Samuel Johnson placed him "at the head of all the divines that
have succeeded the fathers", and Samuel Taylor Coleridge ranked him
with Shakespeare and Milton.
An author so admired over so many years ought to be universally
celebrated. But no: Jeremy Taylor, devotional writer and preacher,
theological controversialist and bishop, has become a neglected
This year, the 400th anniversary of his birth, has not been
marked by new books or programmes on the radio or television. Some
commemorative lectures and services have, however, taken place,
including a series of sermons at Gonville and Caius College,
Cambridge, where he was an undergraduate and fellow.
Taylor's fame endured long after his death, but his origins were
obscure. He was born on an unknown date in 1613 in Cambridge, the
son of a barber. Ability took him first to the Perse School, and
then to Caius. A sermon he preached attracted the attention of
William Laud, the Archbishop of Canterbury, and in 1635 Laud
nominated him to a fellowship of All Souls, Oxford.
For Taylor, as for so many others, the outbreak of civil war in
1642 proved disastrous: his ardent Anglicanism and royalism put him
on what proved to be the losing side. As a royal chaplain, he had
been in the counsels of the King, but royal patronage was of no
avail later on. The kingless years forced Taylor, who had lost
virtually all other means of support, to rely on the patronage of
friends and sympathisers; he was imprisoned twice; services had to
be conducted clandestinely.
But these years helped to make his enduring reputation. Most of
the works in the 15-volume edition were written then. These books
kept alive the intellectual and spiritual life of the English
Church when her material fortunes were at their lowest.
Taylor's works range over a variety of subjects and approaches.
His life of Christ, The Great Exemplar, published in 1649
and the first written in English, is a work of imaginative and
affective spirituality. In Holy Living (1650) and Holy
Dying (1651), and The Golden Grove (1654), he
produced devotional works and collections of prayers to feed the
souls of his co-religionists; the first two of these were to be
During these years, Taylor de-veloped two important friendships.
One, with the diarist John Evelyn, was of great emotional
intensity; he enjoyed Evelyn's financial support. Another
benefactor was Lord Conway, and it was at his behest that Taylor
moved to Ireland in 1658, settling at various places on or near the
After the restoration of Charles II in 1660, Taylor was
nominated as Bishop of Down & Connor, and the see of Dromore
was added in 1661. This was part of a policy to deal with the
Ulster Presbyterians where they were strongest. Soon Taylor
expelled more than 30 Presbyterian incumbents from their parishes.
New clergy, episcopally ordained, were brought in to replace them.
In August 1667, Taylor died, having been ill for some time.
But his admirers did not exaggerate his merits. Taylor is the
greatest unread English author of prose. His prose is always lucid
and fluent; sometimes, it is exuberantly baroque; at others, he
writes with coolness and precision. On occasions, the limpidity and
beauty of his style are poetic. The reader who is prepared to give
him time will be richly rewarded.
C. D. C. Armstrong has written extensively on the religious
history of early modern England. He will be giving a lecture on
Jeremy Taylor on 20 September in St George's, Belfast.