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 Issues | Church History | John Taylor Smith


Great Churchman No. 15

John Taylor Smith (1860-1938)

by E. L. Langston

Bishop of Sierra Leone and Chaplain-General

Published by Church Book Room Press

The Call to Africa

It was in 1889 that Taylor Smith came into touch with Mr Eugene Stock, one of the Secretaries of the Church Missionary Society, who evidently recognized in the young man a probable missionary, for shortly afterwards Taylor Smith was offered a church in Calcutta, which offer he felt led to refuse. Not long afterwards Dr. Stock once again approached him. An urgent letter had come from Bishop Ingham, of Sierra Leone, begging for assistance. The Bishop wanted a man to come out as Canon-Missioner, with a view to the deepening of the spiritual life of the Church.

At this time the burden of the mission field lay heavily on the heart of John Taylor Smith. Just previously he had passed through a fresh spiritual crisis on a visit to Westminster Abbey. The occasion, which proved to be a momentous one for him, is best related in his own words: “I came to the grave where the body of Livingstone lies. There I read the words, ‘Other sheep I have, which are not of this fold: them also I must bring’—and as I stood there, I asked the Lord some questions: Who shall bring in these sheep if we do not offer our feet to go? How shall they be brought in, if our hands are not working to bring them? How shall they hear, if our lips do not speak to them? How shall they know of Your Love, if our hearts do not love them?” By that tombside Taylor Smith again consecrated himself for service in Africa or wherever the Lord might lead him.

Coming so soon after this experience, Bishop Ingham’s invitation was quickly perceived to be the call of God, and in full assurance of faith Taylor Smith wrote a letter of acceptance. Arrangements for his departure from England followed in due course, and on Palm Sunday, 1891, he was formally installed in St. George’s Cathedral by the Bishop of Sierra Leone. The new Canon Missioner was quickly in harness. The Cathedral of which he was Sub-Dean accommodated 1,400 persons with ease, and on Sundays he seldom faced audiences of less than 1,200 with usually as many as 150 communicants. For a week-night service there was generally an audience of at least 1,000. With the exception of the English troops, nearly all were black people, and at first he found it very strange; but he quickly learned to love the natives, and they him. He also began a work amongst the children which quickly gave promise of a hundred-fold return.

Space does not permit a fuller account of this phase of Taylor Smith’s life, but reference must be made to an incident which had an important bearing upon his subsequent career. At the special request of his bishop he consented to serve as chaplain to the British expeditionary force which in 1896 was sent to deal with a difficult situation in the hinterland of the Gold Coast, where the wild and war-like Ashantis had been giving the Government a good deal of trouble. Included in the expedition as a member of the Headquarter’s Staff was Prince Henry of Battenburg, husband of Princess Beatrice (Queen Victoria’s daughter). At Kevisa the Prince went down with a severe attack of fever. As chaplain, Canon Taylor Smith was summoned to his side. The Prince gave him a personal message, and added, “I have settled my matters, everything in England, before I came out; but if anything should happen to me, if I die of this fever, I want you to see the Princess for me and give her the message I have just told you.”

The chaplain saw the patient again three times before the latter at length succumbed to the fever from which he was suffering, and passed away. Accordingly as soon as it could be arranged Canon Taylor Smith was released so that he might fulfil his promise to the Prince and deliver his message to Princess Beatrice.

On his arrival in England, both H.M. Queen Victoria and Princess Beatrice were in the South of France; but, very shortly, Canon Taylor Smith received a message from Her Majesty commanding his presence, in response to which he journeyed to Nice. During that interview it is evident that he carried out his promise to the Prince in such a manner that the Queen conceived a high opinion of him. On the following day, he was commanded to preach before the Royal Household, and to give a message of comfort to those who were mourning the loss of the Prince. No record of that address is available, but that it achieved its purpose is clear from the fact that Canon Taylor Smith was duly appointed Honorary Chaplain to H.M. Queen Victoria, and ever after became an honoured and welcome visitor both at Windsor and at Buckingham Palace.

The widowed Princess gave him a pencil-case which had been used by the Prince, on which was engraved, “In memory of Prince Henry, from Beatrice, 1896.” Queen Victoria gave him an autographed photograph. The Queen intimated her desire that he should accept some preferment at home, but the West Coast of Africa was again calling him. He told his royal patron of that sacred hour spent in Westminster Abbey when he had responded to the call of God to Africa, and in consideration of his reason, the Queen respected his wish to return thither and acquiesced in his departure.

In 1896 Bishop Ingham (in consequence of his wife’s health), resigned the see of Sierra Leone after an episcopate of almost fifteen years, this being the longest period of episcopal service in tropical Africa recorded up to date, with the exception of that of Bishop Crowther, who was an African. It was Archbishop Frederick Temple’s first opportunity of appointing a Bishop, and he immediately selected, to the great satisfaction of the Church Missionary Society, the Diocesan Missioner, Canon Taylor Smith. Thus it became necessary for John Taylor Smith to take the homeward journey again in order to be consecrated to this office. The ceremony took place in St. Paul’s Cathedral on Ascension Day, May 27th, 1897, conducted by the Archbishop of Canterbury (Dr. Frederick Temple), assisted by the Bishop of Ripon and a number of missionary bishops, including Bishop Ingham.



>>Chapter 5: Chaplain-General (to be added)

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