An Uncommon Christian
James Brainerd Taylor, Forgotten Evangelist
In America's Second Great Awakening
By Dr. I. Francis Kyle III
Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, Jan. 2008
Foreword by John F. Thornbury Introduction Chapter Five: Princeton University, 1823–1826 Chapter Seven: Activity in Revivals Chapter Nine: Spirituality of an Uncommon Christian Appendix B: David Brainerd and James Brainerd Taylor: A Comparative Chart
Foreword by John F. Thornbury (Th.M., D.Min.)
~ Pastor (1965– ), Winfield Baptist Church, Winfield, Penn.
~ Author, David Brainerd [1718–1747]: Pioneer Missionary to the American Indians (Evangelical Press), God Sent Revival: The Story of Asahel Nettleton [1783–1844] and the Second Great Awakening (Evangelical Press) and other books
The second reason I recommend this book is evangelical and is, of course, related to the first. Kyle refers to James Brainerd Taylor as "an uncommon Christian" and he obviously was. Today we might refer to him as an "extraordinary" believer, who in his love for the triune God his self-denying spirit, and his intense desire to win the lost, lived above the level that most of us experience. The last part of this book gives credible proofs, based on those who knew him intimately, that he was, if we may so speak, "sold out to God." For many today, even those who hold high offices in the church, their commitment to Christian principles seems almost half-hearted when we look at the standard of behavior set by Jesus and the apostles. Aside from the gross wickedness that has plagued some prominent Christian leaders today, even the best of believers, it seems, are offering to God an alloy of consecration rather than the whole-hearted affection for God, his word, and his church, that the Christian faith deserves.
There is no doubt about it: believers can be instructed, motivated, and inspired by reading the lives of the saints of the past. In the life of James Brainerd Taylor, we see what God's grace can do in the life of one of his children. It shows how, in the midst of great suffering and hardship, a Christian cannot only blossom with the beautiful flowers of piety, but can be happy in the process. In one respect, the subject of this biographical work excelled his maternal relative, who he was so much alike, David Brainerd. He never suffered from the chronic depression that dogged the Indian missionary. Though often plagued by illness and though even at times persecuted for his loyalty to the gospel, Taylor seemed largely to live on the high plateau of joy in the Lord. In this respect, he was like another man, J. Hudson Taylor, who I read somewhere stated with humility, but with profound gratefulness, that for many years not a cloud of doubt had passed between himself and his Savior.
The inspiration for the title of the book lies in the repeated use of the term "uncommon Christian" by Taylor. His reading of Jonathan Edwards and his frequent use of the word uncommon, or possibly David Brainerd's use of this and related phrases, most likely influenced the evangelist. For instance, in a letter to his brother John "in the summer before his death," David Brainerd wrote, "And now, my dear brother, as I must press you to pursue after personal holiness, to be as much in fasting and prayer as your health will allow, and to live above the rate of common Christians; so I must entreat you solemnly to attend to your public work." Whatever the human influence may have been, the specific expression "uncommon Christian" seems to have been coined, or at least popularized, by Taylor.
In the numerous occurrences of the phrase found in American and foreign nineteenth-century writings, it is almost always associated with the evangelist. Thirty-one years after the popular Memoir of James Brainerd Taylor was first printed, an anonymous 1864 Presbyterian work entitled Familiar Letters to You, A Young Convert. From Your Pastor concluded by exhorting, "Resolve this day, that, God helping you, you will not be a common, but (what James Brainerd Taylor called) an 'uncommon' Christian; not a dwarf, but a growing Christian." In a letter written to his cousin, George, dated January 17, 1838, the twelve-year-old future Yale student John D. Lockwood (1825–1844) commented, "Those resolutions of James Brainerd Taylor, which you referred to, are very good ones. He is the only one I remember who went through college unharmed by its polluting touch. . . . I should think there was a great field for usefulness in college. . . . O, may we both become, as J. B. Taylor expresses it, 'uncommon Christians.'"
Moreover, in the Memoir of Charles Henry Porter [1811–1841]: A Student in Theology published in 1849, compiler E. Goodrich Smith stated in the book's opening two sentences, "The grace of God sometimes makes of a common man an uncommon Christian. Thus it was with the subject of this sketch. . . . As one of his friends remarks, he seemed from the first determined to be an uncommon Christian." The Biblical Repertory and Princeton Review stated of Smith's memoir on Porter that it was "a narrative not unlike the life of James Brainerd Taylor; the same warmth, and the same turn for active labour." Indeed, further examples could be given of nineteenth-century occurrences of the term uncommon Christian (e.g., David Livingstone's use of it as noted above). These examples show that James Brainerd Taylor either originated the term or at least was instrumental in popularizing it. Taylor defined an uncommon Christian as one who is an "eminently holy, self-denying, cross-bearing, Bible, everyday Christian."
Chapter Five: Princeton University, 1823–1826
[Student Rebellion and Persecution.] The problems that New Jersey's Princeton University experienced with their student body in the 1820s were not isolated cases, however. Similar problems were recorded at schools of higher learning across the New England states, notably at Amherst, Dartmouth, Harvard, Middlebury, Williams and Yale. In his 1975 book Paupers and Scholars: The Transformation of Student Life in Nineteenth-Century New England, author David F. Allmendinger, Jr., wrote the following in a chapter entitled, "The Dangers of Antebellum Student Life": . . . .
Hence, the Princeton administration of the early nineteenth century was not alone in its struggle to maintain order and discipline among rebellious students. As Allmendinger's research demonstrates, the administrations of the New England schools all struggled. Indeed, as The Story of Princeton author Edwin Mark Norris stated in the conclusion to his chapter entitled "The Reign of Terror," "Princeton students (and teachers) were probably no better and no worse than their contemporaries of other colleges in the early part of the nineteenth century."
Regarding J. B. Taylor and the topic of student rebellion specifically at Princeton, the fact that he was a committed Christian who did not engage in the childish mischiefs of his classmates made him an easy target for ridicule, false accusations, and even threats of violence. "But it is not at all surprising," stated Taylor's younger brother Fitch, a Yale College Class of 1828 member, "that a person who acted as did James Taylor, during his college course, should have awakened a spirit of opposition, sometimes, among those who felt that he was a restraint upon the free contrivance and successful execution of their plans of mischief and sin."
One such incident of opposition that Taylor experienced occurred two days before his final exams in August 1826:
Friend T. and myself laid down last night, not knowing but we might be attacked. But we slept in peace, and rose refreshed, for the Lord sustained us. May our ways please Him, and then will [He] make even our enemies to be at peace with us. Before we retired, we provided us with clubs—remembering that Gideon went out with his lamp and pitcher [Judges 7:16–20]. I put mine aside, repeating, "Not a hair of thy head shall fall to the ground without thy Father" [1 Samuel 14:45; Luke 21:18], and fell asleep, and slept soundly.
This threat of violence may have been the result of the following incident which Taylor records in his journal on Sunday, January 1, 1826. Portions of that journal entry read,
While the brethren were at prayer in my room this morning (as usual on Sunday morning), a letter was left on my desk by the servant, of which the following is a copy:
Sir: You are suspected d——d strong of having informed the faculty of the misdemeanors of several of the students. The evidence against you, though circumstantial, is of the strongest kind. You will for the future be strictly watched, and therefore it will be prudent for you to visit your brothers, the tutors, as seldom as possible; for if detected, your punishment is inevitable. Do not treat this with levity. If you do, you must suffer the consequences.
I was a little surprised by such a letter; but the charity that "beareth all things" [1 Corinthians 13:7] was in exercise. My soul yearned for the unknown individual who wrote the letter. I longed, with weeping eyes and groans which could not be uttered, to see him a returning prodigal. My heart broke too for the college. . . .
I wrote on the aforesaid letter, "Greater is he that is for me, than all they that are against me" [1 John 4:4]. "He giveth his angels charge concerning thee, lest at any time thou dash thy foot against a stone" [Matthew 4:6]. I add, "Who shall harm you, if ye be followers of that which is good? The Lord is on our side" [1 Peter 3:13]. A report is in circulation that some individual had said he should consider himself bound to report to the faculty the bad conduct of students. Though I am not the person, probably the suspicion has fallen on me. Amen. They meant it for evil; God meant it for good [Genesis 50:20]. A great blessing has come to me through an emissary of Satan [2 Corinthians 12:7]. O how would my arms of love open to him if he would come to Christ. O for the descent of the Holy Ghost.
Such was the life James Brainerd Taylor endured while trying to focus on studies and ministry to classmates and the townspeople in and around Princeton. According to an August 29, 1849, sermon by popular evangelist Charles G. Finney, it was Taylor's deep piety that made him unpopular with his classmates. Finney stated the following in his sermon based on John 5:44 and entitled "Receiving Honor From Men and Not From God": . . . .
In light of the above, it ought now to be more easily understood why the uncommon Christian could state in a February 9, 1826, letter to his friend, itinerant evangelist Noah C. Saxton (found only in manuscript form at the Yale Divinity School Library), "As to the college, everything is gloomy. Other institutions are visited [with revivals of religion]. But this is apparently 'twice dead' [cf. Jude 12]. How gladly would I hail an outpouring of the Spirit of God!"
That Taylor could find solace and sweet communion is truly amazing when one considers the anarchy-like conditions and the opposition he faced from the irreligious and lukewarm professors while a student at Princeton. During his time there, he stated, "[There] is no place more eligible for advancement in holiness than college;" "I have had a heaven upon earth, even in this college;" and, "I have, while in college, enjoyed much of the presence of God. The years I have spent in Nassau Hall will long be remembered as sweet seasons of communion with the Holy Ghost, and of special manifestations of the love of God."
Chapter Seven: Activity in Revivals
What is so remarkable about James Brainerd Taylor's activity in religious revivals during the 1820s is not so much the fact that he was an instrument in many of them at such a young age, but that he participated in many of them while a full-time honors student. John Holt Rice wrote in Taylor's obituary notice for Richmond, Virginia's, The Visitor and Telegraph that "while pursuing his studies, [J. B. Taylor] was made the instrument of bringing, perhaps, more persons to the knowledge of the truth, as it is in Jesus, than others have done in the ministrations of many years." While a full-time student at Princeton, Taylor wrote, "Perhaps, last spring, I labored [in a revival at Rahway, New Jersey, in spring 1825], besides my studies, as much as some who are more fully in the vineyard." And while a full-time student at the Theological Seminary of Yale College, the evangelist wrote in a July 31/August 1, 1827, letter, "Somehow I am drawn in to labor, besides my studies."
Most of Taylor's evangelistic and revival activity occurred on Sundays and he managed his spare time well. In a letter dated August 25, 1824, and addressed to "Miss W." of New York, Taylor described his spare time priorities: "The spare time I have from my college duties, I would rather spend with the sick—the indigent; and that too, to win souls." And six months earlier, in a February 27, 1824, letter to one of his close pastor friends, Frederick William Hotchkiss, he asked, "But what exercises my mind the most, respecting my course, is the right distribution of time, i.e. how much to devote to each duty or study. Will you oblige me with your thoughts on this subject?" Further, and to the same Pastor Hotchkiss, Taylor inquired about the right use of his time in the following February 17, 1823, letter written during his last semester at the academy in Lawrenceville: "For sleep I appropriate about seven hours at present, and for the winter past, I have devoted eight hours to my academical studies, which are sufficient for the recitations of the class; will you please propose to me the best distribution of the remaining nine hours?"
Taylor's ministerial activity increased during his annual four- to five-week spring vacation and his six-week autumn vacation from school. Oftentimes, area pastors and his itinerant evangelist friend Noah C. Saxton would request his assistance during vacation periods. These requests would frequently cause much anguish for the full-time Ivy League student. As shown in Taylor's journal entry for March 1827, the evangelist's spiritual, mental, and emotional well-being became disrupted as he had to decide to "enter the field" or to stay and complete his homework, in this case Old Testament Hebrew grammar:
Today the Rev. Mr. K. entered my room [in New Haven] and endeavored to press me into labors. He came from N. Killingworth [Connecticut], where the work of the Lord [in a revival] is signal. In view of this, what must be done? Ministers around have their hands fully employed. What must I do? Must I relinquish Hebrew roots for the present and enter the field? What am I, that I should be sought unto?
Of J. B. Taylor's use of time during his college vacations, one of his contemporaries observed that, "instead of wasting his precious time in seeking pleasure or in listless activity, as is the case with too many young men in such circumstances, the season appears, from his letters and journal, to have been of constant and faithful labor." Evidently, James Brainerd Taylor was a man acutely aware of time and of the need to redeem it for the purpose of advancing the kingdom of God (cf. Ephesians 5:16; Colossians 4:5).
In addition to seeking to be a good steward of his time and using much of it to assist during times of revival, the uncommon Christian sought to be a tactician of revival evangelism. Taylor studied the topic and purposefully surrounded himself with ministers who were experienced in revivals. Northern itinerant evangelists Asahel Nettleton (1783–1844) and Noah C. Saxton (1798–ca. 1834) and longtime Saybrook, Connecticut, Congregational pastor Frederick William Hotchkiss (1762–1844) were three such fathers in ministry for Taylor. Comments by N. C. Saxton, found in Fitch Taylor's Addenda in his A New Tribute to the Memory of James Brainerd Taylor, show that the student-evangelist was on his way to becoming the revival tactician that he so longed to be: . . . .
Chapter Nine: Spirituality of an Uncommon Christian
[A Spirituality of Outward Activism.] Rather than having an unhealthy, overly inward-looking, imbalanced, and unbiblical spirituality, James Brainerd Taylor, though somewhat of an introvert, possessed a spirituality characterized by outward, self-denying conduct. The combination of his belief in the New Divinity teaching of disinterested benevolence and post-millennialism no doubt fueled Taylor's altruism. Taylor was bent on doing "good to all" (Galatians 6:10), whether it was one-on-one evangelism, teaching publicly or from house to house (Acts 20:20), writing letters to the converted or to the unconverted, giving financial aid to needy fellow ministerial students or his last six-pence to a beggar (2 Corinthians 9:7), feeding the poor or clothing the naked (Matthew 25:35f.), or visiting the sick, widowed, or orphaned (Matthew 25:36; James 1:27). His generosity extended especially to "those who [were] of the household of faith" (Galatians 6:10). Like Edwards, Taylor resolved "to be endeavoring to find out fit objects of charity and liberality" (resolution thirteen of 70 Resolutions). It did not matter the person's skin color, socio-economic standing, gender, age, spiritual state, or denominational affiliation. Indeed, Taylor, though an upper class Connecticut Yankee and an elite Princeton and Yale student, did "not forget to do good and share, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased" (Hebrews 13:16).
Taylor's greatest joy in doing good was telling others about his Savior, Redeemer, and Friend, Jesus Christ, either publicly from the pulpit, or privately while ministering to them by their side. In his telling others about the Lord Jesus, he longed to be an instrument of God in the conversion of souls. The following statements, made by Taylor, testify to his outward-looking, self-denying, evangelistic burden:
How much better to find in heaven a band of converts sent thither through one's instrumentality, than to arrive alone.
I know that my object, my highest wish, while on earth, is to be instrumental in bringing souls to Christ.
Let us not be content with barely getting to heaven ourselves; but in seeking our own salvation, let us also seek that of others.
I never had such a burning desire, and such earnest wrestlings for sinners in this college [Princeton].
I looked up [while sick] with the sentiment felt in my heart, I am willing to die and go home. But then, the thought of going to heaven with so few souls! I cried, Lord, I wish to go thither in triumph, having in my train thousands of saved sinners.
Surely, J. B. Taylor took to heart the command to "do the work of an evangelist" (2 Timothy 4:5).
Though his pen and "sweet, yet powerful voice" were his primary means in telling others about the Lord Jesus, Taylor's frequent and unspoken acts of Christian kindness were also employed. As Taylor stated in a letter to "Miss Sarah," so he practiced himself: "While we may not have the opportunity of benefiting others in conversation, yet we may [converse with them] by example." It was in and through these good works that Taylor proved his faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:10; James 2:18) and received assurance that his heart was truly regenerated (1 John 3:18f.).
Especially close to his heart were widows and orphans. That he possessed "pure and undefiled religion" (James 1:27) was evidenced when a friend of Taylor's wrote to him from New Haven, Connecticut, "Indeed, I believe you are the favorite of all the widows and orphans here . . . and of good many others besides, Christians and infidels."
Probably because he suffered so much physically, Taylor also had a special place in his heart for the sick and dying. His effectiveness in ministering to suffering people was confirmed by the testimony of Taylor's close friend and itinerant evangelist, Noah C. Saxton:
The active benevolence of Mr. Taylor, was not confined, however, to feeding the hungry and clothing the naked. Such another earthly comforter at the sick-bed side, I never saw. In visiting the children of God, at such times, I have repeatedly known him the instrument of dissipating the clouds of thick darkness, and bringing the mind into a state of almost unspeakable ecstasy. How often, and with what astonishing effect has he sung to the sick and dying, the hymn commencing with the following stanza:
Brethren, while we sojourn here,
Fight we must, but should not fear.
Foes we have, but we've a friend,
One that loves us to the end;
Onward then with courage go,
Long we shall not dwell below;
Soon the joyful news will come,
Child, your Father calls you home.
John Holt Rice best summarizes James Brainerd Taylor's outward-looking, self-denying spirituality in the following: "[It] ought to be understood that he did not allow his piety to expend itself in mere feeling. His religion was not that of a retired contemplative mystic; he was perfectly alive to all the charities of life; and he omitted no opportunity of doing good, which was either presented or could be made by him." Indeed, Taylor was not just a hearer, but also a doer of the Word (James 1:22) and took seriously his New Divinity theology of disinterested benevolence and post-millennialism.
Appendix B: David Brainerd and James Brainerd Taylor—A Comparative Chart
[Introductory Essay to Chart.] Four days after the death of James Brainerd Taylor, and eighty-two and one-half years after the death of David Brainerd, Taylor's brother Fitch wrote a letter from Virginia to his bereaved parents in Middle Haddam, Connecticut. In that April 3, 1829, letter, Fitch tenderly wrote,
My dear parents, I know not how to offer consolation to you, at this moment. . . . You have anticipated the pleasure which a son justly prized, and that might be eminent, would afford you in a declining day. But let the maxim that "He has lived a long life who has accomplished much" be recalled to your recollection. Nor think that James has left behind him a name which shall not be spoken of. No; I believe that he will be remembered, and cited, as in some particulars resembling, as he was indeed, by family relationship, another Brainerd.
As an effort to confirm this belief/prophecy of Fitch W. Taylor, the following is a chart detailing (or "citing," Fitch's word) the similarities between David Brainerd and his maternal cousin, four times removed, James Brainerd Taylor. The similarities are indeed striking. Others in the nineteenth century, besides J. B. Taylor's brother Fitch, recognized the similarities between the two. For instance, in his Prayer for Colleges, A Premium Essay (1859), the professor of Greek at Amherst College, William S. Tyler, placed Brainerd and J. B. Taylor's names side-by-side as examples of students who had effective ministries to their fellow classmates during a time of a campus revival. Tyler wrote,
Many a revival in college has seemed to turn on the influence of one such pious student. What power would there not be then in a college church made up of such young Christians?. . . . Oh, how can Christian students come into the places and occupy the rooms of such men-men, who in college, like David Brainerd and James Brainerd Taylor, and many others whom we have known, have turned many to righteousness-without seeing and feeling deeply that here is a distinction far above ordinary college distinctions, far above all worldly greatness, to shine like them in usefulness on earth and in glory above the stars?
As another example, the close proximity of their places of birth was made mention of in The Connecticut Magazine some seventy years after the death of J. B. Taylor:
From the summit of [Great Hill in Portland, Connecticut, elevation 750'] the view in every direction is one of great beauty, comprising the enchanting scenery of this part of the [Connecticut] river in its windings, and the inland landscape. . . . It is a panorama equaled by few locations in this state. . . . It is a pleasant thought to bring to mind as one views this scene, that he can see the birthplaces of David Brainerd [Haddam], and of James Brainerd Taylor [Middle Haddam]; of Rev. Edward Dorr Griffin [East Haddam], and his contemporaries, Rev. Dr. [Nathanael] Emmons [East Haddam], and Eliphalet Nott, D.D. [Ashford]. . . . This prospect alone is worth the visit to Great Hill.
Indeed, Fitch Taylor was not alone in identifying similarities between his older brother James, and their cousin, David Brainerd.
However, one major difference between the two evangelists is not indicated on the chart but deserves mentioning: the two men were dissimilar in their temperaments. As Edwards notes in the preface to his Life of Brainerd, Brainerd suffered from a "dejection of spirit" or melancholy; and as John Holt Rice and other contemporaries testify, J. B. Taylor was, conversely, a happy man. Relatedly, the "uncommon Christian" penned the following in his journal on January 16, 1825:
Took up the Memoirs of the dear Brainerd, and followed him through part of his last sickness. When I came to his interview with a clergyman concerning the great importance of the work of the ministry, my heart broke; it had heaved before, but now it melted and overflowed with unutterable emotions, while floods of tears ran down mine eyes. . . . How much depression and gloom rested upon Brainerd-none upon me. I hardly know what it is. Health of body is mine too. O to lay all out for God!
This journal entry is significant not only because it shows the stark temperamental contrast between the two "uncommon Christians," but also because it is the only reference to Brainerd in all of Taylor's extant writings. As the chart demonstrates, the similarities are striking and far outweigh any, even the especial, differences.