John Taylor of Norwich

Speaking of Arianism (see previous post), I recently worked through a biography of John Taylor (1694-1761), pastor of the Presbyterian work in Norwich, in his day one of the leading towns in England. Geoffrey T. Eddy, a Methodist minister based in Warwickshire, England, has produced a long-overdue biography of this noted Hebraist, strident critic of classical Calvinism, and eighteenth-century Arian [Dr. Taylor of Norwich: Wesley’s Arch-heretic (Peterborough, England: Epworth Press, 2003)]. Taylor became well-known for his Hebrew Concordance (vol. I—1754; vol. II—1757) that placed him in “the forefront of the leading Hebrew scholars of his day” (47). But he also became infamous for being a “radical champion of freedom of thought on theological questions” (40). Imbued with the optimistic confidence in human reason that was typical of so many in his day (154-155), he deprecated what he called “Athanasianism” because of what he believed to be its denial of God’s unity (40). Eddy thinks Taylor was probably closest to Arianism in his theological convictions (40, 150, 152).

And though he believed in the infallibility of the Scriptures, Taylor saw no foundation for the doctrine of original sin in Scripture (83). This led him to be the target of attack by two of the most famous Christian authors of that era, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758), who critiqued him in his The Great Christian Doctrine of Original Sin Defended (1757), and John Wesley (1703-1791). Eddy details both of their responses. Of Edwards’ response he is very dismissive: “Modern readers are unlikely to think it worth while to plough through the book, based as it is upon a cosmology and a view of Scripture neither of which can any longer be the basis for argument” (96). At a later point, Eddy, with regard to what he believes to be Wesley’s failure to mount an effective response to Taylor, comments that the doctrine of original sin has “simply ceased to be credible” (121). Where then did Taylor stand when it came to salvation? His teaching was, Eddy says, “frank Pelagianism,” in which “we are saved by our own efforts, with a little help from the Holy Spirit” (119, also 152-153). Little wonder that many regarded Taylor as an arch-heretic.

Eddy relates the way that one of Taylor’s critics, a Calvinistic Baptist minister by the name of John MacGowan (1726-1780)—minister of the historic Devonshire Square Baptist Church in London and a man, in Eddy’s words, “over-addicted to irony and vituperation” (236, n.5)—attacked him. In a tract that appeared in the year of Taylor’s death, MacGowan depicted Taylor as now sinking down in hell in “despair, while the direful floods of omnipotent vengeance rolled upon him” (6). Eddy terms this book of the London Baptist the “weirdest of all the attacks” upon his hero (5). And yet, a careful reading of the words of the Lord Jesus about the final state of unbelievers would show that MacGowan was not so weird after all.

There is no doubt that much good biography is rooted in sympathy with one’s subject and in Eddy, John Taylor has found both a good biographer and admiring advocate. However, this reviewer would strongly dissent from Eddy’s dismissal of such critics of Taylor as Edwards and Wesley. They were no mean students of the Scriptures and sought to subject all their thinking to that body of divine truth. And they would have been very surprised to be told, as Eddy tells us, that when it comes to original sin, for example, they were simply under the thralldom of Augustine (xi)! They were certain—and this reviewer would say, rightly so—that this teaching has an apostolic ring about it. And they would have also rightly believed that what Taylor called Athansianism is nothing more, nothing less than a Scriptural view of the Godhead.