LETTERS OF JOHN JAMES TAYLERA
* Letters, embracing his Life, of John James Tayler, B.A., Professor of Ecclesiastical' History and Allical Theology, and Principal of Manchester New College, London..
Edited by John Hamilton Thom. 2 vols. London : Williams and Norgate. 1872
MUCH weight must be allowed to the reasons which have made Mr. Thom give to the world a collection of Mr. Tayler's letters, rather than a biography of the usual form. Every one must have felt, especially in reading those uneventful lives which are little more than the records of spiritual and intellectual growth, that the biographer often seems to intrude, that the subject cannot be too much left to speak for himself. And it so happens that in- this case the subject can be made to speak for himself very fully and completely. The letters which the affectionate care of Mr. Tayler's family and friends have preserved are sufficient, as Mr. Thom says in his preface, "to show both the outward course and order of his life, and the inner spirit of his being in his various, characteristic aspects, as scholar, as minister of religion, above all, as a man." Such letters are in some respects of higher value than any formal autobiography, being wholly free from the self - consciousness and effort of which almost every autobiography shows some trace. The only respect in- which a book so composed fails as a memorial of the departed is that it is suited to the wants of his friends rather than to those- of the outer circle of readers. Those who knew the living man will have his image, the likeness of the man, the thinker, the- teacher, recalled continually as they read ; but those who were strangers to him will have to make an effort, which cannot, at the- best, be wholly successful, to put together into a whole the- various features of his character. To these readers some help. might have been given, possibly by the addition of one of those sketches which appeared shortly after Mr. Tayler's decease as- articles in magazines or reviews, or as isolated. Mr. Thom speaks of them as having been "admirable," and says "that he can add nothing essential to them," but he does not reflect that they appeared in an ephemeral shape, and that they may not have come under the observation, or may have passed from the recollection, of some of the readers of these volumes.
One curious characteristic of the Letters is the maturity and steadiness of style and thought which they exhibit from the first. It is scarcely less than astonishing to find a boy of fourteen express- ing himself with that aptitude and neatness as we find in these- ' sentences :—
" I do not know whether I shall attempt any more Latin except. Horace, whom I admire very much, and who, if he had been a Christian and not so addicted to Venus and Bacchus, would have been one of the finest moral poets I ever read ; and I have seen a plan of Dr. Watts" which in my opinion is highly laudable and merits imitation, that is an application of some of the Odes of Horace to Christian sentiments. and morals. I know not how your opinion will coincide with mine.. What in Horace I so peculiarly admire, is his happy use of every appellative, his delicacy of words, that elegant character which he. gives to all his compositions, and very often his fine and dignified. moral, which unfolds itself even in some of his looser effusions."
In sobriety of judgment, especially as exercised on intellectua subjects, he seems to have reached a very early maturity. His early education he received in his father's school at Nottingham.
From this he went to Manchester New College, an institution, with which it was his lot to be connected throughout many years of his life. It was then locally situated at York. Thence again.
he proceeded to the University of Glasgow, from which he- was recalled to occupy for a time the position of assistant-tutor in the college at York. To this period of his life belongs a letter in which we have unfolded a notion exhibiting, as Mr. Thom re- marks in his preface, " a characteristic combination of unworldli- ness with cautious prudence," this notion being the scheme of uniting, as professional avocations, it must be understood, theology and medicine. That a minister of religion may usefully possess- some knowledge of the art of healing cannot be questioned, but that he should render himself liable to the calls which are made upon those who follow that art professionally, to interruptions, for instance, which might call him from the pulpit itself, is an idea positively grotesque. Mr. Tayler, however, did not readily aban- don the notion, though he saw objections to it from another point of view which had much weight with him. In a second letter he says:—
"I see one thing which I did not sufficiently consider when I last wrote, and that is, that unless I choose to live single through life, which
is a very dismal prospect, I cannot hope under any circumstances to give myself wholly up to the studies of the learned divine. What therefore I have to do, is to adopt, as some auxiliary means of improv- ing my income, a profession whose avocations are least at variance with those of a minister of religion, which are most liberal and agreeable to the mind. If I were finally to think of being a physician as well as a Dissenting minister, I must make a sort of composition between the two professions. I must give up the idea of ever being a learned divine, and aim rather at being a useful and pleasing preacher and being agreeable in society. I must forego the prospect of ever fathom- ing the depths of Hebrew learning and ecclesiastical antiquity ; I must confine my reading in Classics to a few standard authors, and read them rather as the general scholar than as the critic or grammarian. In medicine, I must not look to the more distinguished spheres of action; I must fix myself in some of our smaller towns, where the com- petition would not be so great, and where I may diligently employ my- self in the labours of two professions, happy if I can raise sufficient from the profits of both to employ my leisure hours in the quiet search of truth and knowledge, and live in humble competence and tranquillity in the bosom of my family."
He was not called upon, however, to put in practice this or any unusual scheme for earning a fair competence. In his twenty- fourth year he was called to the pastoral charge of a congregation in Manchester, from whom he received a salary more than equal to what the Establishment commonly furnishes to its ministers, and which he was able to increase by lectures andtuition. It was not long before this settlement was followed by his marriage. Than the letters of his courtship nothing more old-fashioned can be imagined. Here is the conclusion of one of them :—" I must write no more now, as I have a sermon on a particular occasion to begin for Sunday. When you are mine, you shall sit by me on these occasions in my little study upstairs, for I have now learned, by living with my brothers, to write while another person is in the room. But I will not begin to be romantic when I ought to be finish- ing my letter." The next ten years of his life are but sparingly illustrated by the letters. In his thirty-seventh year we find him recording what was, perhaps, the most painful experience of his public life. He had been persuaded to take part in an aggregate meeting of Nonconformists held to protest against the prin- ciple of Church Establishments. His own feelings, as they are frequently expressed in these volumes, were averse to any such movements, and many of his friends strongly condemned it. These causes acting on health probably already enfeebled, threw him into a state of great distress, which he thus describes :—
"My first step (itself a recession from a previous resolution, which I would to God I had adhered to) was taken rather precipitately and from the impulse of the moment ; and when the excitement was over, I felt myself committed to the whole extent of the abstract principle— sweeping away all national funds for the support of religion under any circumstances—and allowing no consideration for the historical rela- tions of the country, or the inability of certain districts in the present state of society, to provide for themselves by voluntary contributions. You know my mind is naturally anxious, and the very fact of feeling that I was committed, and could not with consistency admit any relaxa- tion of the abstract principle, gave increased activity and force to all the difficulties which presented themselves to my imagination, and many of which had certainly not occurred to me before. Then came the strong representations of various friends, pamphlets, and extracts from the most liberal writers, showing that even they were not prepared to embrace the whole extent of the voluntary principle, and conversations with American clergymen, who said they thought it would be a danger- ous experiment in the present state of English manners universally to adopt it, and that it was not possible to argue from America to England ; all these influences took the strongest possession of my mind—I bitterly repented the consequences of my rashness and precipitation—saw, as I thought, the distinction between the abolition of a political Church, used as an engine of State policy, and the entire abrasion of all public endowments, which it seemed to me might be so popularised in their application as to put them on the footing of private endowments—con- ceived that the retention of some simple form of discipline and service might be disjoined from the imposition of any creed—feared the undoing of learned theology and rational religion from the ascendancy of enthu- siasm—and, in fact, had my imagination so completely possessed with terrors and apprehensions, that I am quite aware I never reasoned with perfect calmness on the subject, and let the great broad principle, which should have been my sheet-anchor amidst these troublous tossings of the mind, if not slip away, yet at least recede from its due prominence and distinctness in my mind."
The fear that enthusiasm might overpower rational religion and that culture might suffer from the want of adequate support are eminently characteristic of his habits of thought. A year's leave of absence was kindly given him by his congregation. He spent it for the most part in Germany, and his sketches of the great Professors of the time, Ewald, Gieseler, Muller, Heeren, and others, are some of the most interesting things in the book. In 1840, Manchester New College was brought back to its native place, and Mr. Tayler was appointed Professor of Ecclesiastical History. He had now found the special work of his life, though he continued to discharge pastoral functions both at Manchester and at London till within the last ten years of his life, not without winning in both places the very hearty regard of his congregation. The farewell address made to him by his people at Man-
cheater, when he left them to take charge of the College in its renewed migration to London, breathes an earnestness of affection which shows how thoroughly loveable the man was. For the last sixteen years of his life (1853-1869) Mr. Tayler lived in or near London. It was, it seems, a happy life, because it was filled with occupations for which he had a genuine love, though its calm was broken twice by great shocks of bereavement, in the loss of his only son and of his wife. There is something very touching in the quietness and patience of his sorrow, as it comes out in the letters of these dates :—" I must take one week," he writes after the death of his wife—they had been married thirty- seven years—" of quiet rest and silent sorrow. On Monday next I shall resume my usual duties." Seven years afterwards came his own death. In the autumn of 1868 he had paid a visit to the Unitarian Churches of Transylvania, in whose fortunes he felt a strong interest. The journey, it was thought, had fatigued and enfeebled him. In the May of the following year he fell under the sudden attack of an internal disease, from which he had long suffered. His last act, most characteristic of the whore tenor of his life and thoughts, had been to send an invitation to Athanase Coquerel Fits to take part in a religious service of the Free Church Union. We shall not attempt in the few lines at our command that task of an estimate of Mr. Tayler's character which Mr. Thom declines. We shall rather refer the reader to these volumes, giving in the meantime a few extracts bearing ott points of interest. Here is what he wrote, mtat 37, on the subject of miracles :—
"Without denying that I fool some historical difficulties in the subject of miracles, though logically I feel none, (as who that believes in the universality of the divine agency can feel ?) my own conviction founded upon such knowledge as I at present possess, decidedly leads me to embrace every part of the Gospel narrative, the miraculous as well as the common, as an authentic historical whole, which alone satisfactorily explains the origin of the existence, the form and the present agency of Christianity. There seems to me less difficulty in this supposition than in any attempt, which I have yet seen, to separate, or explain away, the miraculous. Perhaps, with the progress of knowledge and inquiry, the general agency of the miraculous in the earlier stages of the moral civilization of mankind will receive a more complete elucidation than it has yet done. For myself, I am willing to leave the miraculous of Christianity in the obscurity in which it lies, not venturing to reject it, but taking it with awe, from its connection with the unspeakably excellent and glorious doctrines with whose earliest development it is so mysteriously interwoven."
Here is a passage full of a most rare candour :— " . . . It seems to me impossible to over-estimate the services of Paul to Christianity. But for him, it might have remained a Jewish sect. Yet I cannot persuade myself that his theology, fairly interpreted, is identical with the religious philosophy preached and taught by Unitarians, e.g., Dr. Channing If Christianity be a development of great principles under Providence—may we not consider all those- views to be comprehended in the original design of it, which flow by natural evolution, with the growth of the human mind, and by fair deduction from those principles ?—and reject, as the mere form in which they were originally clothed, to fit them to the actual state of the world, some articles even of the Apostle's own sincere belief, for which his- divine authority is often quoted ? At the same time, when we consider the nature of some of the Apostle's views—some of those which pro- duced the strongest impression on the infant Churches—it must be admitted to be very difficult to say, what are and what are not funda- mentals—what is the spirit and what is the mere form. Using the Scriptures, as is common oven with Unitarians, I do not say Church Orthodoxy would be fairly deduced from them, but neither do I think_ would Unitarianism."
Mr. Tayler's mind sat indeed very loosely to all dogmatic statements. He says somewhere that theology should be taught "scientifically, not dogmatically," and the maxim fully expresses- hia habitual attitude of mind. At the same time, his personal faith was remarkably vivid. He clung with no little tenacity to the chief historical facts of Christianity, though he could feel that were these facts to be resolved into nothing by the processes of criti- cism, it would still continue to flourish. To those who occupy our stand-point, it seems impossible that any person not divine should continue to exercise an influence so mighty and pervading on human hearts. No reader of Mr. Tayler's language, whilst' here, and it may almost be said here only, rises into a tone of enthusiasm, can doubt how strong and how real that influence was in him. "The Philonian doctrine of a Logos," as he expresses it, found no intellectual acceptance with him, but those who hold it may be allowed to find in the belief which beautified his life a new proof of it.
Next to his faith, the strongest feeling in Mr. Tayler's life was certainly his love of learning, of classical learning especially. His own training had placed him somewhat at a disadvantage, and though he had attained to soundness, he fell short of elegance of scholarship. His Latin letter to the Bishop of the Transylvanian Unitarians is certainly not Ciceronian ; but his knowledge of classical literature was large, and up to the last he continued to. add to it with enthusiasm. "Like a true 'osIssaccgic," he writes in his sixty-fourth year, "I practise double translations on Plato every morning." And it is interesting to find him mentioning with sympathy the somewhat strange enthusiasm of a German scholar who was devoting his life to an examination of the MSS. of Petronius.
We are obliged to omit many of the passages which we had marked for extract. We must have given enough, however, to send any reader for whom such a commendation may be needed to the volumes themselves.