Emily Willett

                                                                                                Jeremy Young

                                                                                                REL 318

                                                                                                3 October 2003

                                                                                                Edward Taylor


The Life, Times, and Poetry of Edward Taylor


            The early life of Edward Taylor is surrounded in a shroud of mystery because historians simply do not know much about his childhood. He wrote little of his youth, and most of what he did write, he forbade from being published. Fortunately, his descendents wrote their own memoirs of the poetic minister. These accounts, combined with Taylor’s works and memories that were printed, as well as historical documentation of his later life, provide a fulfilling background on the upbringing of Taylor.

            Most scholars agree that Taylor was born in 1642, in the town of Sketchley, Leicestershire, located almost directly in the geographical center of England. His father, William Taylor, lived as a yeoman, and he had four brothers: Joseph, Richard, John, and William. His mother served as the primary religious influence in his life, as well as the primary disciplinarian. Indeed, Taylor’s two most vivid memories of his childhood consisted of the strictness of his parents, though he never mentioned his father specifically, and the overwhelming might of his conversion.[1]

His parents originally intended Taylor for ministry, and because of the family’s Puritan sympathies, the timing of Taylor’s birth for such a calling could not have been more beneficial. His education began at a non-conformist school in Leicestershire, followed shortly by attendance at a dissenting academy. Taylor’s studies included the rigors of logic, rhetoric, and ethics, with ventures into classical languages. Taylor eventually earned a teaching position at a non-conformist school in Bagsworth, Leicestershire.

That endeavor ended abruptly in 1662 after Charles II returned to the throne and issued his Act of Uniformity. Taylor would not sign the act, which mandated that every teacher or minister must conform to the Book of Common Prayer and the Book of Articles and Ceremonies of the Church of England, and thus he lost his position. This loss, added to the building persecution not previously known to Taylor during his lifetime, led him to the New World, though he would not leave until April of 1668.

Taylor arrived in Boston on July 5, 1668; he enrolled at Harvard College less than a month later, and his previous education enabled him to be exempted from three of the sixteen quarters.[2] Taylor excelled in his new learning environment as he studied mainly Hebrew, Greek, and Latin. His educational prowess led to him being named college butler and eventually scholar of the house.

His Harvard years were perhaps the most joyous and stimulating years of Taylor’s life.[3] He flourished in the intellectual environment; Ezra Stiles, the grandson of Taylor who would become a respected president of Yale University, wrote of his grandfather: “He was an excellent Classic Scholar, being a Master of the three learned Languages: A great Historian and every way a very Learned Man.”[4] Taylor also made many close friends during this time, including his roommate Samuel Sewall, Harvard president Charles Chauncy, and Increase Mather, who would turn into a mentor of sorts for Taylor.

Then, in November of 1671, Taylor left Harvard to be a minister in Westfield, Massachusetts. He had been recommended by Mather, who was rumored to have won a power struggle with Chauncy over the appointment, since Chauncy wanted Taylor to remain at Harvard. Taylor had quite a difficult time making a decision. Possibly motivated by a calling from God and the encouragement from Mather, though town gossip also may have played a role, Taylor left for Westfield on Nov. 20, 1671. He continued his intellectual development by having Sewall and other friends send him books, which he then copied and added to quite an impressive personal collection.

The town built him a settlement in 1672 and a meeting house one year later, and after one year of his residence, they voted to keep him in ministry.[5] However, the organizational burden of starting a Congregational church presented itself in full force. Eight years would pass before Taylor fulfilled the gathering and establishment of his church. Once he completed that task, his aimed for the restoration of pure Christianity in the lives of men.

Taylor’s theology aligned almost perfectly with the statements of faith put forth by the Westminster Confession and the Cambridge Platform. He reiterated these beliefs in “The Public Records of the Church at Westfield Together with a Brief Account of Our Proceeding in Order to Our Entrance Into That State,” a doctrine that Taylor held until his death.[6] Consequently, his defense of covenant Congregationalism turned him into a writer, though his writings were almost always meant for him alone.

One instance in which he intended his writings to be read by another concerns the love poems he wrote to his wife, Elizabeth Fitch, whom he married in November of 1674. They had eight children, though five died in infancy, and Fitch died in July 1689, shortly after giving birth to their eighth child.[7] He married Ruth Wyllys in 1692 and had six more children, including the mother of Stiles. Notably, after the death of his first wife, Taylor never again wrote verses of such personal nature as the ones he wrote in his love poems to her.[8]

Taylor began to write poetic monologues in 1682 and wrote poems with amazing continuity in form and substance until 1725. These works, though he directly ordered his heirs never to publish his writings, later emerged as Preparatory Meditations.[9] He truly never intended for others to read his private poetry. Taylor seemed to intend the poems themselves to be tied to his sermons, which acted as commentary on the poetic matters of faith.

Some of these poems dealt directly with Taylor’s intense conflict with Solomon Stoddard concerning the Half-way Covenant. Taylor, like Mather, supported the Half-way Covenant but believed that the Lord’s Supper should be withheld from those who lacked proven conversion. He took issue with Stoddard’s freedom of dispensing the Lord’s Supper.

However, unlike Mather, Taylor never publicly challenged Stoddard nor did he publish his poems relevant to the conflict. Rather, Taylor’s poetry seemed to act as a personal defense to keep himself from falling into the same trap as Stoddard.[10] Yet Taylor kept to his convictions, and on one occasion in 1713, he even refused to administer the Lord’s Supper to his own congregation because of their shortcomings.[11]


            Just as Taylor’s poems concerning his conflict with Stoddard gave insight to his views on the Lord’s Supper and even the Half-way Covenant, his poetic works as a whole serve as a lucid reflection of his faith. As we look at Taylor’s poetry, we must understand that unlike Bradstreet and other Puritan poets, Edward Taylor did not write for the public. Indeed, none of his poetical works were published until the twentieth century because his immediate heirs had followed his desire that the poems not be published. Taylor’s poems do have a distinct style that indicates his literary influences, and their subject matter reveals much of his theology.

            First and foremost, Taylor belongs to the metaphysical school of poetry. The better-known metaphysical poets, such as Crashaw, Donne and Herbert, are known for their long, often torturous metaphors, or conceits, which use physical means to express spiritual or metaphysical thoughts. Some of Taylor’s sensual religious imagery[12] is ecstatic enough to cause critics to suspect Catholic leanings in the Puritan pastor, but this is merely the literary influence of the virulently Catholic poet Richard Crashaw, who Taylor had undoubtedly read before emigrating to America in 1668. Taylor also imitates great Anglican poets. Lines such as the following bear the stamp of Catholic-turned-Anglican Donne:


I frown, chide, strike and fight them, mourn and cry

To conquer them, but cannot them destroy.[13]


Ultimately, however, Taylor’s greatest influence is the Anglican poet George Herbert. While High Church by persuasion, Herbert embraces a simplicity of sorts, and his poetry is thoroughly infused with simple, earthy metaphors. One of Herbert’s best-known poems is “The Collar”, in which the word “collar” actually takes on the threefold meaning of a slave’s collar, the rebellious choler, or anger, of the speaker, and God as the caller who calls His child back to Himself. This pairing of disparate images to enhance a Biblical truth is what surely attracted a young Puritan like Taylor to Anglo-Catholic poets. In addition, we must remember that since these poems were written as private exercises, Taylor was not afraid to use a style that, if read publicly, might lead weaker members of his church astray towards High-Church ritualism.

          Taylor’s style is also notable for being, by the standards of his day, old-fashioned. Secluded for most of his adult life in a frontier village, with Boston his closest link to contemporary English culture, Taylor embraces forms that were popular during his youth in England. Taylor’s stylistic taste did not change much over the course of his life, although his own poetic ability did improve with practice.

          Indeed, despite Taylor’s association with the non-Puritan metaphysical school, he is most certainly a devout and orthodox Puritan. While his style may be ornate, his subject matter reflects the staunch five-point Calvinism of his Puritan colleagues. Most importantly, Taylor’s poetry showcases the Puritan tendency to read Nature as text. In other words, just as Jonathan Edwards could see the glory of God in a thunderstorm or the triumph of the Church over Satan in a mouse killing a snake, so also could Taylor read physical instances and events typologically as parallels to the spiritual life. For example, he employs the making of bread as a symbol of Christ, our Living Bread, in his Meditation 8 (First Series):


In this sad state, God’s tender bowels run

Out streams of grace; and He to end all strife

The purest wheat in Heaven, His dear-dear Son,

Grinds and kneads up into this bread of life,

Which bread of life from heaven down came and stands

Dished on thy table up by angels’ hands.[14]


Taylor also compares himself frequently to “a crumb of dust” in his Preparatory Meditations, the 221 poems written as private meditations upon Biblical texts that Taylor wrote over a period of 44 years. In these poems, composed as Taylor prepared to serve the Lord’s Supper, Taylor uses images of insects, courts of law, household objects, and even excrement to symbolize man’s place in comparison to God and God’s gracious interactions with man.

            Taylor’s poetry also serves as an expression of his firm devotion to covenantal theology. Such titles as “The Soul Admiring the Grace of the Church Enters into Church Fellowship,” “The Glory of, and Grace in The Church Set Out,” and “The Joy of Church Fellowship Rightly Attended” give an idea of the topics addressed by Taylor. The very existence of the Preparatory Meditations reflects Taylor’s tendency towards intense spiritual self-examination, a result of the Puritan preoccupation with determining whether or not one is truly converted. In God’s Determinations, Taylor presents a series of poems dedicated to God’s interactions with man, specifically in the context of the Covenant of Grace. As one reads his poetry, it is impossible to miss the references to man’s total depravity, election, and God’s complete sovereignty. In the Christographia, Taylor’s sacrament-day sermons, he expounds upon covenantal topics for both communicant members and the unregenerate, who were not allowed in his church to take communion. Clearly, Taylor wished in his public writings to both direct the thoughts of the elect towards the significance of the Lord’s Supper and to open the doctrine of Christ and the covenant to the unbelievers who might yet be converted.[15] Thus, we see that Taylor’s covenantal concerns are reflected both in his private and public writings.

            The publishing in the 1930’s of Taylor’s poetry gave us a new view of Puritan pastors. Often leaving only their sermons behind, many pastors gave the impression of being purely didactic and sober. Because of the intensely personal nature of Taylor’s poetry, we see another side of the orthodox Puritan mind at the time of Jonathan Edwards.


            Taylor died on June 24, 1729, defending covenant Congregationalism and the sanctity of the Lord’s Supper until his last days. Though his congregation eventually went against his ministerial guidance, Taylor’s unwavering theology led to his church being one of the last to give in to adopt Stoddard’s view of the Lord’s Supper. He died not only as a religious leader but also as a civil servant, leading his town through King William’s War, Queen Anne’s War, and Father Rale’s War. Most importantly, he left behind a legacy of being one of Puritan New England’s first and most intriguing poets.

[1] Norman S. Grabo, Edward Taylor (New York: Twayne Publishers, Inc., 1961), 19-20.

[2] Charles Mignon Jr., “The American Puritan and Private Qualities of Edward Taylor, the Poet” (Ph. D. diss, University of Connecticut, 1963), 2.

[3] Karl Keller, The Example of Edward Taylor (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1975), 18.

[4] Ibid, 16.

[5] Ibid.,36.

[6] Grabo, 29.

[7] Mignon Jr., 4.

[8] Keller, 47.

[9] Mignon Jr., 8.

[10] Keller, 32.

[11] Ibid.

[12] as in “The Joy of Church Fellowship Rightly Attended”: “Oh! joyous hearts! Enfir’de with holy Flarme!/ Is Speech thus tassled with praise?/ Will not your inward fire of Joy contain;/ That it in open flames doth blaze…” (ll. 7-10)

[13] from Meditation 39 (First Series), ll. 5-6. Compare to Donne’s Holy Sonnet #14, which starts, “Batter my heart, three-personed God: for you/As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend;/ That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend/Your force to break, blow, burn and make me new…” The intensity of the actions in each poem shows a parallel construction.

[14] ll. 19-24

[15] Mignon, 16.