Jeremy Taylor

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Jeremy Taylor is depicted in this portrait at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge University.

Jeremy Taylor (1613 - August 13, 1667) was a clergyman in the Church of England who achieved fame as an author during The Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. He is sometimes known as the "Shakespeare of Divines" for his poetic style of writing. Taylor was educated at The Perse School, Cambridge, before attending Gonville and Caius College, at Cambridge, where he graduated in 1626. He was under the patronage of William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury. He went on to become chaplain in ordinary to King Charles I as a result of Laud's sponsorship. This made Taylor politically suspect when Laud was tried for treason and executed in 1645, by the Puritan Parliament during the English Civil War. After the Parliamentary victory over the King, he was briefly imprisoned several times.

Eventually, he was allowed to retire into Wales, where he became the private chaplain of the Earl of Carbery. During the English Restoration, his political star was on the rise, and he was made the bishop Church of Ireland Dioceses of Down and Connor. He was also made vice-chancellor of the University of Dublin. Taylor was a voice for moderation at a time when many religious people claimed that only their own doctrines or beliefs were correct, and that those who differed should suffer civil disability. His great plea for toleration was based on the impossibility of erecting theology into a demonstrable science. It is impossible, he argued, that all people would be of one mind. And what is impossible to be done, he opined, did not necessitate that it needed be done. Taylor concluded there must be differences of opinion. Heresy, he offered, is not an error of the understanding but an error of the will. Taylor submitted all minor questions to the reason of the individual member, and he set certain limits to toleration, excluding that which opposed the foundation of faith, or was contrary to the good life, or was destructive to human society. Peace, Taylor expressed, might be made if humanity would not call all opinions by the name of religion.

Early life

Taylor was born in Cambridge to a middle class family. His father was Nathaniel Taylor, a barber and son of Edmund Taylor, an important parish officer of Trinity Church. His mother was Mary Dean. She had married Nathaniel in 1605. Jeremy's true birth date is uncertain. In 1619, the Perse School was founded after Dr. Stephen Perse passed away and stipulated the creation of the aforementioned grammar school in his will. At age six, Taylor began attending. Soon thereafter, his family relocated to a home situated closer to the school. Seven years later, Taylor left to attend Gonville and Caius College in 1626. Little is known about the time he spent here. He was liked by his peers and was quick to graduate and was ordained as a minister not long after.[1]

Career under Laud

Archbishop William Laud sent for Taylor to preach before him at Lambeth, and took the young man under his special protection. Taylor did not vacate his fellowship at Cambridge before 1636, but he spent, apparently, much of his time in London, for Laud desired that his mighty parts should be afforded better opportunities of study and improvement than a course of constant preaching would allow of. In November 1635, he had been nominated by Laud to a fellowship at All Souls, Oxford, where, says Wood (Athen. Oxon., Ed. Bliss, iii. 781), love and admiration still waited on him. He seems, however, to have spent little time there. He became chaplain to his patron the archbishop, and chaplain in ordinary to Charles I. At Oxford, William Chillingworth was then busy with his great work, The Religion of Protestants, and it is possible that through disclosure with him Taylor's mind may have been turned towards the liberal movement of his age. After two years in Oxford, he was presented, in March 1638, by William Juxon, bishop of London, to the rectory of Uppingham, in Rutlandshire.

In the next year, he married Phoebe Langsdale, by whom he had six children, the eldest of whom died at Uppingham in 1642. In the autumn of the same year, he was appointed to preach in St Marys on the anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot, and apparently used the occasion to clear himself of the suspicion, which, however, haunted him through life, of a secret leaning to the Romish communion. This suspicion seems to have arisen chiefly from his intimacy with Christopher Davenport, better known as Francis a Sancta Clara, a learned Franciscan friar who became chaplain to Queen Henrietta; but it may have been strengthened by his known connection with Laud, as well as by his ascetic habits. More serious consequences followed his attachment to the Royalist cause. The author of The Sacred Order and Offices of Episcopacy or Episcopacy Asserted against the Arians and Acephali New and Old (1642), could scarcely hope to retain his parish, which was not, however, sequestrated until 1644. Taylor probably accompanied the king to Oxford. In 1643, he was presented to the rectory of Overstone, Northamptonshire, by Charles I. There, he would be in close connection with his friend and patron Spencer Compton, 2nd earl of Northampton.

A Royalist prisoner

During the next fifteen years Taylor's movements are not easily traced. He seems to have been in London during the last weeks of Charles I in 1649, from whom he is said to have received his watch and some jewels which had ornamented the ebony case in which he kept his Bible. He had been taken prisoner with other Royalists while besieging Cardigan castle on the 4th of February 1645. In 1646 he is found in partnership with two other deprived clergymen, keeping a school at Newton Hall, in the parish of Llanvihangel-Aberbythych, Carmarthenshire. Here he became private chaplain to Richard Vaughan, 2nd earl of Carbery, whose hospitable mansion, Golden Grove, is immortalized in the title of Taylors still popular manual of devotion, and whose first wife was a constant friend of Taylor. The second Lady Carbery was the original of the Lady in John Milton's Comus. Mrs Taylor had died early in 1651. He second wife was Joanna Bridges, said on very doubtful authority to have been a natural daughter of Charles I. She owned a good estate, though probably impoverished by Parliamentarian exactions, at Mandinam, in Carmarthenshire.

From time to time Jeremy Taylor appears in London in the company of his friend Evelyn, in whose diary and correspondence his name repeatedly occurs. He was three times imprisoned: in 1645 for an injudicious preface to his Golden Grove; again in Chepstow castle, from May to October 1655, on what charge does not appear; and a third time in the Tower in 1657, on. account of the indiscretion of his publisher, Richard Royston, who had adorned his Collection of Offices with a print representing Christ in the attitude of prayer.


  • A Discourse of the Liberty of Prophesying (1646), a famous plea for toleration published decades before John Locke's Letters Concerning Toleration.
  • Apology for Authorized and set Forms of Liturgy Against the Pretence of the Spirit (1649)
  • Great Exemplar … a History of … Jesus Christ (1649), inspired, its author tells the reader, by his earlier intercourse with the earl of Northampton
  • Twenty-seven Sermons (1651), for the summer half-year
  • Twenty-five Sermons (1653), for the winter half-year
  • The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living (1650)
  • The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying (1651)
  • A controversial treatise on The Real Presence … (1654)
  • Golden Grove; or a Manuall of daily prayers and letanies … (1655)
  • Unum Necessarium (1655), on the doctrine of repentance, perceived Pelagianism gave great offence to Presbyterians.
  • Discourse of the Nature, Offices and Measures of Friendship (1657)
  • Ductor Dubitantium, or the Rule of Conscience … (1660)

The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living provided a manual of Christian practice, which has retained its place with devout readers. The scope of the work is described on the title-page. it deals with the means and instruments of obtaining every virtue, and the remedies against every vice, and considerations serving to the resisting all temptations, together with prayers containing the whole Duty of a Christian. Holy Dying was perhaps even more popular. A very charming piece of work of a lighter kind was inspired by a question from his friend, Mrs Katherine Phillips (the matchless Orinda), asking, "How far is a dear and perfect friendship authorized by the principles of Christianity?" In answer to this, he dedicated to the most ingenious and excellent Mrs Katherine Phillips his Discourse of the Nature, Offices and Measures of Friendship (1657). His Ductor Dubitantium, or the Rule of Conscience … (1660) was intended to be the standard manual of casuistry and ethics for the Christian people.

Made a bishop in Ireland at the Restoration

He probably left Wales in 1657, and his immediate connection with Golden Grove seems to have ceased two years earlier. In 1658, through the kind offices of his friend, John Evelyn, Taylor was offered a lectureship in Lisburn, Ireland, by Edward Conway, second Viscount Conway. At first, he declined a post in which the duty was to be shared with a Presbyterian, or, as he expressed it, "where a Presbyterian and myself shall be like Castor and Pollux, the one up and the other down," and to which also a very meager salary was attached. He was, however, induced to take it, and found in his patron's mansion at Portmore, on Lough Neagh, a congenial retreat.

At the Restoration, instead of being recalled to England, as he probably expected and certainly desired, he was appointed to the see of Down and Connor, to which was shortly added the small adjacent diocese of Dromore. He was also made a member of the Irish privy council and vice-chancellor of the University of Dublin. None of these honors were sinecures.

Of the university he writes:

I found all things in a perfect disorder … a heap of men and boys, but no body of a college, no one member, either fellow or scholar, having any legal title to his place, but thrust in by tyranny or chance.

Accordingly, he set himself vigorously to the task of framing and enforcing regulations for the admission and conduct of members of the university, and also of establishing lectureships. His episcopal labors were still more arduous. There were, at the date of the Restoration, about seventy Presbyterian ministers in the north of Ireland, and most of these were from the west of Scotland, and were imbued with the dislike of Episcopacy which distinguished the Covenanting party. No wonder that Taylor, writing to the duke of Ormonde shortly after his consecration, should have said, "I perceive myself thrown into a place of torment." His letters perhaps somewhat exaggerate the danger in which he lived, but there is no doubt that his authority was resisted and his overtures rejected.

Here, then, was Taylor's opportunity for exemplifying the wise toleration he had in other days inculcated, but the new bishop had nothing to offer the Presbyterian clergy but the bare alternative submission to episcopal ordination and jurisdiction or deprivation. Consequently, in his first visitation, he declared thirty-six churches to be vacant; and of these forcible possession was taken by his orders. At the same time many of the gentry were won by his undoubted sincerity and devotion, as well as by his eloquence. With the Roman Catholic element of the population he was less successful. Ignorant of the English language, and firmly attached to their ancestral forms of worship, they were yet compelled to attend a service they considered profane, conducted in a language they could not understand.

As Heber says

No part of the administration of Ireland by the English crown has been more extraordinary and more unfortunate than the system pursued for the introduction of the Reformed religion. At the instance of the Irish bishops Taylor undertook his last great work, the Dissuasive from Popery (in two parts, 1664 and 1667), but, as he himself seemed partly conscious, he might have more effectually gained his end by adopting the methods of Ussher and Bedell, and inducing his clergy to acquire the Irish tongue.

The troubles of his episcopate no doubt shortened his life. Nor were domestic sorrows wanting in these later years. In 1661, he buried, at Lisburn, Edward, the only surviving son of his second marriage. His eldest son, an officer in the army, was killed in a duel; and his second son, Charles, intended for the church, left Trinity College and became companion and secretary to the duke of Buckingham, at whose house he died. The day after his son's funeral Taylor caught fever from a patient whom he visited, and, after a ten days illness, he died at Lisburn on August 13, 1667, in the fifty-fifth year of Henrietta.

His thoughts

Taylor's fame has been maintained by the popularity of his sermons and devotional writings rather than by his influence as a theologian or his importance as an ecclesiastic. His mind was neither scientific nor speculative, and he was attracted rather to questions of casuistry than to the problems of pure theology. His wide reading and capacious memory enabled him to carry in his mind the materials of a sound historical theology, but these materials were unsifted by criticism. His immense learning served him rather as a storehouse of illustrations, or as an armory out of which he could choose the fittest weapon for discomfiting on opponent, than as a quarry furnishing him with material for building up a completely designed and enduring edifice of systematized truth. Indeed, he had very limited faith in the human mind as an instrument of truth. Theology, he says, is rather a divine life than a divine knowledge.

His great plea for toleration is based on the impossibility of erecting theology into a demonstrable science. It is impossible that all should be of one mind. And what is impossible to be done is not necessary it should be done. Differences of opinion there must be; but heresy is not an error of the understanding, but an error of the will. He would submit all minor questions to the reason of the individual member, but he set certain limits to toleration, excluding anything that is against the foundation of faith, or contrary to good life and the laws of obedience, or destructive to human society, and the public and just interests of bodies politic. Peace, he thought, might be made if men would not call all opinions by the name of religion, and superstructures by the name of fundamental articles. Of the propositions of sectarian theologians he said that confidence was the first, and the second, and the third part.

Of a genuine poetic temperament, fervid and mobile in feeling, and of a prolific fancy, he had also the sense and wit that come of varied contact with men. All his gifts were made available for influencing other men by his easy command of a style rarely matched in dignity and color. With all the majesty and stately elaboration and musical rhythm of Milton's finest prose, Taylor's style is relieved and brightened by an astonishing variety of felicitous illustrations, ranging from the most homely and terse to the most dignified and elaborate. His sermons especially abound in quotations and allusions, which have the air of spontaneously suggesting themselves, but which must sometimes have baffled his hearers. This seeming pedantry is, however, atoned for by the clear practical aim of his sermons, the noble ideal he keeps before his hearers, and the skill with which he handles spiritual experience and urges incentives to virtue.


Jeremy Taylor is best known as a prose stylist; his chief fame is the result of his twin devotional manual, Holy Living and Holy Dying. (The Rules and Exercises of Holy Living, 1650, and The Rules and Exercises of Holy Dying, 1651). These books were favorites of John Wesley, and admired for their prose style by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Hazlitt, and Thomas de Quincey. They are marked by solemn but vivid rhetoric, elaborate periodic sentences, and careful attention to the music and rhythms of words:

As our life is very short, so it is very miserable; and therefore it is well that it is short. God, in pity to mankind, lest his burden should be insupportable and his nature an intolerable load, hath reduced our state of misery to an abbreviature; and the greater our misery is, the less while it is like to last; the sorrows of a man's spirit being like ponderous weights, which by the greatness of their burden make a swifter motion, and descend into the grave to rest and ease our wearied limbs; for then only we shall sleep quietly, when those fetters are knocked off, which not only bound our souls in prison, but also ate the flesh till the very bones opened the secret garments of their cartilages, discovering their nakedness and sorrow (Rules and Exercises of Holy Dying).


  1. Edmund Gosse, Jeremy Taylor (New York & London: Macmillan, 1904), 3-8.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Gosse, Edmund. Jeremy Taylor. New York: Macmillan, 1904.
  • Huntley, Frank Livingstone. Jeremy Taylor and the Great Rebellion: A Study of His Mind and Temper in Controversy. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1970.
  • Williamson, Hugh Ross. Jeremy Taylor. London: Dobson, 1952.

This article incorporates text from the Encyclopædia Britannica Eleventh Edition, a publication now in the public domain.

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All links retrieved July 31, 2022.


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