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C.D. Warner, et al., comp. The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes. 1917.

Critical and Biographical Introduction by Thomas Wentworth Higginson (1823–1911)

By Jeremy Taylor (1613–1667)

HAWTHORNE once pointed out the intrinsic perishableness of all volumes of sermons; and the fact that goes farthest to refute this theory is the permanent readableness of Jeremy Taylor. Not always profound as a thinker, and not consistent in that large theory of religious liberty in which he surpassed his times, he holds his own by pure beauty of rhetoric, wealth of imagination, and abundant ardor of mind. Coleridge calls him “most eloquent of divines;” adding further, “had I said ‘of men,’ Cicero would forgive me, and Demosthenes add assent.” So beautiful is Taylor’s imagery, so free the motion of his wings in upper air, that when he once appeals to the reader with a sentence beginning “So have I seen,” it is impossible to withdraw attention until the whole series of prolonged and balanced clauses comes to an end. Like other fine rhetoricians, he has also a keen ear for rhetoric in others; and his ample notes preserve for us many fine and pithy Greek or Latin or Italian sentences, which otherwise might have faded even from human memory. Indeed, his two most carefully prepared works, ‘Holy Living’ and ‘Holy Dying,’ need to be read twice with different ends in view: once for the text, and once for the accompanying quotations.

Jeremy Taylor, the son of a Cambridge barber, was born on August 15th, 1613, took his degrees at the University (Caius College), where he was also a fellow; and afterwards obtained through Archbishop Laud a fellowship at Oxford (All Souls). He later became rector at Uppingham, and was twice married; his second wife, Joanna Bridges, being, in the opinion of Bishop Heber, an illegitimate daughter of Charles I. when Prince of Wales. His first work, published in 1642, bore the curious name of ‘Episcopacy Asserted against the Acephali and Aërians New and Old,’ and hardly gave a hint of his future reputation. He is thought to have served as chaplain during the civil war, and was impoverished by that great convulsion, as were so many others; becoming later a schoolmaster in Wales. Here he was befriended by Richard Vaughan, Earl of Carbery, whose residence “Golden Grove” affords a title to Taylor’s manual of devotion, published in 1655. This, with the other works by which the author is now best known, was prepared during his retirement from the world, between 1647 and 1660. ‘The Liberty of Prophesying’ (1655) was far above the prevalent opinions of the time, or indeed of any time. In this he sets aside all grounds of authority except the words of Scripture, placing reason above even those; and denies the right of civil government to exercise discipline over opinions. The fact that he was three times in his life imprisoned for his own utterances may well have strengthened this liberality; but unfortunately it did not prevent him, when after the Restoration he became Bishop of Down and Connor, from ejecting thirty-six ministers from their pulpits for doctrines too strongly Presbyterian. He was capable even of very questionable casuistry; justified the Israelites for spoiling the Egyptians, maintained that private evil might be employed for the public good, and that we may rightfully employ reasonings which we know to be unfounded. This was in a book expressly designed as a guide to learners,—the ‘Ductor Dubitantium, or the Rule of Conscience in all her General Measures’ (1660).

Taylor’s whole theory of religious liberty may be found summed up in one passage, which heads the series of selections that follow in this volume; and which may be thus condensed still further: No man, he thinks, can be trusted to judge for others unless he be infallible,—which no man is. It is, however, perfectly legitimate for men to choose guides who shall judge for them; only it is to be remembered that those thus choosing have not got rid of the responsibility of selection, since they select the guides. The best course for a man, Taylor also points out, is to follow his guide while his own reason is satisfied, and no farther; since no man can escape this responsibility without doing willful violence to his own nature. Reason is thus necessarily the final arbiter; and all things else—Scriptures, traditions, councils, and fathers—afford merely the evidences in the question, while reason remains and must remain the judge. It is needless to say that in this statement every vestige of infallible authority is swept away.

In handling practical questions, Jeremy Taylor displays an equal freedom from traditional bondage. In dealing with the difficult subject of marriage, for instance, it is to be noticed that he places the two parties, ordinarily, on more equal terms than English usage, or even the accustomed discipline of the English Church, has recognized; and that his exhortations are usually addressed to both parties as if they stood on equal terms. “Let them be sure to abstain from all those things which by experience and observation they find to be contrary to each other.” Again he says, “Man and wife are equally concerned to avoid all offenses of each other in the beginning of their conversation;” and all his suggestions of caution and self-restraint apply alike to both parties. The same justness and humane sympathy extend to his remarks on children: who, as he observes, have tenderer feeling and greater suffering in respect to their senses; and are not fortified by the results of long experience, as grown persons are, nor have they heard the instructive words of philosophers, or acquired the habit of setting their blessings against their sorrows: and yet they “wade through the storm and murmur not,” and give an example to their elders.

His supreme wisdom is shown, however, in all his discussion of the trials and cares of life, and of the means of defying them. No one has painted quite so vividly the difference between the cares that come with increased wealth or office, and the peace that dwells in humble stations. “They that admire the happiness of a prosperous prevailing tyrant, know not the felicities that dwell in innocent hearts, and poor cottagers, and small fortunes.” He thinks that man miserable who has no adversity; and virtues, he says, are but in the seed at first, and need heat and cold, showers as well as sunshine, before they can be of any value. God himself, he boldly says, “loves to see us struggling with a disease, and resisting the Devil, and contesting against the weaknesses of nature.” The gladiators of old did not cry or complain; the soldier stands at his post through everything. It is to Taylor that we chiefly owe the attention latterly attracted to the oft-quoted saying of Xenophon, that the same labors are easier to the general officer than to the common soldier, because the former is “supported by the huge appetites of honor.” Again, reasoning more minutely, he points out that in most forms of grief or pain, we deal with it only, as it were, from moment to moment, and can therefore meet it with strength supplied at the same short intervals. There is rarely a cumulative or composite pain; but it flows “like the drops of a river or the little shreds of time.” Each duty can thus be mastered, if we will but make sure of the present moment.

All these things show that Jeremy Taylor had not lived for nothing through the ordeal of a civil war; that he was not merely a gentle and placid dweller amid the calms of life, but had encountered its storms with an equal mind. They still show you, at Chepstow Castle, the room where he was imprisoned; and his kindred in the little city still boast of the period as an honor. That he was patient in adversity cannot be denied; although it may be that when his turn of prosperity and power came, he was not always mindful of his own broad theories. Nevertheless, a halo of purity and elevation will always hallow his name. A portrait of him hangs in All Souls College at Oxford; and this, like all the pictures of him, justifies the tradition of personal beauty so long attributed to Taylor. The legend seems appropriate to the charm of his style; and recalls the opinion expressed by Dr. Parr,—that Hooker may be the object of our reverence, and Barrow of our admiration, but that Jeremy Taylor will always be the object of our love.