“John Taylor: The Courageous,” New Era, Jan. 1972, 25
Many have read or heard about how a bullet struck John Taylor’s watch and miraculously spared his life at the martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith at Carthage Jail, or how Hyrum encouraged John Taylor to sing for them “A Poor Wayfaring Man of Grief” shortly before the tragic hour.
But few people, perhaps, have a clear picture of the man himself—his enormously successful role as a journalist for the Church and his own personal brand of boldness and candid faith that he exhibited in everything he did.
Probably his own life-style is described as clearly as can be in two simple nicknames and affectionate titles given him early in his career in the Church: “Defender of the Faith” and “Champion of Liberty.”
What goes into the making of a man who will step in front of a large unfriendly gathering and openly invite them to harm him? And yet, paradoxically, what goes into the making of a man whose heart so understood people’s feelings that he often solved arguments without saying a single word?
Like so much else in life, such characteristics begin to develop early in our youth in our attitudes toward the Lord and his gospel.
Said President Taylor: “I am reminded of my boyhood. At that early period of my life I learned to approach God. Many a time I have gone into the fields, and, concealing myself behind some bush, would bow before the Lord and call upon him to guide and direct me. And he heard my prayer. At times I would get other boys to accompany me. It would not hurt you … to call upon the Lord in your secret places, as I did.”
At fifteen he joined the Methodists in his native Milnthorpe, England, and soon afterward he was appointed to be a local preacher.
Then two years after his parents immigrated to Canada, he said, “I have a strong impression on my mind that I have to go to America to preach the gospel,” and he went to Toronto, Canada, where he met and married his wife and worked on the trades he had learned—cooper (maker of barrels and casks) and woodturner.
It was in Toronto that John Taylor heard the gospel as a result of some unusual circumstances. Parley P. Pratt had been sent to the city by revelation (Elder Heber C. Kimball had also prophesied: “… and from the things growing out of this mission, shall the fulness of the gospel spread into England”). He had received from a stranger in Hamilton, Canada, a letter of introduction to a John Taylor in Toronto, but when Elder Pratt called at the Taylor home, his reception was polite but not exactly cordial. So after presenting his message to ministers in the city, Elder Pratt prepared to leave. Valise in hand, he was saying good-bye to John Taylor when a neighbor came in, offered her home for Elder Pratt to preach in, and proposed to lodge and feed him. The neighbor was a member of a study group that the Taylors had organized. Within a number of days, John Taylor heard Elder Pratt preach. This was his response:
“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. … I desire to investigate his doctrines and claims to authority, and shall be very glad if some of my friends will unite with me in this investigation. But if no one will unite with me, be assured I shall make the investigation alone. If I find his religion true, I shall accept it, no matter what the consequences may be; but if false, then I shall expose it.”
He followed Elder Pratt around and wrote down eight different sermons he delivered. He then privately compared them with the scriptures. “I made a regular business of it for three weeks and followed Brother Pratt from place to place.” He and his wife joined the Church shortly thereafter.
Two years later, after having converted many friends and neighbors in Toronto and after having moved to Kirtland to be with the Saints, he was ordained an apostle a few days after his thirtieth birthday. Six years later John Taylor was appointed editor of the Times and Seasons, the Church newspaper in Nauvoo. In the years that followed, he edited and authored many newspapers, booklets, and tracts and gained considerable fame as an extremely powerful orator who impressed listeners with logic rather than sheer emotion.
Said President Brigham Young of Elder Taylor’s gifts: “With regard to Brother John Taylor, I will say that he has one of the strongest intellects of any man that can be found; he is a powerful man, he is a mighty man, and we may say that he is a powerful editor, but I will use a term to suit myself, and say that he is one of the strongest editors that ever lived. …”
In time, Elder Taylor assisted in carrying the gospel to the British Isles. He opened up Ireland, the Isle of Man, and Liverpool, other places. He then carried the gospel to France, as well as many other places, and helped the Saints move westward after the martyrdom. In the West he became extremely prominent in civic affairs and in directing the affairs of the Church.
But the man himself—what was he like? A good view of John Taylor is seen in this incident. Elder Taylor had gone to speak to a number of Saints near Columbus, Ohio. Shortly before the hour arrived, some of the Saints reported that most of the townspeople were planning to gather at the open-air site to hear him and that many expected him to be tarred and feathered. He was advised not to go. After a moment’s reflection Elder Taylor replied that he would go, and if his friends chose not to go with him, he would go alone.
When he arrived, he began by informing those gathered that he had come lately from Canada—a land under monarchical rule: “Gentlemen, I now stand among men whose fathers fought for and obtained the greatest blessings ever conferred upon the human family—the right to think, to speak, to write; the right to say who shall govern them, and the right to worship God according to the dictates of their own consciences. … I see around me the sons of those noble sires, who, rather than bow to the behests of a tyrant, pledged their lives, fortunes and sacred honors to burst those fetters. …
“They nobly fought and nobly conquered; and now the cap of liberty is elevated on the tops of your liberty poles throughout the land, and the flag of freedom waves. … Not only so, but your vessels—foremost in the world—sail over oceans, seas and bays; visiting every nation, and wherever those vessels go your flag flutters in the breeze, a hope is inspired among the down-trodden millions, that they, perchance, if they cannot find liberty in their own land, may find it with you. … Gentlemen, with you liberty is more than a name; it is incorporated in your system; it is proclaimed by your senators; thundered by your cannon; lisped by your infants; taught to your school-boys. … Is it any wonder, gentlemen, under these circumstances—having lately emerged from a monarchical government, that I should experience peculiar sensations in rising to address you?
“But, by the by, 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? If so, you now have a victim, and we will have an offering to the goddess of liberty.” Here he tore open his vest and said: “Gentlemen come on with your tar and feathers, your victim is ready; and ye shades of the venerable patriots, gaze upon the deeds of your degenerate sons! Come on, gentlemen! Come on, I say, I am ready!” No one moved. No one spoke. He stood there, drawn to his full majestic six-foot height, calm and defiant. No one came.
After a pause he continued tc preach for three hours! At the conclusion, leaders of the community approached him, expressing displeasure at any unfortunate intentions of their fellow citizens.
His courageous and daring faith is shown in another incident. He was called to serve a mission in England. After a difficult journey from Far West, Elder Taylor arrived in New York with only one cent in his pocket. But he was the last man to plead poverty, and in answer to questions if he had money, he said he did. So the next day Elder Parley P. Pratt (the man who baptized him) approached him:
“Brother Taylor, I hear you have plenty of money?”
“Yes, Brother Pratt, that’s true.” “Well,” said Elder Pratt “I’m about to publish my ‘Voice of Warning’ and ‘Millennial Poems;’ I am very much in need of money, and if you could furnish me two or three hundred dollars I should be very much obliged.”
“Well, Brother Parley, you are welcome to anything I have, if it will be of service to you.” At that he put his hand in his pocket and gave Elder Pratt the penny. A good laugh followed and then Elder Pratt said, “But I thought you gave it out that you had plenty of money.” “Yes, and so I have,” replied Elder Taylor. “I am well clothed, you furnish me plenty to eat and drink and good lodging; with all these things and a penny over, as I owe nothing, is that not plenty?”
That evening at a council meeting of some of the brethren preparing to go to England, Elder Pratt proposed that the brethren assist Elder Taylor with means to pay his passage, since Wilford Woodruff was waiting for Elder Taylor to go with him. At the close of the meeting, Elder Taylor objected and said if they had anything they should give it to Parley Pratt because he had a family to support and needed money for publishing. Wilford Woodruff, a great man of faith himself, expressed regret at Elder Taylor’s position. Then said Elder Taylor: “Well, Brother Woodruff, if you think it best for me to go, I will accompany you.” “But where will you get the money?” asked Elder Woodruff. “Oh, there will be no difficulty about that. Go and take a passage for me on your vessel, and I will furnish you the means.” Elder Woodruff did as he was asked—and then from various persons who were moved upon by the Spirit of the Lord, voluntary donations, unasked for by Elder Taylor, came into him, sufficient for him to not only pay his passage but that of another elder.
Sterling courage and boldness—in pen, word, and in deed!
But long unheralded were President Taylor’s understanding and love of people. Once, while president of the Council of the Twelve, after the Saints had reached Utah, two old and faithful brethren approached him about a strong and bitter quarrel between them. They had resolved to abide by whatever decision Brother Taylor might render. So they called on him, explained that they had seriously quarreled, and asked if he would listen to their story.
He said, “Brethren, before I hear your case, I would like very much to sing one of the songs of Zion for you.” A very talented and moving singer, President Taylor then sang a hymn to the men. Seeing its effect, he remarked that he never heard one of the songs of Zion but that he wanted to listen to one more. So the two brethren consented to hearing a second hymn. After the second song, President Taylor remarked that he had heard there was luck in odd numbers, so with their consent he would sing still another song. Afterwards he said, “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.” By the time he had finished with his fourth selection, the two brethren were melted to tears; they got up, shook hands, and asked President Taylor to excuse them for having called upon him. His singing had reconciled their feelings toward each other.
Another time a difficulty had developed between members of a branch. “I thought it a very insignificant affair. When we had assembled I opened the meeting with prayer, and then called upon a number of those present to pray; they did so, and the Spirit of God rested upon us. I could perceive that a good feeling existed in the hearts of those who had come to present their grievances, and I told them to bring forward their case. But they said that they had not anything to bring forward. The feelings and spirit they had been in possession of had left them, the Spirit of God had obliterated these feelings out of their hearts, and they knew it was right for them to forgive one another.”
Such was John Taylor! At the death of President Brigham Young in 1877, John Taylor assumed the leadership of the Church until his death in 1887.
Ironically, although he was proclaimed the champion of liberty, he directed much of his administration while in exile because of the U.S. government’s intense nonmilitary persecution of the Saints due to their stand on plural marriage. As a result, it was under President Taylor that the great colonies of Saints immigrated to Mexico and Canada.
At one point in the persecution he 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 … 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. … I feel to acquiesce and put my shoulder to the work, whatever it is. If it is for peace, let it be peace; if it is for war, let it be to the hilt.”
Without his courageous spirit during these difficult times, many of the Saints may have buckled. He was an obvious example of the truth that courage is contagious. And so it is, even in your own life and in the lives of others whom you influence.
John Taylor Highlights (1808–1887)
Nov. 1, 1808
Born in Milnthorpe, England
Works as cooper, later as woodturner
Emigrates to Canada
Baptized; placed in charge of Church in Canada
Serves first mission to Britain
Editor, Times and Seasons
Serves second mission to Britain
Serves mission to France and Germany
Presides over Eastern States Mission
Member, Utah Territorial Legislature
Becomes leader of Church as president of Council of the Twelve
Sustained president of Church
Makes last public appearance before withdrawing into exile due to laws against plural marriage
July 25, 1887