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John Taylor: Champion of truth in tumultuous years

During 1993, members of the Church are studying the Doctrine and Covenants and Church history in the Gospel Doctrine class. This is the third of a series of articles on the presidents of the Church that will run in the Church News this year.

At Far West, Mo., on July 8, 1838, the Lord revealed His will concerning an exceptional man. John Taylor was to be appointed to fill one of the vacancies created in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles by the unfortunate apostasy of four of its original members.1 John Taylor would not only respond and faithfully discharge his duty as an apostle and member of the Quorum of the Twelve for more than 40 years, but would subsequently be called as the third president of Christ's restored Church to lead it through one of its most difficult and trying times.John Taylor was born Nov. 1, 1808, in Milnthorpe, Westmoreland, England, to James and Agnes Taylor. In his youth he attended school and took part in the labor and activities common to farming. During that time he remembered having "indelibly impressed upon my mind some of my first mishaps in horsemanship in the way of sundry curious evolutions between the horses' backs and terra firma."2 At 14 he was apprenticed to a cooper (barrel-maker). A year later, however, he redirected his efforts to mastering wood turning and started his own business at age 20.

As a youth he also gave his attention to spiritual matters. From his boyhood he felt a deep reverence for God and feared offending Him. Much of his leisure time was spent studying the Bible, reading works on theology, and in supplication to the Lord. He frequently prayed privately, retiring to secluded places in the local woods and fields.

While still a small boy, although he did not fully understand its significance at the time, he prophetically saw a vision in which a heavenly angel with a trumpet was sounding a message to the nations of the earth. He also recalled, "often when alone and sometimes in company I heard sweet, soft, melodious music, as if performed by angelic or supernatural beings."3

Although he was baptized in infancy and raised in the Church of England, at about 16 years of age he became impressed with the Methodists. He joined them and at 17 became an exhorter, or local preacher. One day, while walking with a companion toward a nearby village to fulfill a preaching appointment, he experienced a strong feeling that he was to go to America and preach the gospel. The realization of this prophetic impression began seven years later when, following his parents, he immigrated to Toronto in Upper Canada. Arriving in Toronto, he soon established a successful business, continued his affiliation and preaching with the Methodist Church, and married Leonora Cannon.

Meanwhile, in April 1836, events were transpiring in Kirtland, Ohio, that would forever alter his life. Having retired for the night, Parley P. Pratt was roused by fellow apostle Heber C. Kimball and requested to receive a blessing he felt inspired to give. Elder Pratt was promised in the blessing that his ailing wife would be healed and, after 10 years of childless marriage, would yet bear him a son. Counseled to take no thought for his temporal needs, he was told to go to Toronto where he would find a people prepared to receive the fullness of the gospel and there organize the Church. He was further informed that from this mission the fullness of the gospel would "spread into England, and cause a great work to be done in that land."4

Impressed by the blessing, Elder Pratt set out for Canada within a few days. He carried little except his faith and a letter of introduction written by a Brother Nickerson and addressed to John Taylor.

In spite of the letter, the missionary received a polite but discouraging welcome in Toronto.

Earlier, Taylor and a group of friends had become convinced that the religion they were following did not exhibit the pattern and power of Christ's ancient church. Consequently, they had been meeting regularly to study the scriptures and investigate the truth claims of various other sects.

They had prayed that if Christ's true church were on the earth, a messenger would reveal it. Influenced by initial misrepresented reports of "Mormonism," John Taylor was not immediately prepared to recognize Parley P. Pratt as that messenger.

Being unable to obtain a place to preach from other local religious leaders and feeling somewhat discouraged, Elder Pratt was prepared to leave the city. Fortunately, a friend of the Taylors, Mrs. Walton, became aware of the situation and offered to let him preach in her home. After a closer hearing, John Taylor began a more thorough investigation by recording six of Elder Pratt's sermons and carefully comparing them with the scriptures. Becoming convinced of the truthfulness of the message, he and Leonora were baptized on May 9, 1836.

Shortly thereafter, he received the Melchizedek Priesthood and was called to preside over the Church in Canada. The strength of his conversion and commitment to Christ and the restored gospel would become apparent in ensuing years.

An early example of his commitment came the following March when he visited Kirtland. In the spring of 1837 Kirtland was rife with dissension and disharmony. Sadly, he found that even the missionary who had delivered the gospel to him was temporarily floundering under a cloud of darkness. Undaunted he replied to Parley P. Pratt's misgivings: "Now Brother Parley, it is not the man that I am following, but the Lord. The principles you taught me led me to Him, and now I 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."5

A further opportunity to reaffirm this testimony occurred while he was attending a meeting in the Kirtland Temple. The spirit of apostasy was displayed by several individuals who took occasion to speak against the Prophet Joseph Smith. Elder Taylor stood and responded: "It was Joseph Smith, under the Almighty, who developed the first principles, and to him we 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."6

The defender of the faith returned to Canada likely unaware that his devotion to Joseph would very nearly require his life seven years later at Carthage Jail.

Before spilling his blood with the Prophet's, however, he would experience other challenges and make other contributions. He again left Toronto in the fall of 1837 to gather with the Church in Missouri. Following an arduous trek of nearly 1,200 miles, he arrived in Missouri only to find perilous days of persecution. During those trying times he distinguished himself by drafting petitions calling for justice and relief. He labored to assist those afflicted and, finally, following Gov. Lilburn W. Boggs' infamous "extermination order," helped resettle the displaced and homeless saints in Illinois.

John Taylor's call to the apostleship included a call "to go over the great waters, and there promulgate my gospel." (D&C 118:4.) While there he preached, introduced the gospel in Ireland, wrote a number of influential pamphlets, and helped British saints gather to Nauvoo.

He returned to Nauvoo July 1, 1841, but other mission calls would come. Within five years he was called to serve a second time in England from 1846-47. This was followed by a mission to Europe from 1848-1852, where he introduced the gospel in France and initiated publication of the Book of Mormon in French and German. Finally, he presided over the Eastern States Mission from 1855-57. During this mission, he also edited The Mormon, a Church paper published to counteract anti-Mormon sentiment.

Returning from his first mission to Britain, he worked to further establish the growing city of Nauvoo, served on the City Council and acted as Judge Advocate of the Nauvoo Legion. In addition, he served simultaneously as the editor of two important Nauvoo newspapers: The Times and Seasons and The Nauvoo Neighbor.

Concerning his intelligence and his power with the written word, Brigham Young stated: "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 the term to suit myself, and say that he is one of the strongest editors that ever wrote."7

Unquestionably, one of John Taylor's most difficult trials occurred during this period of time in Nauvoo. At the Prophet's request, he accompanied Joseph, Hyrum Smith and Willard Richards to Carthage jail.

Late in the warm afternoon of June 27, 1844, Elder Taylor, aware of their prospects, felt heavy in spirit. Nevertheless, he complied with Joseph's request to sing "A Poor, Wayfaring Man of Grief." Not long after he finished singing the song for the second time, a mob stormed the jail and Joseph and Hyrum were killed. Notwithstanding being severely wounded in four places, John Taylor miraculously survived.

Although he later commented, "I had counted the cost when I first started out, and stood prepared to meet it,"8 he also expressed great gratitude that he was providentially spared for another purpose: "My heart melted before the Lord. I felt that the Lord had preserved me by a special act of mercy; that my time had not yet come, and that I still had a work to perform upon the earth."9

He filled a second mission to England, but returned early enough in 1847 to conduct a pioneer company to Salt Lake City. He became a solid source of leadership in the developing pioneer community and was seated in the Territorial Legislature for 20 years.

His greatest call to serve followed the death of Brigham Young in 1877. After leading the Church for three years as president of the Quorum of the Twelve, John Taylor was sustained as president of the Church on Oct. 10, 1880. The 10 years he led the Church were difficult years. Increasingly stringent federal legislation against plural marriage brought disruption and severe persecution. Members of the Church lost the right to vote and hold public office. Prominent Church and community leaders were arrested or compelled to retire from public life to avoid federally appointed law enforcement. Numerous families were broken up and suffered hardship when husbands and fathers were imprisoned or forced into hiding.

In spite of the difficulties, progress in the Kingdom continued, and under President Taylor's guidance many significant events occurred.

On Aug. 11, 1878, the Primary Association was organized. To commemorate the 50th anniversary of the organization of the Church, 1880 was declared a jubilee year. Patterned after the Old Testament ritual, the Church released the poor from delinquent tithing debts or debts owed the Perpetual Emigration Fund.

Additionally, following a particularly harsh winter, the Church raised funds and donated 1,000 head of cattle and 5,000 head of sheep to those who suffered. The Relief Society also provided 34,000 bushels of previously stored wheat. In that same spirit President Taylor urged the saints to rejoice and forgive one another's debts. During his administration President Taylor received several revelations concerning the organization of the Seventies and other matters of priesthood order. Work toward completion of the Manti and Salt Lake temples continued and a special event for the saints took place when President Taylor dedicated the Logan Temple on May 17, 1884.

Due to the continued persecution of those practicing plural marriage, the First Presidency felt it wise to retire from public exposure. Accordingly, on Feb. 1, 1885, President Taylor delivered his last public discourse and withdrew into voluntary exile. He urged the Saints "to fear God, observe His laws and keep His commandments, and the Lord will manage the rest."10

During his seclusion, the Edmunds-Tucker Act was passed in March of 1887. The most potent anti-polygamy measure to date, it disincorporated the Church and allowed the government to seize vital Church properties. Shortly after this disheartening legislation, on July 25, 1887, in the home of Kaysville Mayor Thomas F. Rouche, President John Taylor died peacefully at age 78.

Reviewing the life of John Taylor, one is struck, not only by the extent of his service and contribution, but by the strength of character such service required.

Historian B.H. Roberts observed that those leading spirits whom the Prophet Joseph gathered around him were remarkable men. Not remarkable for illustrious birth or scholarly attainments, "they were remarkable for character - that mysterious something which exists independent of birth, education or fortune."11

Perhaps the essence of that character is revealed in John Taylor's words to friends in Toronto who were reluctant to examine "Mormonism." Referring to Parley P. Pratt's message, he stated, "I desire to investigate his doctrines and claims to authority, and shall be very glad if some of my friends will unite with me. . . . 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."12

Nearly five decades after accepting the religion and the consequences, he testified that if his life and the life of the Saints, "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 we be, both in time and in eternity."13 President Taylor's life of services is a memorial to his adherence to that principle.

Notes

1Joseph Smith Jr., History of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols., 2nd ed. rev., ed. B. H. Roberts (Salt Lake City: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1932-51), 3:46-7.

2B. H. Roberts, The Life of John Taylor (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1963), p. 23.

3Ibid., pp. 27-28.

4Parley P. Pratt, Autobiography of Parley P. Pratt, ed., Parley P. Pratt (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book Co., 1968), pp. 130-1.

5Roberts, Life of John Taylor, p. 40.

6Ibid., p. 41.

7Brigham Young, Journal of Discourses, 25:91-92.

9Smith, History of the Church, 7:120.

10Taylor, Journal of Discourses, 26:156.

11Roberts, Life of John Taylor, p. 17.

12Ibid., pp. 37-8

13Taylor, Journal of Discourses, 5:114-15.


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About the author

H. Bruce Roghaar is director of the Calgary (Alberta) Institute of Religion. He serves as Young Men president in the Calgary 3rd Ward, Calgary Alberta West Stake.


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Milestones during John Taylor's presidency

1880-1887

  • April 6, 1880: Jubilee anniversary of the Church observed; many forgiven of debts.
  • 1880: The Pearl of Great Price was accepted as scripture.
  • 1881: Weekly priesthood meetings begun.
  • May 17, 1884: The Logan Temple was dedicated by President Taylor.
  • 1886: Colonization of the saints in Mexico and Canada began.
  • During his administration, quarterly conferences, weekly bishop's meetings, and stake priesthood meetings were started.
  • President Taylor promoted and funded Church education, and he prophecied that eventually Zion would exceed the outside world in "learning of every kind."