Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. II. Sixteenth Century to the Restoration
Critical Introduction by J. H. Overton
Jeremy Taylor (16131667)
[Jeremy Taylor (16131667), Bishop of Down and Connor, and afterwards also of Dromore, was born at Cambridge, where his father was a barber. This fact may perhaps convey too low an idea of his parentage; for in the seventeenth century the distinction between trade and profession was not so marked as it is now, and, moreover, the old combination of barber and surgeon was not then altogether extinct. Jeremy Taylor was a descendant of Rowland Taylor of Hadleigh, who suffered martyrdom in the Marian persecution. He was educated at Perses school, Cambridge, and in 1626 entered as a sizar at Caius College, where, having taken his B.A. degree in 163031, he was elected Fellow. He soon attracted attention as a preacher, and became a protégé of Archbishop Laud, through whose intervention he removed from Cambridge to Oxford, and became Fellow of All Souls. In March 163738 he was appointed through the influence of the Bishop of London (Dr. Juxon), instigated, no doubt, by Archbishop Laud, Rector of Uppingham. In 1639 he married Phbe, daughter of Dr. Langsdale, a medical man at Gainsborough, by whom he had three sons, all of whom came to an untimely end. In the Civil War he threw himself heart and soul into the Royalist cause, wrote strongly in defence of Episcopacy, and was made chaplain to Charles I. In the time of the Commonwealth he suffered severely; his living was sequestrated, and he was several times imprisoned. He tried to make a precarious living by keeping a school in Wales, but the school was broken up through his frequent imprisonments. He then found a refuge at the beautiful seat of Lord Carbery at Golden Grove in Montgomeryshire, where he officiated at the private chapel, and preached some of his grandest sermons. His first wife was now dead, and he married Joanna Bridges, who was possibly, but not certainly, a natural daughter of King Charles I. He made the acquaintance of John Evelyn, who proved a most faithful and liberal friend to him. From Evelyns Diary we find that he was sometimes in London, and that he was allowed to officiate at one of the city churches, or rather connived at in so doing. He next obtained a poor lectureship at Lisburn in Ireland, where he won the friendship of Lord Conway. On the Restoration he was appointed to the bishopric of Down and Connor (1660), to which was added in 1663 the small see of Dromore. Bishop Taylor was not in his element amid a population which consisted mainly of bigoted Presbyterians, and was probably happier in his obscurity than in his advancement. He died in 1667, and was buried in his cathedral at Dromore.]
AS a preacher and devotional writer, Bishop Jeremy Taylor stands in the very first rank among the great divines of the golden period of English theology. His sermons are, of their kind, unrivalled. They differ widely from those of his great contemporaries, Barrow, Sanderson, and South; but they are, in their way, quite equal to any of them. In wealth of illustration, exuberance of fancy, grandeur of diction and style, it would be difficult to find their equals in the English language. When Taylor wrote, that language had outgrown the roughnessone might almost say, the grotesquenesswhich sometimes marks the earlier prose, and had not degenerated into the commonplace tameness which marks the age of Tillotson. And besides having so noble a vehicle to convey his thoughts, Taylor had other elements of a great preacher. He had a very definite message to deliver, without which the most eloquent preacher will be futile; and there was a spirit of piety about him which gives his sermons an unction, a sweetness, and a tenderness which commend them to the heart as well as to the head. The unlearned reader may find a difficulty by being, as it were, pulled up constantly by some quotation from a Greek or Latin author; but Taylor almost always translates it at once, and when he does not, it may generally be ignored without losing the thread of the discourse. The burden of Taylors teaching, both in his sermons and in his devotional works, is that, in his own words, Theology is rather a Divine life than a Divine knowledge. He disliked controversy, and is not seen at his best in his controversial writings. He was not an accurate thinker, and it is sometimes hard to reconcile different passages in his writings. It was perhaps this looseness of thought rather than intentional heresy that led him in some of his works, notably the Unum Necessarium, to approach perilously near towards Pelagianism. Hence it is hazardous to appeal to his authority as a theologian, for he might frequently be contradicted by himself. His forte lay not so much in argument as in appeals to the moral and spiritual nature of his readers or hearers, expressed in pure and stately language, and illustrated by magnificent descriptions and apposite quotations from all kinds of authors, sacred and profane. He had a tendency to turn everything he touched to a practical and devotional purpose. Hence his Life of Christ, or, to give it its full title, The History of our Blessed Redeemer, Jesus Christ, or the Great Exemplar, is quite as much a devotional work as his Holy Living or Holy Dying. But he is more self-restrained and less ornamental in his devotional works than in his sermons, rarely diverging in them from his mother-tongue. One of his great merits as a devotional writer is the very rare faculty he possessed of composing prayers. His prayers are some of the very few which can bear a moments comparison with those in the Book of Common Prayer. His light esteem of mere opinions when separated from practice led him to write one of the most remarkable of all his works, A Discourse of the Liberty of Prophesying, with its just Limits and Temper: showing the unreasonableness of prescribing to other Mens Faith, and the iniquity of persecuting differing Opinions. The title tells its own tale. The theory which Taylor advances, and the arguments by which he supports it, are now so generally admitted that they sound like commonplaces; but at the time when Taylor wrote on the subject he was far in advance of his age.
We cannot complain that Bishop Taylor was sparing in the use of his powers in that direction in which he was most qualified to shine, for his printed sermons and devotional writings are very voluminous. But with that curious infelicity which great men sometimes show in estimating their own capacities, the work over which he took by far the greatest pains was one in which both his merits and his defects were alike hindrances to his success. In the seventeenth century the word casuistry had not yet acquired its evil meaning as almost equivalent to sophistry. Some of our best casuists, such as Bishops Hall, Sanderson, and Barlow, belong to this period. Bishop Taylor was led, as usual, by purely practical motives to devote himself to this uncongenial work. He thought that of books of casuistical theology we were almost wholly unprovided; and, like the children of Israel in the days of Saul and Jonathan, we were forced to go down to the forges of the Philistines, to sharpen every man his share and his coulter, his axe and his mattock. We had swords and spears of our own, enough for defence, and more than enough for disputation; but in this more necessary part of the conduct of consciences we did receive our answers from abroad, till we found that our old needs were very ill supplied, and new necessities did every day arise. To supply this want he took infinite trouble, devoting some of the best years of his life to elaborating his long work, entitled Ductor Dubitantium, or Cases of Conscience, which appeared in 1660. He was himself so far satisfied with the result that he prophesied that his reputation among posterity would rest upon this booka prophesy which has been signally falsified by the event. For one person who is acquainted with the Ductor Dubitantium, there are probably a hundred who know something, at any rate, about the Holy Living and Holy Dying, the Golden Grove, the Marriage Ring, and the Via Intelligentiæ. One reason, no doubt, why Taylors casuistical work had fallen into comparative oblivion is that the subject itself is an obsolete studynot, perhaps, to the advantage of morals. But apart from this, Bishop Taylor was out of his element. A casuist should be terse, logical, severely simplein short, almost everything that Taylor was not. His illustrations and quotations from the learned languages are even more profuse in the Ductor than in the sermons. Bishop Taylors habit of mind, no less than his style, was essentially of the florid order; one would have said also, the poetic, had it not been that he tried poetry, and was not very successful. But as a prose writer he was, in his proper department and in his own day, quite unrivalled; and there are few who have surpassed him since.