25 May 2008

John Taylor: Apostolic Author

“John Taylor: Apostolic Author”

Epithets earned in resolute defense of Mormon belief, such as “Champion of Right” and “Defender of the Faith,” recognize John Taylor’s complex and influential life.[1] Little emphasis, however, has been placed on a significant and especially important aspect of his life: his writings. Scholarly treatment of his influence as an author is very limited and often neglectful of his historically significant literary contributions. One biographer even reduced Taylor’s major contributions to missionary and ministerial aspects, almost completely ignoring all other facets of his life.[2] Through authorial excellence, Taylor exercised a written influence as great as or greater than was his oratory prowess.

Joseph Smith once admonished, “John Taylor, I believe you can do more good in the editorial department than preaching . . . you can write for thousands to read; while you can preach to but a few at a time.”[3] If the founding figure of Mormondom regarded John Taylor’s potential to teach in print as greater than his already established missionary endeavors, Taylor’s written imprint should be most carefully examined. A similarly intriguing statement from Brigham Young, Smith’s successor, emphasizes the importance of Taylor’s literary ministry even more directly. He proclaimed:

With regard to brother John 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, and we may say that he is a powerful editor, but I will use a term to suit myself, and say that he is one of the strongest editors that ever wrote.[4]

This bold opinion held by the Mormon church’s first two presidents seems largely overlooked by scholars. Among the few scholarly attentions paid to John Taylor’s authored works is a discussion of his early works in defense of Mormon beliefs in the book, Men With a Mission, where Taylor’s writing is portrayed together with that of other Apostles, showing the development of an influential group of LDS authors.[5] Biographies on Taylor’s life rarely provide a detailed examination of his prolific writing career, preferring to mention his literary contributions superficially and chronologically.

During the early 1850s Members of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were sent to the East coast of the United States of America to publicly announce and defend the Church’s practice of polygamy.[6] This mission was important in John Taylor’s literary development. Editing the New York City newspaper, The Mormon, during that period won him the mentioned praise of Brigham Young. These important events not only developed the theology of the infant church, but provided an evolutionary environment in which their authorial talents would be magnified. The emphasis placed by the Mormon church on writing cannot be ignored, nor can the impact of the Englishman, John Taylor, on the written record in early Mormon history, be neglected.

The range of style in the church’s early authorial endeavors has been analyzed and outlined in Appendix A of Mormon History, by Ronald W. Walker, David J. Whittaker and James B. Allen. They suggest that Orson and Parley P. Pratt represent the styles used and define the spectrum of thought contained in early Mormon writing.[7] Such a continuum is categorized by Parley on one extreme, writing with a “malleable”and artistic style of writing, who tended to elaborate on a theme and define it through an almost poetic description.[8] The other end, associated with Orson Pratt, presents a contrast, using similar themes, but with a more logical, legalistic approach to defend Mormon thought.[9] John Taylor’s authorial influence thus seems to be overshadowed in scholarly examination of early Mormon writings, which, instead, emphasizes the Pratt brothers. As John Taylor’s authorial contributions are read and analyzed, they could be compared with one or both of these bookend figures, but are more accurately and distinctively classified as a diplomatic effort to reconcile the two stylistic extremes. Taylor’s writing displays influence from both ends of this literary spectrum, as he diplomatically utilizes the advantages of both styles to unify the promulgation and defense of Mormon doctrine. Diplomatic style, in early Mormon writing, would represent a reconciliation between contrasting styles and viewpoints to elaborate on and to defend established religious ideas.

Concurrent to these stylistic changes were thematic changes in LDS church leaders’ remarks in church conferences and elsewhere. Gordon and Gary Shepherd suggest that “ leader rhetoric reflects . . . organizational and ideological changes.”[10] The church’s emphasis appears to have developed similarly to the transition represented in the rhetoric of John Taylor’s literary works. In his early works, Taylor tended to address predominant themes, but as his unique style developed, he applied it to less common topics which have since seen much more attention. As the coinciding of thematic and stylistic changes of the period with John Taylor’s writings and leadership indicates, his writings exercised a change in the thirty years following their respective publications, which was induced by the development of a unique, diplomatic literary style, a major cause for the development of Mormon theological thought.

Logical Strains

An examination of John Taylor’s major literary works begins with The Government of God, his 1852 response to European philosophy and ideology.[11] This doctrinal exposition was written during Taylor’s mission to Great Britain, France, and Germany. He was disgusted with the ideological revolutions native to the European region regarding the issue of “legitimacy”[12] in religious organizations.[13] As a result of frequent debate among religious scholars, Taylor found himself identifying the ideal world government in a government established by God, rather than a system invented by man.[14] He sought to describe the attributes of God’s government in clearly definable terms. The style demonstrated in such a reflects Taylor’s manner of religious debate and logical reasoning. It demonstrates a fusion between the styles embodied by the Pratt brothers. Taylor presents his ideas in a logically sound, legalistic manner, while maintaining the artistic–and at times poetic–style, characteristic of his later works.

John Taylor’s arguments on man’s freedom to choose are particularly representative of the artistic aspect of his style. Building on the theme of free agency from several different viewpoints, Taylor uses examples from both scripture and everyday life to illustrate his argument. His example of the relationship between father and son represents an elaboration on this theme, suggesting that a father cannot force a son to obey. God’s government is then paralleled to the fatherly figure of the example, showing that God does not force men to respect His laws but encourages obedience through principles of righteousness. Taylor suggests that “nothing but the wisdom, power, and blessings of God can restore” the world to perfection,[15] effectively emphasizing the superiority of divine government and artistically drawing attention to God’s perfect capacity.

The concluding remarks of The Government of God represent the same pattern of thought and beauty of expression. Taylor summarizes his arguments, describing the requirements for men to receive salvation through Jesus Christ. This description includes phrases which present the hope that mankind can be redeemed. Recognizing Christ’s triumph over man’s government, Taylor suggests that only upon the realization of such a victory can men “live and flourish eternally in possession of that immortality which Jesus...promised to the faithful.”[16] Not only is the logical congruity sketched in these closing arguments sound, but the passage presents an artistry which cannot be ignored.

These eloquent passages represent, however, only a part of the style manifest in The Government of God. Its first page presents the logical reasoning, similar to Orson Pratt’s style. Taylor makes several hypotheses based on the conditional “if” and then completes the logical equation, suggesting that if things are as we now know them, then that is the result of their obedience to divine law.[17] Later in presenting God’s perfect government, similar legalistic arguments are made to prove the desired point. In showing that none of the Christian churches with whom Taylor debated in Europe had God’s authorization, all possibilities for obtaining such authority are outlined and subsequently disproved by this skilled author, appealing to his audience’s common sense.[18] Later, arguments pertaining to the need for prophets and apostles, as well as the establishment of the kingdom of God on the earth, are presented both similarly and rationally.[19] These arguments further illustrate the author’s purpose of presenting evidence to support his case and to eliminate potential doubt.

Overall, this initial literary achievement displays both sides of the stylistic spectrum outlined by Walker, Whittaker and Allen, with a style joining the two “bookend” views. It presents passages typical of the artistic, poetic Parley, and maintains the legal, rational approach of Orson. To attach either stylistic label to Taylor’s work would be inconsistent, it representing a diplomatic fusion of style in accomplishing its objective. The influence of Taylor’s writings on the church can be readily seen in the prevalence of the “Kingdom of God” theme in church conference addresses. During the thirty years following Taylor’s publication of The Government of God, this theme peaked and quickly became one of the most addressed topics in the church.[20] John Taylor’s diplomatic writing approach had resounding repercussions.

Transitional Works

Although the focus here is to examine more closely Taylor’s major literary contributions, other works that provide evidence of John Taylor’s distinctive writing style should be mentioned. John Taylor penned several poems which were published in church-sponsored periodicals, such as the Millennial Star. Among these, “Lines” is illustrative of the author’s distinct, artistic style. It contains such passages as:

Thou hop’d for this. At length it came; and thou
Appear’d on this terraqueous ball,
Body and spirit; a living soul, forth
From the hands of Elohim[21]–eternal
As himself–part of thy God . . . .[22]

This selection portrays well the poetic style of John Taylor as he expresses the nature of man’s soul as the offspring of God. The word “terraqueous” was artistically chosen to reflect a connotation rather than a denotation, portraying a feeling in addition to an idea. Such usage reflects Taylor’s artistic tendencies. Representative of the legalistic end of the spectrum, Taylor’s arguments in defense of polygamy might be carefully examined, especially the debate carried on between he and the Vice President of the United States, Schuyler Colfax[23].

The Artistic Apostle

John Taylor concluded his major authorial contributions in 1882 with what one prominent biographer considers to be his culminating work[24], An Examination into and an Elucidation of the Great Principle of the Mediation and Atonement of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ[25] (hereafter referred to as The Mediation and Atonement). This book’s style closely resembles that of The Government of God, although it relies more heavily on the artistic side of the spectrum to diplomatically join the stylistic continuum.

The logical aspects of this work are somewhat more difficult to isolate, as Taylor uses faith in scripture as the rational basis for much of his argument. His distinctive, logical style is abundant, however, in his discussion of man’s need for a Savior. Taylor presents the idea of free agency, similar to the theme discussed in The Government of God, and shows that man’s imperfection results in sin and error. He then indicates that the only realm of possibility existing for man’s salvation is through “an infinite, expiatory atonement.”[26] Outlining all possibilities and subsequently eliminating those that are unreasonable, Taylor illustrates a very logical argument for the claim that all men rely on the atonement. This legalistic approach is also used in presenting the argument that Jesus Christ was the “only personage capable” of performing this eternal atonement.[27] Such reasoning elaborates on the established themes, while relying on the logical reasoning of his audience.

Taylor’s discussion of divine law displays a similar style. His statement that “all the works of God connected with the world which we inhabit . . . are strictly governed by law” is bold in nature, but supported throughout the passage by logical reasoning.[28] His reasoning presents astrological movements, plant and animal life, and man’s existence, each as evidence supporting such a declaration. Taylor goes on to elaborate that as “God is unchangeable, so are also his laws, in all their forms, and in all their applications.”[29] By using such a logical approach, John Taylor shows his classical training and demonstrates his love for reason. References such as these suggest that John Taylor relied on logic in presenting and defending his arguments. He shows this in addressing similar subjects in both major literary works and demonstrates in each a mastery of the spectrum’s logical side.

John Taylor displays in The Mediation and Atonement an artistic and descriptive talent presented, but not relied upon, in The Government of God. His poetic style radiates in presenting the ancient tradition of animal sacrifice. He describes Jesus as “the Being provided before the foundation of the earth . . . prophesied of . . . and also on account of whom the sacrifices were offered up,” demonstrating a rhetorical talent of emphasizing the point, repeating essential information, and characterizing the artistic side.[30] His choice of words also represents a poetic style absent in other works.

Taylor also uses repetition as a literary means of emphasis. This technique is abundant in The Mediation and Atonement and presents a major stylistic attribute in his writing. A powerful segment illustrates this principle and the emphasis that it gives to the overall argument:

The Savior thus becomes master of the situation–the debt is paid, the redemption made, the covenant fulfilled, justice satisfied, the will of God done, and all power is now given into the hand of the Son of God–the power of the resurrection, the power of the redemption, the power of salvation, the power to enact laws . . . He becomes the author of eternal life and exaltation. He is the Redeemer, the Resurrector, the Savior of man and the world.[31]

Taylor abundantly uses literary techniques in this eloquent portrayal of the position occupied by Jesus Christ. The rhetoric used in emphasizing the effect of Christ’s sacrifice places great importance on the fact that a reconciliation has been provided to bridge the gap between God’s law and man’s imperfect condition. Saying that “the debt is paid”[32] and reiterating this idea with parallel phrases such as, “the redemption [was] made, the covenant fulfilled, justice satisfied, [and] the will of God done,” Taylor shows a beautiful and artistically masterful use of parallelism.[33] Later, he uses a similar pattern in describing Jesus as the “author of eternal life and salvation,” followed by three other parallel ideas.[34] The realm of Christ’s power is similarly described in four different, parallel phrases, each with similar meaning. Such use of rhetorical and powerful literary techniques portrays John Taylor’s proficiency as an artistic author.

Another artistic attribute described by Walker, Whittaker and Allen is that of taking a specific element or topic and being “malleable and literary” with it; the author might toy with the idea before moving on.[35] This technique is employed several times by John Taylor in The Mediation and Atonement. A good example is Taylor’s discussion of deviation from established law. The law of gravity is discussed, followed by examples of how it can be defied. Playing with the idea of exceptions to the rule, Taylor mentions magnetic forces attracting or repelling, birds flying, and hot air balloons floating as evidence that laws are, at times, overcome by other forces strong enough at specific locations to supercede the general rule.[36] These passages clearly demonstrate that John Taylor’s logic is balanced by his artistry. He is able to clearly present a rational argument, while writing poetically, with an artistically logical style. His authorial contributions display full use of the stylistic spectrum exemplified by Orson and Parley Pratt and thus create a unique, diplomatic style.

This new style influenced Mormon leaders’ treatment of Jesus Christ as a theme within the church. Until this time, Christ had been the topic of relatively few church conference addresses.[37] In the thirty years immediately following Taylor’s publication of The Mediation and Atonement, however, Jesus was the topic in twice as many conference talks, proportionally. He has since become one of the most often addressed themes in the Mormon church.[38] Modern authors have followed Taylor’s innovative example, as in James E. Talmage’s publishing of Jesus the Christ[39] and Bruce R. McConkie’s Messiah series.[40] John Taylor led this revolution in Mormon thought and used his “leader rhetoric” to bring the church into its modern philosophy.[41]

Identifying a New Style

While categorizing Taylor’s writings according to the spectrum outlined by Walker, Whittaker and Allen may be helpful, these seem to be specific to Orson and Parley Pratt (and arguably other authors), but less pertinent to John Taylor. Among other possible descriptions are the terms “definitive”, “editorial”, and “diplomatic.” Definitive writing might, in this context, be described as using differing or contrasting approaches and styles with the objective of defining religious thought and philosophy. It has been shown that John Taylor used differing points of view to defend and define Mormon thought. His work, The Government of God, seems to be especially representative of this description, as it defines God’s and man’s forms of government, using both artistic and logical lines of reasoning. It might be argued that this term applies well to Taylor; however, since his objective was not to define, his writings cannot accurately be labeled “definitive.”

The “editorial” style differs from others in that it is not seeking to define an idea, but to logically give purpose to or to unify the ideas and styles of others. This style certainly is manifest in Taylor’s writings, although it is less prominent in his major literary works. The compilation of a variety of opinions and styles to support an assumption has been pointed out in both The Government of God and The Mediation and Atonement. This style is applicable to John Taylor as an author, but it somewhat disregards his original ideas and artistic contributions.

The most accurate categorization of Taylor’s works is the term “diplomatic.” Diplomatic style, in early Mormon writing, would represent a reconciliation between contrasting styles and viewpoints to elaborate on and to defend established religious ideas. The purposes of both artistic and logical styles are retained, but the objective of their inclusion is to portray an existing idea in a different perspective. Since John Taylor’s writing is moderate in scope and style, it serves as a middle ground between the extremes of Orson and Parley Pratt. Taylor uses similar methods to theirs, but with a different purpose and outcome. His writing is thus not distinctly editorial, nor is it absolutely definitive, but is best categorized as diplomatic.

After close analysis, the spectrum represented by Orson and Parley P. Pratt is helpful in examining the writings of John Taylor. It does not, however, fully represent all of the major literary traditions which have since arisen, nor does it include all authors both contemporary and subsequent to the Pratt brothers. John Taylor’s style follows neither of those styles, but combines them diplomatically, creating a moderate, yet effective manner of presenting his ideas. Taylor’s calling as apostolic author was fulfilled and magnified in both the content and the development of his significant literary contributions. He used both traditions contemporary to his life, but with them suited his own purposes by unifying the styles in the promulgation of faith and belief distinctive to the “Defender of the Faith,”[42] creating what is now identified as the diplomatic style in early Mormon writing.

Because many of Taylor’s stylistic authorial contributions are not recognized, the theological development which he furthered is likewise overshadowed. Thematic transitions in Mormon thought closely parallel Taylor’s writings and subjects. Following his publication of The Government of God (during the years 1860-1889), the “Kingdom of God” theme appears in conference addresses more frequently than in any other period of church history.[43] More importantly, Jesus Christ is emphasized in eras following his publishing of The Mediation and Atonement more than ever before.[44] The ideological shift between 1860 and 1900 coincides nicely with the shift in Taylor’s writings. The stylistic development portrayed in John Taylor’s literary achievements is not only interesting, but indicative of a greater ideological trend to emphasize similarities with other Christian faiths rather than to dwell on differences between Mormons and others. The unique diplomatic style developed by John Taylor was a major cause of both literary and theological change, which continues to shoe it influence in modern Mormon thought.


[1].Francis M. Gibbons. John Taylor: Mormon Philosopher, Prophet of God (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), p. 21; B. H. Roberts. The Life of John Taylor (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1963), p. 87.
[2].Francis M. Gibbons. John Taylor: Mormon Philosopher, Prophet of God (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), p. 235.
2.B. H. Roberts. History of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 7 vols., (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1978), vol. 5, p. 367.
[4].Brigham Young. “Testimony to the Divinity of Joseph Smith’s Mission,” in Journal of Discourses, 26 vols., (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854-1886), vol. 4, p. 34.
[5].James B. Allen, Ronald K. Esplin, David J. Whittaker. Men With a Mission (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1992), p. 259-261.
[6].Samuel W. Taylor. The Kingdom of God or Nothing: The Life of John Taylor, Mormon Militant (New York: Macmillan; London: Collier Macmillan, 1976), p. 175.
[7].Ronald W. Walker, David J. Whittaker, and James B. Allen. Mormon History (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001), pp. 201-204.
[8].Ibid., 204.
[10].Shepherd, Gordon and Shepherd, Gary. A Kingdom Transformed: Themes in the Development of Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1984), 2.
[11].John Taylor. The Government of God (Liverpool: S. W. Richards, 1852).
[12].John Taylor. The Gospel Kingdom, ed. G. Homer Durham (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1987), p. xxx.
[13].Ibid, xxviiii-xxx.
[14].John Taylor, Government of God, p. 2.
[15].Ibid., 56-57.
[16].Ibid., 118.
[17].Ibid., 1.
[18].Ibid., 60.
[19].Ibid., 89,96.
[20].Shepherd, Gordon and Shepherd, Gary. A Kingdom Transformed: Themes in the Development of Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1984), 243.
[21].Elohim is the title used by Latter-day Saints to refer to God the Father, see Keith H. Meservy. “Elohim,” Scriptures of the Church: Selections from the Encyclopedia of Mormonism, ed. Daniel H. Ludlow (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1995), p. 291-292.
[22].John Taylor. “Lines,” The Latter-day Saints’ Millenial Star (Liverpool), vol. 8, pp. 178-179.
[23].For an account of these debates, see Schuyler Colfax and John Taylor. The Mormon question; being a speech of Vice-President Schuyler Colfax ... a reply thereto by Elder John Taylor and a letter of Vice-President Colfax published in the "New York Independent", with Elder Taylor's reply (Salt Lake City, Deseret News Office, 1870).
[24].Samuel W. Taylor, Kingdom of God, 278, 295.
[25].John Taylor. An Examination into and an Elucidation of the Great Principle of the Mediation and Atonement of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (Salt Lake City: Deseret News Publishing, 1892).
[26].Ibid., 96-97.
[27].Ibid., 136-137.
[28].Ibid., 163.
[29].Ibid., 168.
[30].Ibid., 125.
[35].Ronald W. Walker, David J. Whittaker, and James B. Allen. Mormon History (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001), p. 204.
[36].John Taylor, Mediation and Atonement, 167-168.
[37].Shepherd, Gordon and Shepherd, Gary. A Kingdom Transformed: Themes in the Development of Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1984), 242.
[39].James E. Talmage, Jesus the Christ, (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1915; reprint, Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1983).
[40].Bruce R. McConkie, The Promised Messiah (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1979); idem., The Mortal Messiah, 3 vols. (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book 1979); idem, The Millenial Messiah (Deseret Book, 1979).
[41].Shepherd, Gordon and Shepherd, Gary. A Kingdom Transformed: Themes in the Development of Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1984), 2.
[42].B. H. Roberts. The Life of John Taylor (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1963), p. 87.
[43].Shepherd, Gordon and Shepherd, Gary. A Kingdom Transformed: Themes in the Development of Mormonism (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1984), 243.
[44].Ibid., 242.

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