Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Taylor, Robert (1784-1844)
TAYLOR, ROBERT (1784–1844), deistical writer, sixth son of John and Elizabeth Taylor, was born at Walnut Tree House, Edmonton, Middlesex, on 18 Aug. 1784. His father, a prosperous ironmonger in Fenchurch Street, London, died when he was young, leaving him under the guardianship of his uncle, Edward Farmer Taylor of Chicken Hall, Bridgnorth, Shropshire. Having been at school under John Adams at Edmonton, he was articled as house pupil to Samuel Partridge [see under Partridge, Richard], then house surgeon at the Birmingham general hospital. In 1805 he walked Guy's and St. Thomas's hospitals under Sir Astley Paston Cooper [q. v.] and Henry Cline [q. v.], and was admitted a member of the College of Surgeons in 1807. The influence of Thomas Cotterill, perpetual curate of Lane End, Staffordshire, led him to study for the church. In October 1809 he matriculated at St. John's College, Cambridge, as Queen Margaret's foundation scholar. At Cambridge he attached himself to Charles Simeon [q. v.], who reckoned him one of his best scholars in the art of sermon-making. He was specially complimented on his university career by the master of St. John's, William Craven, D.D. (1730–1814); by his own account he was never second in a competition, his compeer being Sir John Frederick William Herschel [q. v.] He commenced B.A. in January 1813, ‘purposely refusing his chance of the inferior honours of the tripos.’ Simeon selected him as curate in charge for Richard Lloyd (d. 1834) [q. v.] at Midhurst, Sussex, and he was ordained deacon on 14 March 1813 at St. James's, Westminster, by John Buckner (d. 1824), bishop of Chichester. He preached his maiden sermon the same day at St. Dunstan's, Fleet Street. Ordained priest in due course, he remained curate at Midhurst till the summer of 1818, holding also the neighbouring perpetual curacy of Easebourne, which he calls ‘a brown-coat rectory,’ the chief revenue going to the lay patron. An attack was made (1817) on his ministerial efficiency by John Sargent [q. v.]; Lloyd warmly defended him.
Early in 1818 a Midhurst tradesman, whom Taylor calls ‘an infidel,’ lent him books which raised sceptical doubts in his mind. On Trinity Sunday he preached a sermon which gave offence. He resigned his preferment (July), a step which Buckner thought quixotic, and advertised in the ‘Times’ (30 July) for four pupils to be taught (at Midhurst) English, classics, and French, and ‘the principles of the religion of reason and nature.’ In the ‘Times’ of 5 Aug. he inserted an advertisement in Latin, asking for employment, and giving an account of his views, not very decently expressed. Out of consideration for his mother's feelings, he published a Latin recantation (dated from Church Street, Edmonton, 7 Dec.) in the ‘Times’ on 11 Dec. ascribing his previous advertisement to mental aberration. He put a similar advertisement in the ‘Hampshire Telegraph,’ burned his deistical books, and sent a penitent circular to the Midhurst parishioners. George Gaskin [q. v.], rector of Stoke Newington, took him up, and he officiated at Edmonton, Tottenham, and Newington. Promised preferment not coming as soon as he expected, he applied to William Howley [q. v.], then bishop of London, who replied cautiously, and to Buckner, who answered by Lloyd that he must expect to remain in ‘the background.’ His scholastic advertisement had introduced him to a Bristol family named May, who, on pretence of helping him to a school, got hold of his money (‘a few hundred pounds’) and his acceptance to a hundred-pound bill. One of the Mays was afterwards hanged at Newgate for forgery.
At this juncture an old friend put Taylor into the curacy of Yardley, near Birmingham, where he hoped to rehabilitate his clerical reputation. But the Bishop of Worcester (Cornwall) insisted on his dismissal, and Taylor, under notice to quit, indulged in ‘the open preaching of deism in the parish church.’ His brothers offered him a monthly allowance if he left England. He went to the Isle of Man; in a month or two the allowance was stopped, and he tried to get employment on local newspapers. For an article justifying suicide, he was brought before the bishop, George Murray [see under Murray, Lord George, (1761–1803)]. Making off to Whitehaven, he got 10l. from Partridge, his old master, and sailed for Dublin, where he became assistant in Jones's school at Nutgrove. Engaged for temporary duty by the rector of Rathfarnham, co. Dublin, he was inhibited (1822) by William Magee [q. v.], archbishop of Dublin, and (contrary to Magee's advice) dismissed from Nutgrove. He began a series of attacks on the church, under the title of ‘The Clerical Review,’ and was noticed by Archibald Hamilton Rowan [q. v.] and Henry Augustus Dillon-Lee, thirteenth viscount Dillon [q. v.], under whose auspices he projected (14 March 1824) ‘The Society of Universal Benevolence,’ of which he was ‘chaplain and secretary.’ He hired (1824) the Fishamble Street theatre for Sunday morning lectures, till a riot (28 March) closed the experiment. Coming to London, he drew up a petition for liberty to preach ‘natural religion’ (dated from 2 Water Lane, Fleet Street) which was presented to the House of Commons on 18 June by Joseph Hume [q. v.] He taught classics, projected (12 Nov.) a ‘Christian Evidence Society,’ and gave lectures, followed by discussions, at various public rooms. In the summer of 1826 he hired an old independent chapel at Founders' Hall, Lothbury, and conducted (from 30 July) Sunday morning services with a liturgy, remarkable as enjoining a sitting posture in prayer, and still more remarkable as directing that no phrase or word was ever to be altered, added, or omitted. A petition by Taylor, dated from Carey Street, and praying that deists might be admitted to give evidence on oath, was presented to the House of Commons by Hume on 29 Nov. His success led to the purchase of Salters' Hall chapel, Cannon Street, by shareholders. On 1 Jan. 1827 it was opened by Taylor as his ‘Areopagus.’ In the same month he was arrested and indicted for a blasphemous discourse at Salters' Hall; the chief prosecutor was Brown, the lord mayor, a dissenter. While the case was pending, Wright, a Bristol banker, a member of the Society of Friends, sued him for 100l. on the acceptance he had given (January 1820) to May. He was thrown into the king's bench prison for the debt, and went through the bankruptcy court to obtain release. Another indictment, for conspiracy to overthrow the Christian religion, was laid against Taylor and others; the Salters' Hall chapel was then resold at a loss.
Taylor was tried (‘in full canonicals’) on the first indictment on 24 Oct. 1827 before Charles Abbott, first lord Tenterden [q. v.], and found guilty. The trial on the second indictment was abandoned in January 1828, apparently at Tenterden's instance. On 7 Feb. Taylor was sentenced by Sir John Bayley [q. v.] to a year's imprisonment in Oakham gaol, and to find securities (himself 500l., two others 250l. each) for good behaviour for five years. His close acquaintance now began with Richard Carlile [q. v.], who raised a subscription for him. At Oakham he contributed a weekly letter to Carlile's ‘Lion,’ from No. 7 (15 Feb.), and wrote his ‘Syntagma’ and ‘The Diegesis,’ a curious medley of random judgments and passages of secondhand learning. Carlile had introduced him to Miss Richards, whom he promised to marry. On his liberation (February 1829) he lectured occasionally at Carlile's shop in Fleet Street, and at the universalist chapel, Windmill Street, Finsbury Square. In May he set out with Carlile on a four months' lecturing tour, beginning at Cambridge, where Taylor fastened a thesis to the door of the divinity schools. In May 1830 he took the Rotunda, Blackfriars Road, and preached in episcopal garb to large audiences. Two sermons on the devil (6 and 13 June) gained him from Henry Hunt [q. v.] the title of ‘the devil's chaplain.’ He was tried at the Surrey sessions on 4 July 1831 for preaching blasphemy at the previous Easter, found guilty, and sentenced to two years' imprisonment in Horsemonger Lane gaol, a fine of 200l., and recognisances as before. His friends raised a subscription for him in September 1832. A visitor describes him as over the middle size, inclined to be stout, and of gentlemanly manners; he referred in conversation to Charles François Dupuis (1742–1809) as his predecessor in astro-theological studies. He had a fine voice, closely resembling that of Charles Kemble [q. v.], and a powerful delivery. His ill-arranged writings are of no original or scientific value; so far as they have a consistent purpose, it is to expound Christianity as a scheme of solar myths. His philology is helpless word-play. The attraction of his discourses was in his jocose manner; they exhibit no real humour, but his taunts are smart. His drollery, though of a low type, is never impure.
Released from gaol in 1833, Taylor retired from public view. He married an elderly lady of property; the marriage was a happy one, but it exposed Taylor to an action for breach of promise on the part of Miss Richards, to whom a jury awarded 250l. To escape paying this, Taylor removed to France, practising as a surgeon at Tours, where he died in September 1844. His portrait was engraved in 1827 from a drawing by W. Hunt.
He published: 1. ‘The Holy Liturgy: or Divine Service on the Principles of Pure Deism’ [1826?], 8vo (has catechism appended). 2. ‘The Trial … upon a Charge of Blasphemy,’ 1827, 8vo (portrait). 3. ‘The Judgment of the Court of King's Bench,’ , 8vo (Nos. 2 and 3 are on the basis of the shorthand writer's report). 4. ‘Syntagma of the Evidences of the Christian Religion,’ 1828, 8vo (against John Pye Smith [q. v.]). 5. ‘The Diegesis … a Discovery of the Origin … of Christianity,’ &c., 1829, 8vo, Boston (Mass.), 1832, 8vo. 6. ‘First Missionary Oration,’ 1829, 8vo. 7. ‘Second Missionary Oration,’ 1829, 8vo. 8. ‘Swing: or who are the Incendiaries? A Tragedy,’ 1831, 12mo (the British Museum copy was presented by Taylor to Charles Kemble to show him ‘what the drama should be’). 9. ‘The Devil's Pulpit,’ 1831–2, 2 vols. 8vo; last edition, 1881, 8vo. He is not included in Smith's ‘Bibliotheca Anti-Quakeriana,’ 1873, but no writer has more roughly aspersed the Society of Friends.[Taylor's Works; Memoir (autobiographical, but arranged by Carlile) prefixed to Devil's Pulpit, 1831–2; Lloyd's Two Letters, 1818; Lloyd's Reply, 1819; Monthly Repository, 1818 p. 754, 1824 p. 381, 1827 p. 77, 1828 p. 214; The Lion, 1828–9; Annual Register, 1831, pp. 93 sq., 1844 p. 273; Gent. Mag. 1844, ii. 550; Notes and Queries, 25 Nov. 1876 p. 429, 17 March 1877 p. 213, 25 Jan. 1885 p. 78; Secular Review, 15 Feb. 1879.]