John Taylor, the only President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to be born outside of the United States, came from northern England. He spent his early, formative years in the Lakes District, a 35-square-mile area regarded as one of the most beautiful places in England. With its mountains, meadows, rivers, and lakes, the district has attracted and inspired many artists, philosophers, and poets, including Percy Bysshe Shelley and William Wordsworth.
John’s father, James, had inherited several pieces of property, including a home and garden in Milnthorpe, some acreage near the town, and a seven-acre estate, including a house, in the hamlet of Hale. In 1805, the year after he received his inheritance, James married Agnes Taylor (no relation to the family). They were wed on December 23, the same day Joseph Smith was born in Sharon, Vermont.
The Taylors lived for a time in Burton, Westmorland, where their first child, Edward, was born in 1807. But by 1808 they had moved to their inherited house in Milnthorpe, where John was born on November 1. He was christened in nearby Heversham Parish Church.
Following the custom of his Anglican religion, James asked friends to serve as godparents for his son. They promised that the infant would grow to “renounce the devil and all his works, the pomps and vanities of this wicked world and all the deceitful lusts of the flesh; that [he] should believe all the articles of the Christian faith; … keep God’s holy law and commandments, and walk in the same all the days of [his] life.”1
As tithe payers committed to their faith, John’s parents taught him to attend church, say his prayers, and learn the catechism. He memorized “a great many” of his church’s prayers and repeated them “week after week.” John described his youthful personality as “lively and vivacious,” yet he was humble before the Lord and was blessed accordingly. Later, as President of the Church, John Taylor recalled, “When quite a small boy I saw an angel in the heavens holding a trumpet to his mouth.”2 His description is reminiscent of the angel mentioned in Revelation 14:6–7, which symbolizes the future visit of Moroni and other angelic messengers to Joseph Smith. [Rev. 14:6–7]
Although very young, John continually feared that he would do something to offend God. He recalled that “when quite a little boy being engaged in flying a kite, a mischievous boy pulled it down and tore it; I felt very angry and said damn. As soon as I had uttered the word I felt very much alarmed at what I had done; [I] left my kite lying on the ground and ran home crying and told my Mother what I had said, and asked her if she thought the Lord would forgive me.”3
Three more children—James, William, and George—were born to the Taylors at two-year intervals. Then, about 1814, the family moved to the large port city of Liverpool, where James labored as an excise, or tax, official for the British government. Agnes bore no children during the five years the family lived in Liverpool.
In 1819, James left government employment, and the family moved into Yew Tree House on their seven-acre Green Side Farm near the village of Hale. Tenants had rented the property, including the nearby King’s Arms Inn, from the time it had become James’s by inheritance. Tax records list James as a “yeoman.” A yeoman was understood to be a small farmer—the owner of a small estate—one grade beneath a “gentleman” and a grade above a laborer.
But James’s sons labored. John recalled that “in this place I got mixed up with ploughing, sowing, reaping, haymaking, and so forth, and have indelibly impressed on my mind some of my first mishaps in horsemanship in the shape of sundry curious evolutions between the horses’ backs and terra firma.”4 The family had an orchard, and for several years they kept milk cows, horses, pigs, and geese. They also kept bees and planted crops.
Between 1819 and 1828, four more children were born to the Taylors. John attended school at Beetham, a mile from Hale, for three years until about 1823, when he was apprenticed to a cooper (barrel maker) in Liverpool. The business failed within a year, so in 1824 John was apprenticed to a lathe turner in Penrith, a market town near the Scottish border. There he would labor for five years, until he was twenty, to master the turning trade.
Shortly after his arrival in Penrith, John became excited about a new religious movement in the area: “When I was about sixteen years of age,” he wrote, “I heard the Methodist doctrine preached and as it seemed to me more of a matter of fact, personal thing than the Church of England, with which I was nominally united, I became a Methodist. I was strictly sincere in my religious faith and was very zealous to learn what I then considered the truth; believing that every good and perfect gift proceeded from the Lord.”5
When John was not practicing his trade, religion dominated his thoughts and actions. He wrote: “Most of my leisure hours were spent in reading the Bible, works on theology and in prayer. … I went into secluded places in the fields and woods, in barns and other secret places. I also got together boys of the same age to join with me in secret prayer; but they generally soon forsook me.”6
John’s youthful friends failed to respond to his enthusiastic commitment to prayer, but he soon found someone in need of his help. He reached out to an old gentleman, a friend who lived in the neighborhood. At one time, the man had frequently turned to prayer, though his nonbelieving wife had sought to hinder him. She eventually died, and he remarried. He found such happiness with his new wife that he neglected his religious responsibilities; he left off praying and began consuming alcohol heavily. Although John was hesitant to confront the man, he told his friend how disappointed he was to see him intoxicated, especially in view of his previous good conduct. The old gentleman promised to mend his ways.
The veil was thin for this sixteen-year-old future prophet. He wrote, “I had frequent manifestations in dreams, and otherwise frequently when alone, and sometimes in company, I heard sweet soft melodious music, as if performed by angelic or supernatural beings.”7
The following year was a turning point for John, for the Lord’s promptings eventually led him to his life’s mission. At the age of seventeen he was appointed a “Methodist exhorter, or local preacher.” John’s first assignment was to preach at a country town about seven miles from Penrith. He was accompanied by a fellow Methodist as he walked to his appointment. John suddenly stopped and said, “I have a strong impression on my mind that I have to go to America to preach the gospel.” John knew little about America except for some geographical facts he had learned in school. But one thing he did know was that this impression would not leave him: “A presentiment that I could not shake off clung to me, that I had some work to do which I did not then understand.”8
About 1828, John returned home to Hale, where, under his father’s direction, he began his trade as a carpenter. Not long afterward, in 1830, the family decided to immigrate to Canada. Edward, the oldest son, had just died, leaving John as the senior male among the children, so he was asked to remain behind to dispose of the remaining unsold property.
Sometime after the Hale farm sold on 14 February 1831, John booked passage on a ship sailing for America. Confident that his destiny was to preach the gospel in the United States, he withstood a week-long storm of great severity without the slightest fear of the ship sinking. Arriving in the United States, John spent several weeks in New York, Brooklyn, and Albany, then proceeded on to Toronto, where his father had purchased a farm. John himself bought the land and shop of a carpenter.
He also resumed his affiliation with the Methodist church, and he married Leonora Cannon. Soon after he began preaching, however, he grew dissatisfied with all organized religions. Joining with other members of a Bible study class, John began fasting and praying for God to send an authorized servant, if such existed.
Their prayers were answered in 1836 when Elder Parley P. Pratt came to Toronto and began to preach the gospel. Nearly twenty-eight years in his native land and in Canada had prepared John for this moment—his call to step forward and serve in the restored kingdom of God.