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‘At the head of all the divines’

30 August 2013

A series on Taylor begins with C. D. C. Armstrong


Celebrated: Jeremy Taylor, in a portrait at his Cambridge college

Celebrated: Jeremy Taylor, in a portrait at his Cambridge college

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 figure.

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 enduringly influential.

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 peer's estates.

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.

Forthcoming Events

18 May 2021
Lift Up Your Voices, Lift Up Your Hearts
Speakers include John Bell, Noel Tredinnick and Helen Bent.

27 May 2021
Book launch: God is not a White Man
Chine McDonald in conversation with Sanjee Perera.

More events

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