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William Taylor (1821–1902)

This article was published:

William Taylor (1821-1902), by Frederick Cornell

William Taylor (1821-1902), by Frederick Cornell

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H12005

William Taylor (1821-1902), evangelist, was born on 2 May 1821 near Lexington, Virginia, United States of America, son of Stuart Taylor, farmer and tanner, and his wife Martha, née Hickman. He taught school in rural Virginia before being accepted in 1843 by the Baltimore Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church as a candidate for the ministry. After appointments to rural circuits he moved to the city of Washington in 1846; in October that year he married (Isabelle) Anne Kimberlin of Fincastle, Virginia. Of their five sons and one daughter, four sons survived infancy.

In 1849 Taylor was sent as one of the first two Wesleyan missionaries to California where he became known in the frontier town of San Francisco for his forceful street preaching, in which his ringing baritone voice was used to advantage, and for his work among seamen. When a seamen's bethel, for which he was personally liable, was burned down in 1856, Taylor was given leave by the California Conference to raise money for the building debt. In 1857-61 he conducted religious revivals in mid-west and eastern America. Whilst preaching in Canada, Taylor was told of Australia as a likely field for evangelism and, after travelling to Great Britain, Palestine and Egypt, he arrived in Melbourne in June 1863. Rev. D. Draper engaged him to conduct nightly revival services at Wesley Church, Lonsdale Street; large crowds attended.

Taylor also visited Geelong, Sandhurst (Bendigo), Ballarat, Beechworth and at least a dozen other Victorian towns, generating an outburst of religious exaltation in the colony. Known as 'California Taylor', he attracted many by his almost vehement nervous energy and by his informal 'Yankee' preaching which Rev. James Bickford found 'in forceful contrast to our prosaic and quieter style of working'. Although Taylor claimed that he never accepted gifts of money for his own cause, funds to pay his personal expenses and to meet the $23,000 bethel debt were raised by the brisk sale of his books, especially his Seven Years' Preaching in San Francisco, California (New York, 1856) and California Life Illustrated (New York, 1858). In June 1864 he conducted revivals in Tasmania; in New South Wales, including Sydney, Wollongong, Mudgee, Maitland, Bathurst and Braidwood; in Queensland, including Brisbane, Maryborough, Rockhampton and Ipswich; in New Zealand and in South Australia. In November 1865 his wife and three sons, whom he had not seen for four years, arrived in Sydney. He joined them there; they returned to Adelaide early next year and on 15 February left in the St Vincent for missionary work in South Africa.

While Bickford and others praised Taylor's work, many Wesleyan clergymen were dissatisfied with the results of his visit. The Australasian Conference of 1864 believed that the money raised by him had hindered the payment of colonial chapel debts, although Taylor wrote later that his 'raising of money to pay for their newly built churches was a specialty in which the Lord gave great success'. His claims to have dramatically increased church membership were not verified by the figures. He returned to Australia by way of the West Indies in 1869, arriving in Melbourne from Sydney on 4 September. At Bickford's request he conducted revival services at Wesley Church, preaching there with 'wonderful power'. Invitations to other Victorian circuits followed. After visits to New South Wales and Tasmania, he returned to Melbourne to conduct street meetings before leaving for India in July 1870. His return visit was not welcomed by many clergymen and his meetings failed to arouse the religious fervour of his first tour.

Taylor won later fame for the missions he established in India, South America and Africa; the General Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church appointed him missionary bishop to Africa in 1884. In 1895 in New York he published his autobiography, Story of My Life. He retired to California where he died at Palo Alto on 18 May 1902.

Select Bibliography

  • J. C. Symons, Life of the Rev. Daniel James Draper (Lond, 1870)
  • J. Bickford, An Autobiography of Christian Labour (Lond, 1890)
  • Sydney Mail, 15 July 1865.

Citation details

'Taylor, William (1821–1902)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1976, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 6, (Melbourne University Press), 1976

View the front pages for Volume 6

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

William Taylor (1821-1902), by Frederick Cornell

William Taylor (1821-1902), by Frederick Cornell

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H12005

Life Summary [details]


2 May, 1821
Lexington, Virginia, United States of America


18 May, 1902 (aged 81)
Palo Alto, California, United States of America

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