William Taylor (1821-1902), was converted to Christ among the Methodists, and in 1842 he was introduced to evangelistic work in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1848, when gold was found on the Sutter property in El Dorado County, California, the report raced across the United States and around the world. In the fall of that year, as William passed along a Baltimore street, a certain gentleman with the name of Christian Keener shouted his name. Running toward him, he said, “Waugh wants to see you at Armstrong & Bery’s bookstore.”
Beverly Waugh was a highly respected Christian gentleman whose powerful preaching lent him wide influence. At 59, Waugh’s calm but “care-worn features, brilliant eyes, shaded by heavy eyebrows,” coupled with his resonant voice made him look like the patriarch of Baltimore. There was one topic discussed at the bookstore: Would William consider taking his family on a boat to San Francisco? The sturdy street preacher saw God’s hand opening a door. He had no objections.
A mania of emigration to California took place in 1849. It was an invasion. While William Taylor was arranging passage, Isaac Owen was also leaving for California, but traveling overland. The two missionaries were to link up on the west coast. Wilson Flint, who went on to become a California legislator, related in a letter to Taylor how he first found the harbor city of San Francisco at the height of the gold-rush:
“It was on a Sunday morning, in December, 1849, when landing from the Panama steamer, I wended my way with the throng to Portsmouth Square, this being at that time the great resort of the denizens of the rising metropolis. Three sides of the square were mostly occupied by buildings, which served the double purpose of hotels and gambling houses, the latter calling being regarded at that time as a very reputable profession. On the fourth and upper side of the square was an adobe building, from the steps of which you were discoursing from the text, ‘The way of the transgressor is hard.’
“It was a scene I shall never forget. On all sides of you were gambling houses, each with its band of music in full blast. Crowds were going in and out; fortunes were being lost and won, terrible imprecations and blasphemies rose amid the horrid wail, and it seemed to me that Pandemonium was let loose. Above all this, I heard you utter the following prophetic sentence…’The power of Satan seems at this time in the ascendancy, wherever I cast my eye; but, sure as there is a God in heaven, we will turn the tables upon the Evil One, and where now my voice meets naught but scoffs and jeers, with unwavering faith in my Divine Master I hope to labor on to the time when these dens of iniquity around me shall all be swept away.”
Perhaps Mr. Flint thought that goal could in part be accomplished through proper legislation. But if we visit San Francisco today, we have to confess that William Taylor also died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off; he was persuaded of them, and embraced them. He fully believed that he would soon bruise Satan under his feet. So every Sunday, for seven years, Taylor positioned himself in the plaza, and preached. He also spent part of his time in writing (eventually Taylor would write sixteen books), selling books, and privately teaching those who expressed spiritual interest. Working with Isaac Owen, they saw gatherings spring up in Sacramento, San Jose, Stockton, and Santa Cruz, and the gospel made inroads into a number of mining camps.
On January 29, 1851, a man called on Taylor to attend the funeral of a certain Charles B., who, in a quarrel with a fellow-gambler the night before, had been shot dead. “I think it a pity,” said the man, “to bury the poor fellow without having some religious ceremonies said over him; and it will be a comfort to his friends.”
He was laid out just where he was killed, in the Parker House, on the east side of the Plaza. Taking his stand near the corpse, William Taylor sang:
“That awful day will surely come,
Th’ appointed hour makes haste,
When I must stand before my Judge,
And pass the solemn test.
“Jesus, Thou source of all my joys,
Thou ruler of my heart,
How could I bear to hear Thy voice
Pronounce the word, ‘Depart!’
“The thunder of that awful word
Would so torment my ear,
‘Twould tear my soul asunder, Lord,
With most tormenting fear.
“What, to be banish’d from my Lord,
And yet forbid to die?
To linger in eternal pain,
And death forever fly?
“O, wretched state of deep despair,
To see my God remove,
And fix my doleful station where
I must not taste His love!”
“The singing and the occasion drew together nearly three hundred men, who stood uncovered before me,” wrote Taylor. “I announced as my text the last two verses of the book of Ecclesiastes: ‘Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep His commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.’ I then remarked as follows:
“Gentlemen, I always endeavor, in my public discourses, to adapt my remarks, so far as I can, to my audience. I take it for granted that the greater portion, if not all of you, are sportsmen; as such I shall address you.
“‘The conclusion of the whole matter,’ the great summary of life’s duties, what is it? ‘Fear God, and keep His commandments.’ Do you understand it? You are not a set of ignoramuses. I know, from your appearance, that you have had early educational advantages. Some of you have had pious mothers to instruct you, and many of you, I doubt not, have been brought up in the Sabbath School, and you have all had the opportunity of reading the Word of God, and of hearing it preached, from your boyhood to the present hour. You cannot plead ignorance. You know your duty: to ‘keep His commandments.’ How comprehensive the commandments of God, embracing every duty growing out of the relations we sustain to God and to each other! Had you given your hearts to God, believed in Jesus Christ, received the regenerating power of His grace in your souls, and were you, today, consecrated to His service, what happy men you would be! What an influence you might wield for God and His holy cause in California; help to build up good society, and to make this fair land a safe and happy home for your wives and children. The little boys and girls now growing up in our midst would repeat your names with grateful hearts, and call you blessed, when your bodies are beneath the ground, and your souls happy in the abode of angels and of God.
“But what are you about? What are you doing here in California? Look at that bloody corpse! What will his mother say? What will his sisters think of it? To die in a distant land, among strangers, is bad; to die unforgiven, suddenly, unexpectedly, is worse; to be shot down in a gambling-house, at the midnight hour–O, horrible! And yet this is the legitimate fruit of the excitement and dissipation, chagrin and disappointment, consequent upon your business; a business fatal to your best interests of body and soul, for time and for eternity.”
“Again, look at its influence upon society. The unwary are decoyed and ruined. Little boys, charmed by your animating music, dazzled by the magnificent paraphernalia of your saloons, are enticed, corrupted, and destroyed, to the hopeless grief of their mothers, whose wailings will be entered against you in the book of God. Remember that ‘for all these things God will bring you into judgment.’ ‘For God shall bring every work into judgment, with every secret thing, whether it be good or whether it be evil.'”
“Every gambler listened with profound attention, and then formed the largest funeral procession, I believe, that I had, up to that time, ever witnessed in San Francisco. They returned, I presume, to their cards. One of them afterward said to a friend of mine: ‘That Plaza preacher is the strangest man I ever saw. He preached B.’s funeral, and said everything in this world he could think of against us, and yet he did not give us any chance to get hold of him!’ He then paused a few moments, and, turning on his heel, said, ‘O! didn’t he give it to us?’
“Five years afterward, when I was traveling in the mountains, I was informed of two of the same gamblers, who had recently asserted that they never had been able to forget nor to shake off the impressions of truth made on their minds at B.’s funeral.”1
From the beginning of Taylor’s work in San Francisco, on through his far-flung preaching excursions, he often dealt with desperate and dispicable characters. On the west coast, he encountered fugitives, foreigners, murderers, and the immoral. Quite often he had his opening to present the gospel in the hospital beside the deathbeds of his former hecklers. There was a cholera outbreak that swept away scores of souls. Once all other hopes had slipped away, they would call on the Plaza preacher, known as “Father Taylor” to come and pray for them. In 1856, Taylor relocated his family and began to preach widely in the United States and Canada. In New York City, he led a demon-possessed former police officer to Christ.
Even when speaking by an interpreter, Taylor was a lion in the pulpit. But he was no less skilled when dealing with individuals. In India, he dealt with Henry Jurain, an East Indian from Madras. “He told us of his great wickedness, and said, ‘I got to be such a rebel against God, and such an enemy of man, and so utterly wretched, that a year and a quarter ago I determined to put an end to my miserable life by shooting myself. It was an old flint-lock gun that I had. I put in a heavy charge, that the business might be done quickly. I put the muzzle under my chin, and pulled the trigger with my toe; but as the pan opened by the stroke of the flint, the powder fell out. I then primed it again, and lay down on my back; and as I was fixing the gun so that the powder could not run out and misfire again, a woman called aloud, ‘Henry, where are you? Come here: the man who bargained for your gun has come with the money to get it.'”
Oh, the mercy of God to such a dissolute wretch! Henry would exclaim, “I was at the door of hell. God held me back and has saved me, and is daily preserving me from sinning.”
In 1862, Taylor began excursions to other countries. He would eventually take more than sixty ocean voyages on missionary excursions to every English- speaking country in the world. For eight years he preached in Australia. He ministered in the British Isles, Israel, Egypt, South Africa, the West Indies, and Europe between 1862 and 1870. The young missionary, James M. Thoburn, invited Taylor to come help him in India. Taylor’s stay in India (for at least four years between 1870 and 1877) established him as a kind of missionary statesman. The robust traveler influenced all of Thoburn’s ministry.
Taylor’s exposure to pioneering conditions convinced him that the indigenous churches were not helped by being supported by foreign funds, or ruled across several time zones by some foreign headquarters. He strongly advocated self-supporting and self-propagating churches on the foreign mission field.
Between 1877 and 1884, he encouraged missionary work in South America. Then for the next thirteen years, Taylor worked in Africa (until 1898), encouraging a chain of missions in the Congo. The old veteran passed his last five years with his family in California until the Lord took him to the land where at last he could rest from his labors.
1. Taken from Seven Years Street Preaching in San Francisco by Wm. Taylor.
For further reading:
Books by Wm. Taylor:
Seven Years Street Preaching in San Francisco
California Life Illustrated
Address to Young America
The Model Preacher
Reconciliation: or How to be Saved
Infancy and Manhood of Christian Life
Four Years’ Campaign in India
The Story of My Life