Man, in the Irish Sea, the birthplace and girlhood home of his wife, Leonora. In nearly every area of his mission he was challenged by the local clergy to defend the restored gospel. On the Isle of Man, four ministers challenged him. Reverend Robert Heys strongly opposed the Church’s claim to have been founded on new revelation. Reverend Heys based his claim on three passages from the Bible that appeared to forbid new revelation being added to the scriptures.
Elder Taylor made the following reply: “This [Reverend Heys’ argument that ‘God has decreed and declared that nothing shall be either added to … or taken from’ the Bible] certainly must be a new revelation, for such a decree or declaration is not to be found in the whole of the sacred writings! It is true, he quotes three passages—one from Deuteronomy [see Deuteronomy 4:2], one from Proverbs [see Proverbs 30:5–6], and another from Revelation [see Revelation 22:18–19]; but not one of them contains the decree! That in Deuteronomy refers exclusively to the Book of the Law. If they declared the revelation of God to be complete, the other scriptures could never have been written. That in Proverbs refers to the portion of the sacred writings then in existence. If it declared the Holy Scriptures were complete, there would not have been afterwards a continued written revelation. That in the Revelation refers to the Apocalypse alone, it being, when written, a separate book, unconnected with the other books of the New Testament which were not then collected; it could not, therefore, have reference to any other book or books of the Holy Scriptures. According to his own interpretation of the above scriptures, in quoting from Proverbs, he would reject the New Testament and all the prophets that prophesied after Solomon’s day; and in his quotation from Deuteronomy, he would reject all the Bible but the five books of Moses. But let Mr. [Heys] take care that he himself is not incurring the curse by altering the meaning of the words of the very books to which the prohibition positively and particularly refers!” (quoted in Roberts, Life of John Taylor, 94–95).
Adversity and opposition can help in building the kingdom of God. The opposition Elder Taylor faced on the Isle of Man drew many people to the debates, and they found that his message contained answers to their questions. Elder Taylor and his missionary companion founded a thriving branch of the Church on the island before returning to England.
John Taylor had left England several years before, saying he felt strongly that he should go to America and preach the gospel. Ironically, he went to America and found the gospel; then he was called back to England to preach the gospel.
“When the Apostles started on their missions, the Prophet Joseph had instructed them to say nothing, for the present, in relation to the gathering of the people. It was doubtless the unsettled state of the Church at that time which led him to give such counsel. The instructions were, of course, followed by the Apostles; but no sooner were the people baptized than they were seized with a desire to gather with the main body of the Church. ‘I find it difficult to keep anything from the Saints,’ writes Elder Taylor, ‘for the Spirit of God reveals it to them. … Some time ago Sister Mitchel dreamed that she, her husband and a number of others were on board a vessel, and that there were other vessels, loaded with Saints, going somewhere. She felt very happy and was rejoicing in the Lord’” (Roberts, Life of John Taylor, 96).
After the troubles in Missouri had been ended by the exodus of the Church to Illinois, and after the Prophet had communicated with the Apostles in England that emigration could commence, Elder John Taylor then assisted in the founding of a permanent shipping agency in Liverpool and helped more than eight hundred converts immigrate to America.
Before departing for Nauvoo with the other Apostles in the early part of 1841, Elder John Taylor wrote a report of his labors to the Saints in England. In it he said: “I feel to rejoice before God that He has blessed my humble endeavours to promote his cause and kingdom and for all the blessings that I have received from this island; for although I have travelled 5,000 miles without purse or scrip, besides travelling so far in this country on railroads, coaches, steamboats, waggons, on horseback, and almost every way, and been amongst strangers and in strange lands, I have never for once been at a loss for either money, clothes, friends, or a home, from that day until now; neither have I ever asked a person for a farthing. Thus I have proved the Lord, and I know that he is according to his word. And now as I am going away, I bear testimony that this work is of God—that he has spoken from the heavens—that Joseph Smith is a prophet of the Lord—that the Book of Mormon is true; and I know that this work will roll on until ‘the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of our God and his Christ’” (“Communications,” Millennial Star, May 1841, 15–16).
Throughout his assigned mission in England, Elder Taylor raised the warning voice. Thousands flocked to the standard of truth he helped to hold aloft. He published and defended the faith in England and then returned to Nauvoo.
As early as 1831, members of the Church had begun settling western Missouri. By April 1832 trouble arose between the members and their neighbors. The Latter-day Saints were initially driven from county to county, and then by the fall of 1838 they were driven from the state of Missouri to Illinois. In 1839 Church members began writing affidavits legally documenting the injustices in an effort to obtain reparations for their sufferings.
After they were driven from their settlements in Missouri, Church members made at least three attempts to obtain redress from the United States Congress. Elder John Taylor was one of the leaders appointed to petition Congress for redress of the wrongs that had been heaped upon the Latter-day Saints in America. All of the attempts for redress were rejected or ignored by the government.
John Taylor was judge advocate and colonel in the Nauvoo Legion, a member of the Nauvoo City Council, and a regent of the University of Nauvoo. He served as editor of the Times and Seasons, the official newspaper of the Church, and editor of the Nauvoo Neighbor. The Nauvoo Neighbor was published from May 1843–October 1845. It reported the actions of the Nauvoo City Council, local courts, state legislature, and national and international news. The newspaper had regular articles dealing with local interests, such as agriculture, literature, science, and religion. In all of his writings, John Taylor was fearless in his efforts to defend the Church and the Prophet Joseph Smith.
Returning to Nauvoo, the Twelve Apostles confronted a challenge unlike any they had ever faced in their missionary labors. The Prophet Joseph Smith taught them the need for the restoration of celestial marriage, including the doctrine of plural wives. This was difficult for them.
Of his feelings, Elder John Taylor wrote: “I had always entertained strict ideas of virtue, and I felt as a married man that this was to me, outside of this principle, an appalling thing to do. The idea of going and asking a young lady to be married to me when I had already a wife! It was a thing calculated to stir up feelings from the innermost depths of the human soul. I had always entertained the strictest regard of chastity. … Hence, with the feelings I had entertained, nothing but a knowledge of God, and the revelations of God, and the truth of them, could have induced me to embrace such a principle as this” (quoted in Roberts, Life of John Taylor, 100).
Obedient to the Prophet’s counsel, and with Leonora’s consent, Elder Taylor entered into plural marriage and became one of the Church’s chief spokesmen in its defense throughout the remainder of his life.
Plural marriage was perhaps the most difficult of God’s laws that some of the early Saints were called upon to live. But it served the Lord’s purpose and it was a timely test of their faith in the Lord and of their obedience to His mouthpiece on the earth.
In February 1842, Elder John Taylor became the associate editor (and later the editor) of the Church publication Times and Seasons. A year later, he assumed the editorial post for the Nauvoo Neighbor, a weekly newspaper. Elder Taylor’s columns soon became noted for their powerful and forthright spirit.
The year 1844 was a presidential election year. The Saints had strong objections to the candidates of both national parties. Both of the major parties had been contacted, but neither would promise to give any help in preserving the constitutional rights of the Saints. There were even strong indications that plans would be laid to persecute the Saints further after the election had been held.
In Illinois the Saints comprised a substantial voting block. In an editorial in the Nauvoo Neighbor, Elder Taylor nominated the Prophet Joseph Smith for president of the United States. Among his reasons for doing so, he stated: “Under existing circumstances we have no other alternative, and if we can accomplish our object well, if not we shall have the satisfaction of knowing that we have acted conscientiously and have used our best judgment; and if we have to throw away our votes, we had better do so upon a worthy, rather than upon an unworthy individual, who might make use of the weapon we put in his hand to destroy us with” (“Who Shall Be Our Next President!” Nauvoo Neighbor, 14 Feb. 1844).
Today, the Church seeks to remain politically neutral, but the Saints are urged to take an active role in choosing those by whom they will be governed. Members are counseled to elect responsible, moral individuals who will seek to uphold the sovereign rights and freedoms due mankind and those who will respond to the righteous will of the people. Latter-day Saints are encouraged to emulate Elder John Taylor’s example of speaking out on issues that have vital effects on the well-being of the nation and its citizens. In another editorial, Elder Taylor explained why it is essential that we allow our voices to be heard:
“Certainly if any person ought to interfere in political matters it should be those whose minds and judgments are influenced by correct principles—religious as well as political; otherwise those persons professing religion would have to be governed by those who make no professions; be subject to their rule; have the law and word of God trampled under foot, and become as wicked as Sodom and as corrupt as Gomorrah, and be prepared for final destruction. We are told ‘when the wicked rule the people mourn’ [D&C 98:9]. This we have abundantly proved in the state of Missouri, and having had our fingers once burned, we dread the fire. The cause of humanity, the cause of justice, the cause of freedom, the cause of patriotism, and the cause of God requires us to use our endeavours to put in righteous rulers. Our revelations tell us to seek diligently for good and for wise men [see D&C 98:4–10]. …
“Let every man then that hates oppression, and loves the cause of right, not only vote himself; but use his influence to obtain the votes of others, that we may by every legal means support that man whose election will secure the greatest amount of good to the nation at large” (“Religion and Politics,” Times and Seasons, 15 Mar. 1844, 471).
When the Prophet Joseph Smith went to Carthage Jail, Elder John Taylor went with him. He slept in the same cell, offered support and comfort, refused to leave the jail when the opportunity for liberty and life was extended, sang a hymn that embodied the highest principles of his own and the Prophet’s sacrifice (“A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief”), parried away the guns at the door of the cell, and, failing in that effort, was wounded himself. Escape was impossible. He was shot four times, and he lived.
It was shortly after 5:00 on the hot afternoon of 27 June 1844. The mob had fled in panic once their evil purpose had been accomplished. Joseph Smith, the prophet who was called to head the last and greatest gospel dispensation, lay dead outside the jail near the well, where he had plunged from the upper story window. His beloved older brother Hyrum lay dead on the floor of the room in which they had been held prisoners. The terribly wounded John Taylor lay on some straw and under an old filthy mattress in the next room where he had been hastily dragged by Willard Richards to hide him from the murderers. The same fate might have been his, but the Lord decreed otherwise. There were yet missions to fulfill and callings to come.
Forty years later, referring to his experience at the martyrdom, President Taylor said: “Was there anything surprising in all this? No. If they killed Jesus in former times, would not the same feeling and influence bring about the same results in these times? I had counted the cost when I first started out, and stood prepared to meet it” (inJournal of Discourses, 25:92).
The deaths of the Prophet Joseph and Hyrum Smith caused many enemies of the Church—and even some members of the Church—to feel that the Church would fall. In a Times and Seasons editorial, Elder John Taylor contended otherwise. It was, he said, the Lord’s church—not man’s.
“The idea of the church being disorganized and broken up because of the Prophet and Patriarch being slain, is preposterous. This church has the seeds of immortality in its midst. It is not of man, nor by man—it is the offspring of Deity: it is organized after the pattern of heavenly things, through the principles of revelation; by the opening of the heavens, by the ministering of angels, and the revelations of Jehovah. It is not affected by the death of one or two, or fifty individuals; it possesses a priesthood after the order of Melchisedec [sic], having the power of an endless life, ‘without beginning of days, or end of years.’ It is organized for the purpose of saving this generation, and generations that are past; it exists in time and will exist in eternity. This church fail? No! Times and seasons may change, revolution may succeed revolution, thrones may be cast down, and empires be dissolved, earthquakes may rend the earth from centre to circumference, the mountains may be hurled out of their places, and the mighty ocean be moved from its bed; but amidst the crash of worlds and the crack of matter, truth, eternal truth, must remain unchanged, and those principles which God has revealed to his Saints be unscathed amidst the warring elements, and remain as firm as the throne of Jehovah” (“The City of Nauvoo,” Times and Seasons, 15 Dec. 1844, 744).
Following the martyrdom, enemies of the Church began to circulate false statements about the Church and its members as a basis upon which to drive the Saints out of Nauvoo. Raiding parties burned homes, stole cattle, murdered men, and drove women and children out of their homes.
Civil authorities offered no protection, so a state military militia was sent to maintain order so that the Saints could have a season of peace in which to prepare to move west. This militia did not defend the rights of the Saints, but sat idly by while the mobs further outraged the privacy and property of the Saints. Angered by this callous disregard for the rights of the Saints, Elder John Taylor met with the militia commander, Major Warren, to protest their inaction. In turn, Major Warren upbraided the Saints for resisting the law. Elder Taylor replied:
“Major Warren, I stand before you as a man who has received deep injury from the citizens of this state and consequently have some feelings. You talk, sir, about ‘the majesty of the law, and maintaining the law:’ why, sir, the law to us is a mere farce. For years past the law has been made use of only as an engine of oppression. We have received no protection from it. …
“… You talk about the majesty of the law! What has become of those murderers [of the Prophet and his brother]? Have they been hung or shot, or in any way punished? No, sir, you know they have not. … They are still burning houses under your supervision; and you have either been unwilling or unable to stop them. Houses have been burned since your arrival here; men have been kidnapped, cattle stolen, our brethren abused and robbed when going after their corn. Are we to stand still and let marauders and house-burners come into our city … and yet offer no resistance to their nefarious deeds? Are we to be held still by you, sir, while they thrust the hot iron into us? I tell you plainly for one I will not do it. I speak now on my own responsibility, and I tell you, sir, I will not stand it. … [My brethren] shall not be abused under pretext of law or anything else; and there is not a patriot in the world but what would bear me out in it” (quoted in Roberts, Life of John Taylor, 163–65).
Months later, the Saints were encamped at Council Bluffs, Iowa, when they were approached by Captain Allen, an officer of the United States Army. Captain Allen had come to seek the enlistment of five hundred men to assist in the Mexican War. Feelings of loyalty and patriotism were somewhat strained among the pioneers.
In a speech, Elder John Taylor recognized such strained feelings when he said: “Many have felt something like rebelling against the government of the United States. I have myself felt swearing mad at the government for the treatment we have received at the hands of those in authority, although I don’t know that I ever swore much. We have had cause to feel as we have, and any man having a spark of the love of liberty in him would have felt likewise” (quoted in Roberts, Life of John Taylor, 173).
In spite of those legitimate feelings, Elder Taylor then made a motion to trust the government and raise what is known today as the Mormon Battalion. His motion carried. This “Champion of Liberty” was as concerned with supporting his country as he was with fighting for the constitutional rights of the Saints.
Elder John Taylor sustained President Brigham Young as the leader of the Church and helped him in the exodus of the Latter-day Saints as they moved to the West. He served another mission to England and then, with Elder Parley P. Pratt, led the second group west, over 1,500 in number, and arrived in the Salt Lake Valley on 5 October 1847.
The pioneers had been in the Great Basin only two years when President Young called four Apostles to again preach the gospel in Europe. Franklin D. Richards was called to Great Britain, Lorenzo Snow to Italy, Erastus Snow to Denmark, and John Taylor to France and Germany. In France, Elder Taylor established four branches of the Church, with about four hundred members. One of the great accomplishments of this mission was the publication of the Book of Mormon into the French and German languages.
While laboring on his mission in Boulogne, France, Elder John Taylor was challenged to a debate by three ministers. In the course of the debate, these ministers attacked the character of the Prophet Joseph Smith. In defense of the Prophet, Elder Taylor said:
“I testify that I was acquainted with Joseph Smith for years. I have travelled with him; I have been with him in private and in public; I have associated with him in councils of all kinds; I have listened hundreds of times to his public teachings, and his advice to his friends and associates of a more private nature. I have been at his house and seen his deportment in his family. I have seen him arraigned before the tribunals of his country, and seen him honourably acquitted, and delivered from the pernicious breath of slander, and the machinations and falsehoods of wicked and corrupt men. I was with him living, and with him when he died, when he was murdered in Carthage gaol [jail] by a ruthless mob, headed by a Methodist minister, named Williams, with their faces painted. I was there and was myself wounded: I at that time received four balls in my body. I have seen him, then, under these various circumstances, and I testify before God, angels, and men, that he was a good, honourable, virtuous man—that his doctrines were good, scriptural, and wholesome—that his precepts were such as became a man of God—that his private and public character was unimpeachable—and that he lived and died as a man of God and a gentleman. This is my testimony; if it is disputed, bring me a person authorized to receive an affidavit, and I will make one to this effect” (“Three Nights’ Public Discussion,” in A Series of Pamphlets, by Orson Pratt, 23–24).
In 1852, the doctrine of plural marriage was publicly announced. However, based on the reports of corrupt apostates, gross misrepresentations of the practice were being described in the nation’s press. In order to stem the tide of prejudice, Elder John Taylor and four other brethren were called upon to publish newspapers across the United States in defense of the Church. In New York City, New York, Elder Taylor opened the offices of The Mormon squarely between the offices of the New York Herald and the New York Tribune, the two newspapers most critical of the Church.
In the first issue of The Mormon, Elder Taylor explained the editorial point of view of the newspaper: “We have no particular standard, except the broad platform of truth—religious, political, social, moral, and philosophical. We are not bound down to any particular party, or creed; either religious or political. It is true we are Mormon, inside and outside, at home and abroad, in public and private, everywhere. We are so, however, from principle. We are such, not because we believe it to be more popular, lucrative, or honorable, (as the world has it); but because we believe it to be more true, more reasonable and scriptural, moral and philosophic; because we conscientiously believe that it is more calculated to promote the happiness and well being of humanity, in time and throughout all eternity, than any other system which we have met with” (“Introductory Address,” The Mormon, 17 Feb. 1855, 2).
It took courage to defend the Church in the bold and forthright manner that Elder Taylor defended it. President Brigham Young said: “With regard to the labors of Brother Taylor in editing the paper called The Mormon, published in the city of New York, I have heard many remarks concerning the editorials in that paper, not only from the Saints, but from those who do not profess to believe the religion we have embraced; and it is probably one of the strongest edited papers that is now published” (quoted in Roberts, Life of John Taylor, 271).
In a step toward statehood, Utah received territorial status in 1850. Brigham Young was appointed its first governor by President Millard Fillmore, but many other positions were filled by unfriendly government appointees from other areas of the country. Some of these officials were not honorable men. Nearly all lacked familiarity and sensitivity to the standards, ideals, and goals of the Church.
In 1857, President James Buchanan received reports from one corrupt territorial judge charging that the Mormons had destroyed federal court records, resisted all federal laws, were disloyal to the country, and were obedient only to Brigham Young. The accusations were purely ludicrous, but without further investigation Buchanan appointed Alfred Cumming of Georgia as the new governor of Utah and sent a force of twenty-five hundred troops to escort Cumming to Utah and resolve the so-called “Utah rebellion.” Further, he made no attempt to notify Governor Young of his plans. Thus, when scattered reports of the “Utah Expedition” reached the Saints, they feared the worst and prepared for war.
Called home from his New York mission, Elder John Taylor prepared a memorandum addressed to the president and the Congress of the United States, which read, in part:
“We appeal to you as American citizens who have been wronged, insulted, abused and persecuted; driven before our relentless foes from city to city—from state to state—until we were finally expelled from the confines of civilization to seek a shelter in a barren, inhospitable clime, amid the wild, savage tribes of the desert plains. We claim to be a portion of the people, and as such have rights that must be respected, and which we have a right to demand. We claim that in a republican form of government, such as our fathers established, and such as ours still professes to be, the officers are and should be the servants of the people—not their masters, dictators or tyrants.
“To the numerous charges of our enemies we plead not guilty, and challenge the world before any just tribunal to the proof. … Try on the plaster of friendly intercourse and honorable dealing instead of foul aggression and war. Treat us as friends—as citizens entitled to and possessing equal rights with our fellows—and not as alien enemies, lest you make us such. … All we want is the truth and fair play. The administration have been imposed upon by false, designing men; their acts have been precipitate and hasty, perhaps through lack of due consideration. Please to let us know what you want of us before you prepare your halters to hang, or ‘apply the knife to cut out the loathsome, disgusting ulcer.’ Do you wish us to deny our God and renounce our religion? That we shall not do. … Withdraw your troops, give us our Constitutional rights and we are at home” (quoted in Roberts, Life of John Taylor, 294–95).
Although the Saints were prepared to resist the advancing army, if necessary, they did all they could to avoid such a confrontation. Negotiations began to successfully resolve the misunderstandings. The United States army sent Captain Stewart Van Vliet on assignment into Salt Lake City. Captain Van Vliet did not find what he expected. Upon his return to the encamped army to report the results of his investigation, he had radically altered his views and advocated a peaceful reconciliation.
The Saints succeeded in holding the army out of the Salt Lake Valley until the spring of 1858. When the army was permitted to enter, on a promise of good behavior, they found the Saints ready to set fire to their homes rather than submit to unlawful oppression. Speaking in the Salt Lake Tabernacle in December 1857, Elder John Taylor said:
“I do not remember having read in any history, or had related to me any circumstance where an army has been subjugated so easily, and their power wasted away so effectually without bloodshed, as this in our borders. If this is not the manifestation of the power of God to us, I do not know what is. Has any man’s life been lost in it? No—not one. …
“Suppose Uncle Sam should rise up in his red hot wrath and send 50,000 men here … —who of us can tell the result? I speak of these things that we may reflect. Who can tell what will come next? Who knows about the future? You see the position we are placed in—that we are dependent on the Lord and on his counsel, and all that we can do or say will be according to that from this time henceforth and for ever. Zion begins to rise, her light being come. The glory of the Lord is rising upon us. …
“What if we should be driven to the mountains? Let us be driven. What if we have to burn our houses? Why, set fire to them with a good grace, and dance a jig round them while they are burning. What do I care about these things? We are in the hands of God, and all is right” (inJournal of Discourses, 6:112–13).
At the death of President Brigham Young on 29 August 1877, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles became the presiding quorum of the Church. Formally sustained on 4 September 1877, the Twelve, with John Taylor as Quorum President, stood in place of the First Presidency until the First Presidency was formally reorganized on 10 October 1880. (The Quorum of the Twelve Apostles had also presided from the death of the Prophet Joseph Smith on 27 June 1844 until Brigham Young was sustained as President of the Church on 27 December 1847.)
John Taylor’s life was preserved during the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph and Hyrum Smith at Carthage Jail. The Lord confirmed this in a revelation given 26 January 1880 to Elder Wilford Woodruff, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles: “I the Lord have raised up unto you my servant, John Taylor, to preside over you and to be a lawgiver unto my Church. He has mingled his blood with that of the martyred prophets. Nevertheless, while I have taken my servants Joseph and Hyrum Smith unto myself, I have preserved my servant John Taylor for a wise purpose in me” (Wilford Woodruff’s Journal, 1833–1898 Typescript, ed. Scott G. Kenney, 9 vols. [1983–85], 7:620; punctuation, capitalization, and spelling standardized).
President Taylor had a special mission to fulfill, and he lead the Church through a decade of great crises. During the Pioneer Day celebration on 24 July 1880, he prophetically stated: “There are events in the future, and not very far ahead, that will require all our faith, all our energy, all our confidence, all our trust in God, to enable us to withstand the influences that will be brought to bear against us. … We cannot trust in our intelligence; we cannot trust in our wealth; we cannot trust to any surrounding circumstances with which we are enveloped; we must trust alone in the living God to guide us, to direct us, to lead us, to teach us and to instruct us. And there never was a time when we needed to be more humble and more prayerful; there never was a time when we needed more fidelity, self-denial, and adherence to the principles of truth, than we do this day” (quoted in Joseph Fielding Smith, Essentials in Church History , 479).
Although storm clouds were on the horizon, there was an air of general rejoicing among the Saints in 1880. It was the fiftieth anniversary of the restoration of the Church. In ancient Israel every fiftieth year was a jubilee—a time to forgive indebtedness and to bless the poor. President John Taylor resolved that this should be the theme:
“It occurred to me that we ought to do something, as they did in former times, to relieve those that are oppressed with debt, to assist those that are needy, to break the yoke off those that may feel themselves crowded upon, and to make it a time of general rejoicing” (in Conference Report, Apr. 1880, 61).
The Church canceled the debts of the worthy poor who had received money from the Perpetual Emigration Fund to help them move to Utah and who, after having arrived, had experienced failure and hardship to the extent that they were not able to repay their debt to the fund.
President Taylor gave the following counsel to the more affluent members: “The rich … have a fitting opportunity for remembering the Lord’s poor. If you are holding their notes and they are unable to pay, forgive the interest and the principal, or as much thereof as you might desire them to forgive were their and your circumstances reversed, thus doing unto others as you would that others should do unto you. For upon this hang the law and the prophets. If you have mortgages upon the homes of your brethren and sisters who are poor, worthy and honest, and who desire to pay you but cannot, free them in whole or in part. Extend to them a jubilee, if you can consistently. You will have their faith and prayers and confidence, which may be worth more than money” (quoted in Roberts, Life of John Taylor, 336–37).
Dense clouds and heavy rains marked the April general conference of 1882. The weather seemed prophetic of the days ahead. Nineteen months had passed since President John Taylor had warned of influences that would gather against the Church. Now those influences began to make themselves felt. In the fall of 1881, ministers of various denominations began clamoring for stricter laws relating to the practice of plural marriage. On 22 March 1882, the president of the United States signed into law the Edmunds Bill, which disfranchised the Church and provided for the fining or imprisonment of all male members who believed in or practiced plural marriage. President Taylor advised Church members to turn up their collars and weather it through:
“We do not wish to place ourselves in a state of antagonism, nor to act defiantly, towards this government. We will fulfil the letter, so far as practicable, of that unjust, inhuman, oppressive and unconstitutional law, so far as we can without violating principle; but we cannot sacrifice every principle of human right at the behest of corrupt, unreasoning and unprincipled men; we cannot violate the highest and noblest principles of human nature and make pariahs and outcasts of high-minded, virtuous and honorable women, nor sacrifice at the shrine of popular clamor the highest and noblest principles of humanity!
“We shall abide all constitutional law, as we always have done; but while we are Godfearing and law-abiding, and respect all honorable men and officers, we are no craven serfs, and have not learned to lick the feet of oppressors, nor to bow in base submission to unreasoning clamor. We will contend, inch by inch, legally and constitutionally, for our rights as American citizens, and for the universal rights of universal man. We stand proudly erect in the consciousness of our rights as American citizens, and plant ourselves firmly on the sacred guarantees of the Constitution; and that instrument, while it defines the powers and privileges of the President, Congress and the judiciary, also directly provides that ‘the powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively or to the people’” (in Journal of Discourses, 23:67).
Persecution once again began to plague the Church members and they were no longer safe in the West. During the decade of persecution (1877–87), houses were broken into and ransacked, innocent persons were compelled to accompany federal marshals to places of inquisition, and men were fined and hounded far beyond the legal limits. In the southern United States, many missionaries were mobbed and beaten, and some were killed.
Having heard of the great abuse heaped upon the Church by government officers in Arizona, President John Taylor paid them a visit and recommended that they establish temporary homes in Mexico. Heeding the prophet’s counsel, more than three thousand members of the Church eventually relocated in the state of Chihuahua, Mexico, founding the Mormon Colony cities of Colonia Juarez, Colonia Dublan, and Colonia Diaz. (See Roberts, Life of John Taylor, 380–83.)
President Taylor later advised those living in Cache Valley, Utah, to emigrate to Canada for similar reasons. Many parts of the province of Alberta were settled by Church members.
Learning of plans for their arrest, and knowing that their imprisonment might provoke members of the Church to retaliate in such a way as to give the courts and officers of the government a pretext upon which to destroy the Church, the members of the First Presidency elected to withdraw from public view and continue their sacred labors.
In his last public address, President John Taylor said: “It is for us to do what is right, to fear God, to observe His laws, and keep His commandments, and the Lord will manage all the rest. But no breaking of heads, no bloodshed, no rendering evil for evil. Let us try and cultivate the spirit of the Gospel, and adhere to the principles of truth. Let us honor our God, and be true to those eternal principles which God has given us to hold sacred. Keep them as sacredly as you would the apple of your eye. And while other men are seeking to trample the Constitution under foot, we will try to maintain it” (inJournal of Discourses, 26:156).
When John Taylor was a young man sailing toward an unknown destiny in America, his ship passed through a storm so severe that the captain feared the vessel would sink. Yet John was calm and unafraid. He took little notice of the winds and waves. He knew his life was in God’s hands. He was prepared to do whatever the Lord desired of him. Other storms came as his mission unfolded—storms of men and storms of nature. Yet he did not rail against them; he remained calm and serene.
He once said: “So far as I am concerned, I say, let everything come as God has ordained it. I do not desire trials; I do not desire affliction: I would pray to God to ‘leave me not in temptation, and deliver me from evil; for thine is the kingdom, the power, and the glory.’ But if the earthquake bellows, the lightnings flash, the thunders roll, and the powers of darkness are let loose, and the spirit of evil is permitted to rage, and an evil influence is brought to bear on the Saints, and my life, with theirs, is put to the test; let it come, for we are the Saints of the most High God, and all is well, all is peace, all is right, and will be, both in time and in eternity” (inJournal of Discourses, 5:114–15).
Denied regular access to and separated from his loved ones, and under great strain from the Church’s struggles for its constitutional rights, President John Taylor’s health failed and he died at the age of seventy-eight in Kaysville, Utah, on 25 July 1887. At his death, he still carried in his body some of the bullets from the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph and Hyrum Smith. Following his passing, his counselors, George Q. Cannon and Joseph F. Smith, issued a tribute which read, in part:
“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. But in the face of angry mobs, and at other times when in imminent danger of personal violence from those who threatened his life, and upon occasions when the people were menaced with public peril, he never blenched—his knees never trembled, his hand never shook. Every Latter-day Saint always knew beforehand, on occasions when firmness and courage were needed, where President John Taylor would be found and what his tone would be. 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 who were distinguished for the same qualities. With these were combined an intense love of freedom and hatred of oppression. He was a man whom all could trust, and throughout his life he enjoyed, to an extent surpassed by none, the implicit confidence of the Prophets Joseph, Hyrum and Brigham and all the leading men and members of the Church. The title of ‘Champion of Liberty,’ which he received at Nauvoo, was always felt to be most appropriate for him to bear. …
“By the miraculous power of God, President Taylor escaped the death which the assassins of Carthage jail assigned for him. His blood was then mingled with the blood of the martyred Prophet and Patriarch. He has stood since then as a living martyr for the truth” (“Announcement of the Death of President John Taylor,” Deseret Evening News, 26 July 1887, 2).
President John Taylor died in exile, in perhaps the darkest hour of the Church’s struggle to survive, as a martyr to the principles of loyalty and integrity, as a martyr to freedom of religion, as a martyr to the divinity and witness inherent in his apostolic calling, as a martyr to the restoration of the true Church of Jesus Christ, and as a martyr to the reality of Jesus Himself, whose servant he was.