When Brigham Young died on 29 August 1877, John Taylor was 68 years old. For the next three years, President Taylor led the Church as President of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. At a general conference on 10 October 1880, he was sustained as prophet, seer, and revelator, and President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, a position he occupied until his death on 25 July 1887. During his time as President and throughout his previous decades of service as an Apostle, John Taylor was always ready to teach and defend the truth. Through one of the most trying periods in Church history, he was a source of great strength and direction for the Saints.
President Taylor was described as being a man of fine appearance, standing about six feet tall and having a heavenly countenance. His hair was snow white, and his complexion was dark. Possessing a noble and dignified manner, “he was not a man whom a friend, however intimate, would slap familiarly on the back or turn and twist about when shaking hands; such proceedings with him would have been as much out of place as with the proudest crowned monarch.”1 Yet there was no haughtiness in his character; he was gracious, polite, and friendly to all. “Whosoever went into his presence, either in private or in public, felt intuitively that he was in the presence of a great man, a man of honor and merit.”2
Sir Richard Burton, a British author and world traveler who met President Taylor, described him as a “stout, good-looking, somewhat elderly personage, with a kindly gray eye, pleasant expression, and a forehead of the superior order.”3 Another historian wrote, “When I was introduced to him in 1884, Mr. Taylor being then in his seventy-seventh year, there stepped forward … a white-haired, benevolent-looking man of medium height and well-knit figure, long, oval face, gray, deep-set, penetrating eye, square, broad forehead, and firmly clasped lips, displaying a fixed determination, slightly tinged with melancholy, such as might be expected from one who had passed through many trying scenes.”4
Born in 1808 in the Westmoreland region of northwestern England, John Taylor was blessed with humble, kind, and loving parents who taught him to read and believe the Bible, to trust in God, and to have hope in Christ. His parents, James and Agnes Taylor, had him baptized in the Church of England shortly after his birth. His upbringing in the Church of England planted in him a great appreciation for sacred lyrics and music, formal biblical teaching, and private and public prayer. A deep and abiding devotion to and love for God were qualities that John Taylor developed as a child. “At [an] early period of my life I learned to approach God,” he told Latter-day Saints after he became President of the Church. “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. … That was the spirit that I had when a little boy. … My spirit was drawn out after God then; and I feel the same yet.”5
As a small boy he had seen “in vision, an angel in the heavens, holding a trumpet to his mouth, sounding a message to the nations.” Though he did not understand the prophetic nature of that vision until later in his life, he continued to feel close to God throughout his teenage years. “Often when alone,” he wrote, “and sometimes in company, I heard sweet, soft, melodious music, as if performed by angelic or supernatural beings.”6
At about 16 years of age he left the Church of England and became a Methodist. The following year he was appointed to be an exhorter, or lay preacher, in that church—a rare responsibility for such a young man. A boldness based on certain conviction characterized his life even then—conviction based on his own experience. During this same period of his life he received a strong impression that God had called him to one day preach the gospel in the United States of America.
In 1830 John Taylor’s parents and other family members emigrated to Toronto, Canada, leaving him behind in England to sell the family farm and settle other family business. When finished, he left England on a ship bound for New York City. During the voyage, the ship encountered a severe storm that had already damaged several ships in the area. The captain and officers of the ship expected that they would sink, but the voice of the Spirit testified to John Taylor, “You must yet go to America and preach the gospel.” President Taylor recalled: “So confident was I of my destiny, that I went on deck at midnight, and amidst the raging elements felt as calm as though I was sitting in a parlor at home. I believed I should reach America and perform my work.”7 He arrived safely in New York, and after a few months rejoined his parents in Toronto, where he continued in the Methodist faith and began preaching. During this time, he met Leonora Cannon, herself a devout Methodist who had recently immigrated to Canada from England. Sharing a deep religious conviction and a love for learning, culture, and each other, they married on 28 January 1833 in Toronto.
While in Canada, he joined with a group of friends in a serious effort to study the Bible and increase his understanding of the truth. It was during this time of intense searching that Elder Parley P. Pratt, a member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles, was sent on a mission to Toronto.
Upon arriving in Toronto, Elder Pratt petitioned many ministers and city officials for a place to preach. However, his requests were rejected. Even John Taylor, who had heard many rumors about the Church, was at first unreceptive to Elder Pratt. With no apparent hope of success, Elder Pratt decided to leave Toronto and stopped at the Taylor home to say farewell. Feeling impressed that Elder Pratt was a man of God, John Taylor’s neighbor offered to feed and house Elder Pratt and allow him to hold meetings. Elder Pratt accepted the offer and was soon introduced to John Taylor’s friends who had been meeting together to search for the truth.
John Taylor commenced a thorough investigation of the doctrines of the Church. “I made a regular business of it for three weeks,” he said, “and followed Brother Parley from place to place.” He wrote down and studied Elder Pratt’s sermons and compared them with the scriptures. At length, the Holy Spirit bore witness of the truthfulness of Elder Pratt’s message, and John and Leonora Taylor were baptized on 9 May 1836. He later testified that he had “never doubted any principle of Mormonism since.”8
Shortly after joining the Church, John Taylor was called to serve as the Church’s presiding officer in Canada, a position he held for a little over a year. His duties required a significant amount of travel, but he tirelessly preached the gospel and oversaw many spiritual and temporal matters relating to the Church there. During this time one of his greatest desires was to meet the Prophet Joseph Smith. In March 1837 he traveled to Kirtland, Ohio, where he was received at the home of the Prophet. He described feeling “a charge like an electrical shock” when he took the Prophet by the hand in greeting.9 At the Smith home, the Prophet taught him many more truths related to the latter-day work. The two men quickly formed a bond of friendship and trust that would never be broken.
While in Kirtland, John Taylor encountered much criticism of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Frequently, outspoken apostates held meetings in which they would criticize the Prophet. Toward the end of one such meeting in the Kirtland Temple, Elder Taylor requested permission to speak, and he fearlessly defended the Prophet. “It was Joseph Smith, under the Almighty, who developed the first principles,” he said, “and to him we must 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. The children of Israel, formerly, after seeing the power of God manifested in their midst, fell into rebellion and idolatry, and there is certainly very great danger of us doing the same thing.”10 While many of the apostates continued their same course, the faithful Saints were strengthened by Elder Taylor’s loyalty and conviction.
In the fall of 1837, John Taylor received word from Joseph Smith to move to Far West, Missouri, to fill a vacancy in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles (he was formally ordained in December 1838). Referring to the prospect of serving as an Apostle, John Taylor stated: “The work seemed great, the duties arduous and responsible. I felt my own weakness and littleness; but I felt determined, the Lord being my helper, to endeavor to magnify it.”11 Humility before God and a commitment to seek His guidance would become hallmarks of Elder Taylor’s service. After he became President of the Church, he told the Saints: “I have no ideas only as God gives them to me; neither should you. Some people are very persistent in having their own way and carrying out their own peculiar theories. I have no thoughts of that kind, but I have a desire, when anything comes along, to learn the will of God, and then to do it.”12
As an Apostle, Elder Taylor was a loyal and trusted associate of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Referring to Elder Taylor’s friendship with the Prophet, Elder Franklin D. Richards of the Twelve said, “There were but very few men that attained the warm, personal relation that he attained to and maintained most successfully with the Prophet Joseph Smith till he died, and the story of that personal affection was consummated by the bullets he received in Carthage jail with the Prophet.”13
One of the most trying events of Elder Taylor’s life was the martyrdom of the Prophet Joseph Smith. Elder Taylor voluntarily went to Carthage Jail, where the Prophet and his brother Hyrum were illegally imprisoned on 25 June 1844. It soon became apparent that the Carthage mob had no intention of releasing them and that they were in danger. On 27 June, other Church members who had come to Carthage from Nauvoo went on various errands to help obtain justice. By that afternoon, only Elder Taylor and fellow Apostle Willard Richards remained in the jail with Joseph and Hyrum. With a plan to rally the brethren in Nauvoo to rescue the Prophet Joseph, Elder Taylor said, “Brother Joseph, if you will permit it, and say the word, I will have you out of this prison in five hours, if the jail has to come down to do it.”14 Joseph refused this course of action.
As the afternoon of 27 June wore on, a feeling of great sadness settled upon the four men. Being gifted with a wonderful tenor voice, Elder Taylor was twice asked to sing “A Poor, Wayfaring Man of Grief” to help lift their spirits. Shortly after he finished singing the hymn for the second time, a mob with blackened faces stormed up the stairs of the jail. Hyrum Smith and Willard Richards immediately braced themselves against the door to try to prevent it from opening. As the first shots came through the door, Hyrum was hit and killed. The mob continued firing and quickly began forcing their rifles through the partially open doorway. Using a heavy walking stick, Elder Taylor stood next to the doorway and tried to deflect the rifle barrels that were pointed into the room. “It certainly was a terrible scene,” Elder Taylor recorded. “Streams of fire as thick as my arm passed by me as these men fired, and, … it looked like certain death. I remember feeling as though my time had come, but I do not know when, in any critical position, I was more calm, unruffled, energetic, and acted with more promptness and decision.”15
In the midst of this scene, the Prophet Joseph, who had also been trying to fend off the mob, said to Elder Taylor, “That’s right, Brother Taylor, parry them off as well as you can.”16 These would be the last words he would hear the Prophet speak on earth.17 Aware that their position behind the door could not be maintained for long, Elder Taylor sprang to the window. As he was going to leap out, a shot from inside the jail struck him in the left thigh. For a moment he lay helpless on the window sill and would have fallen out, but a shot from outside the jail struck the watch in his breast pocket, sending him back into the room. In this condition, Elder Taylor tried to crawl under a bed in the room. As he did he was shot three more times. One ball entered a little below his left knee, never to be extracted. Another lodged in the palm of his left hand. A third ball struck the fleshy part of his left hip and tore away several inches of flesh. Though badly wounded and in a great deal of pain, Elder Taylor survived the attack and was later taken home to Nauvoo by several of the Saints.
Within moments after Elder Taylor was shot, the Prophet Joseph also attempted to leap from the jail window but was immediately shot and fell to the ground outside. Elder Taylor later recorded that when he learned of the Prophet’s fate, he felt “a dull, lonely, sickening sensation.”18
Doctrine and Covenants section 135 contains an account of the Martyrdom written by Elder Taylor. The section does not provide many details of the event, but it serves as a powerful testimony of the Prophet Joseph: “Joseph Smith, the Prophet and Seer of the Lord, has done more, save Jesus only, for the salvation of men in this world, than any other man that ever lived in it. … He lived great, and he died great in the eyes of God and his people; and like most of the Lord’s anointed in ancient times, has sealed his mission and his works with his own blood.”19
As a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, Elder Taylor dedicated his time and talents to proclaiming and defending the gospel. Using his gift for writing, he served as the editor for the Times and Seasons, the Wasp, and the Nauvoo Neighbor, all Nauvoo periodicals. Later, while presiding over the Church in the eastern United States, he edited and published The Mormon, a weekly New York–based paper that presented the doctrines of the Church. His book-length writings included two doctrinal expositions, The Government of God and An Examination into and an Elucidation of the Great Principle of the Mediation and Atonement of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (published while he was President of the Church). Elder Taylor’s skill in writing and editing earned him the titles of “Defender of the Faith” and “Champion of Truth” among Church members. President Brigham Young said of Elder 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. … He is one of the strongest editors that ever wrote.”20
In addition to proclaiming the gospel through the written word, Elder Taylor served four full-time missions: two in Great Britain, one in France and Germany, and one in New York. In all, his full-time missionary service totaled over seven years. Although these prolonged absences from his loved ones required great sacrifice, Elder Taylor’s conviction of the Lord’s work never wavered. In a letter to his family during one of his missions, he wrote: “I am engaged in my Master’s business; I am a minister of Jehovah to proclaim His will to the nations. I go to unlock the door of life to a mighty nation, to publish to millions the principles of life, light and truth, intelligence and salvation, to burst their fetters, liberate the oppressed, reclaim the wandering, correct their views, improve their morals, save them from degradation, ruin and misery, and lead them to light, life, truth and celestial glory. Do not your spirits co-operate with mine? I know they do.”21
Even with the substantial time commitment required by his Church service, John Taylor was an attentive and loving husband and father. He cherished the time he could spend with his family and frequently took advantage of opportunities to both enjoy their company and to teach them. As a result, he was dearly loved by his family. In later years, his son Moses W. Taylor wrote, “He was held in such high esteem by his children that to please him seemed to be their greatest desire.”22
In his interaction with his children, John Taylor exemplified warmth, kindness, and good humor. His son Ezra Oakley Taylor recalled the following experience:
“As I was growing up, it was the custom to hold Sunday afternoon meetings in the Tabernacle. All of us were expected to be there, and at a later time be able to report as to who gave the sermon, what it was about, who gave the prayers, and what hymns were sung. This particular Sunday, some of us decided to skip just this once and to get one of our friends to give us the necessary information. Then came the [family] council and sure enough Father asked me about the sermon, and who gave it. All prepared, my friend said he couldn’t remember very well, I repeated his words, ‘Oh, it was some old windbag, and I can’t remember his name, but it was surely uninteresting.’ With a twinkle in his eye, Father said, ‘That old windbag was your father’ and continued with the council meeting.”23
As an Apostle, and later as President of the Church, President Taylor consistently exhorted the Saints to love and strengthen their families. He encouraged Church members to set aside an evening each week for family gospel study and entertainment, and he promised them “a peace and love, a purity and joy, that would make [their] home life ideal” if they faithfully instituted that practice.24
During the years President Taylor led the Church as President of the Quorum of the Twelve and then as President of the Church, he continued to serve with energy and devotion in his efforts to edify the Saints.
One of his most significant labors as President involved setting in order the quorums of the priesthood and exhorting them to fulfill their duties. He instructed bishops to hold weekly priesthood meetings in their wards and counseled stake presidents to hold monthly stake priesthood meetings. Elder B. H. Roberts recorded, “Who does not remember with what earnestness and power in conferences and other public meetings, he was wont [or accustomed] to admonish Presidents of Stakes and bishops of wards to set in order the priesthood and institutions under their supervision?”25
In a revelation given through President Taylor in October 1882, the Lord instructed the Saints, particularly the brethren of the priesthood, to organize themselves and walk in holiness before Him. The following paragraphs are excerpts from that revelation:
“And let the Presidents of Stakes also purify themselves, and the priesthood and people of the Stakes over which they preside, and organize the priesthood in their various Stakes according to my law, in all the various departments thereof, in the High Councils, in the Elders’ quorums, and in the Bishops and their councils, and in the quorums of Priests, Teachers and Deacons, that every quorum may be fully organized according to the order of my Church. …
“And let my priesthood humble themselves before me, and seek not their own will but my will; for if my priesthood, whom I have chosen, and called, and endowed with the spirit and gifts of their several callings, and with the powers thereof, do not acknowledge me I will not acknowledge them, saith the Lord; for I will be honored and obeyed by my priesthood.
“And, then, I call upon my priesthood, and upon all of my people, to repent of all their sins and short-comings, of their covetousness and pride and self-will, and of all their iniquities wherein they sin against me; and to seek with all humility to fulfill my law, as my priesthood, my saints and my people; and I call upon the heads of families to put their houses in order according to the law of God, and attend to the various duties and responsibilities associated therewith, and to purify themselves before me, and to purge out iniquity from their households. And I will bless and be with you, saith the Lord, and ye shall gather together in your holy places wherein ye assemble to call upon me, and ye shall ask for such things as are right, and I will hear your prayers, and my Spirit and power shall be with you, and my blessing shall rest upon you, upon your families, your dwellings and your households, upon your flocks and herds and fields, your orchards and vineyards, and upon all that pertains to you; and you shall be my people and I will be your God.”26
To increase the Saints’ understanding and conviction of the gospel, President Taylor scheduled quarterly stake conferences throughout the Church. Whenever possible, he attended these conferences. If he could not, he sent a member of the Quorum of the Twelve. Referring to this practice, Elder B. H. Roberts of the Seventy recorded: “The Saints received much teaching and instruction from the Apostles, more perhaps than at any previous time in the history of the Church. The result was a great spiritual awakening among the Saints.”27 Another significant event that occurred early in his presidency was the formal organization of the Primary in 1878 for more effective teaching of the children in the Church. President Taylor also continued to emphasize the importance of missionary work, and the number of elders sent to proclaim the gospel increased.
In his many discourses, President Taylor continually exhorted the Saints to tend to their duties in all aspects of their lives, whether as family members, Church members, neighbors, or citizens. He taught the Saints that if they would be obedient and put their trust in the Lord, they would have nothing to fear. He taught that “God will be on the side of Israel, if Israel will only be on the side of right.”28
No matter how strong President Taylor’s convictions were, however, he always respected and spoke up for individual freedoms. In his years as an Apostle in Nauvoo, he had been called the “Champion of Liberty,” and as President of the Church he continued to merit this title. At a time when Latter-day Saints formed an overwhelming majority in Utah, President Taylor repeatedly preached freedom of religion and liberty of conscience for all. He stated: “We get up sometimes a very rash feeling against people who do not think as we do. They have a right to think as they please; and so have we. Therefore, if a man does not believe as I do, that is none of my business. And if I do not believe as he does, that is none of his business. Would you protect a man that did not believe as you do? Yes, to the last bat’s end. He should have equal justice with me; and then I would expect to be protected in my rights.”29
To President Taylor, the importance of liberty applied within the Church as well. In councils, he always encouraged members to speak their minds freely. Though he understood fully the importance of unity, he felt that true unity was achieved through freedom.
Circumstances for the Saints in the United States proved to be a challenge to this love of freedom. Under the direction of the Lord, the Saints had practiced plural marriage in the Church since the days of Joseph Smith in Nauvoo. During the 1860s and 1870s, the United States government passed legislation outlawing plural marriage and denying statehood and other rights to the Utah Territory and its citizens. Convinced that the legislation was a violation of the freedom of religion spoken of in the Constitution, the Church used its influence to have the issue brought before the United States Supreme Court. In 1879, just two years after President Taylor assumed the leadership of the Church, the United States Supreme Court upheld the federal government’s anti-polygamy law of 1862. In 1882 and again in 1887, the United States Congress passed additional laws that allowed the federal government to disincorporate the Church as a legal entity and confiscate all Church property in excess of $50,000 (which included four temples in various stages of completion, the Tabernacle, meetinghouses, and many other properties). The legislation was designed to take away basic civil rights of Church members, including the right to vote. These developments opened legal channels for the prosecution of Latter-day Saints who were practicing plural marriage. The Church continued to make legal appeals, but to no avail.
Amid the growing strife over the issue of polygamy, President Taylor was informed that government officials planned to arrest him soon. Having exhausted all legal appeals, he had to decide whether to obey God or man. In his last public discourse, he told the Saints, “I cannot as an honorable man disobey my God … and trample these holy and eternal obligations under foot, that God has given me to keep, and which reach into the eternities that are to come.”30 From the day he delivered this sermon until the day of his death almost two and a half years later, he hid in various locations throughout Utah. Rather than turn away from the Lord’s instructions regarding plural marriage, President Taylor chose to go into hiding as a way to obey the Lord and hopefully decrease the persecution against the Church. Elder B. H. Roberts recorded, “When President Taylor retired from public view on the evening of the 1st of February, 1885, it was not out of any consideration for his personal safety, or ease or comfort, but for the public good and in the interests of peace.”31
Though absent from public view, President Taylor continued to provide leadership to the Church through letters and verbal instructions to trusted associates. However, the confinement, the separation from family and friends, and the stress of his responsibilities began to take their toll. Early in 1887, his health began to fail. For several months he resisted his illness and told others that he would soon recover, but by July it became apparent that his condition was serious. On the evening of 25 July 1887, President Taylor passed away peacefully at the home of Thomas Roueché in Kaysville, Utah.
Some of the most apt descriptions of John Taylor’s ministry were given by those who had served with and been taught by him. Speaking at President Taylor’s funeral, Elder Franklin D. Richards of the Quorum of the Twelve stated: “President Taylor was a man bold and daring for the truth. He knew no fear. … When he and I were on our missions in Europe together, he labored in France. … He labored in that vicinity diligently; and at one time a number of religious divines [or clergymen] combined together to put down this heresy, as they term it. President Taylor, with that boldness which ever characterized him, consented to meet a whole pack of them. … He withstood them and he brought forth the truth.”32
Elder Daniel H. Wells, who served as a counselor to Brigham Young, spoke of President Taylor as follows: “He lived a fearless, noble and God-like life—let those who still live seek to emulate his noble example. … He has been the champion of human rights, the champion of liberty, truth and freedom. He has lived a noble, useful life, full of honor and credit to himself and family, a satisfaction to the people and a glory to God. I take pleasure in bearing this testimony to the faithfulness and devotion of President Taylor, to his integrity to God and the love of his people.”33
Angus M. Cannon, president of the Salt Lake Stake, was the last speaker at President Taylor’s funeral and gave the following tribute to the man who had spent so many years working to establish the kingdom of God: “He has been relieved from his pains. He sleeps in God; and I can imagine seeing the portal of heaven open through which he has entered. … Brother Taylor took the testimony that Joseph gave him, that Jesus delivered unto Joseph, that God bade Joseph to listen to from the lips of his beloved Son—and he bore those tidings to foreign lands, and made our hearts tingle with the words which he there enunciated. I say the joy and rejoicing with which President Taylor has met with his co-laborers beyond the veil, surrounded with apostles of Jesus Christ, is great.”34