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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


Some four years later, in 1901, when he was again in England, Bishop Taylor Smith received a wire from the War Office inviting him to become Chaplain-General to H.M. Forces. It would seem that the offer was made at the command of King Edward VII in deference to the expressed wish of his mother, Queen Victoria, whose death had taken place only a few months previously: Believing that he was called to Africa Bishop Taylor Smith was at first inclined to refuse the offer; but eventually it was made clear to him that he ought to accept. In reaching this decision he was particularly impressed by the consideration that the converted soldier could exert an enormous influence for Christ, and that a number of such soldiers would form a very fine missionary society, scattered throughout the world.

As Chaplain-General, Bishop Taylor Smith’s duties included the spiritual oversight of 200,000 Service men, and the direction of 100 Chaplains. His appointment was welcomed by many sections of the Forces; by others, however, the arrangement was severely criticized. Taylor Smith was known to be a strong Evangelical. His methods therefore would probably be totally different from those of his predecessor. The men who had made the appointment were fully aware of the position, but in some quarters there was speculation as to whether he would possess the organizing power and ability to unite with himself the chaplains who had been appointed by his predecessor, and who were, therefore, to a large extent not working along the lines likely to be adopted by the new Chaplain-General. Probably some of the doubtful ones had forgotten his work in Sierra Leone, or were unaware of the Bishop’s charming personality, his sound judgment, broad outlook on life, and trained ability to understand and manage men.

The time of his appointment was one of difficulty. The South African War was over, and, in consequence, a number of the chaplains had been withdrawn. With characteristic swiftness, the Chaplain-General realized that as a result large companies of men would be left open to moral danger and spiritual degeneration, and he immediately set out to find suitable men to serve as chaplains with the Army of Occupation in South Africa.

He endeavoured to gain a personal knowledge of his chaplains at the various outposts of the Empire, and the conditions associated with their work. China, the Straits Settlements, South Africa, Bermuda, Malta, Gibraltar and Egypt were visited, not once but as often as his heavy responsibilities at home permitted. When on these tours, he always inspected the churches and was ever ready with a suggestion for making them more attractive in appearance. In addition to conducting religious services, he endeavoured to hold private meetings for men only, during which he talked to them intimately in regard to personal purity.

Brigadier-General E. M. P. Stewart, of Coll, says that in preaching or giving an address his fund of humour and unconventional methods to bring home a special point were wonderfully arresting and effective. Whilst delivering a sermon at a garrison church, the subject under consideration being the inner life of a man, the Chaplain-General suddenly produced a large, rosy, ripe apple, and held it up, saying, “Isn’t that a beautiful apple—one that you would choose? But look!—as he deftly split it in half!—“it is rotten at the core. You wouldn’t eat it for anything! It’s only fit to be thrown away. What is your inner man like?” Several years after, when he was touring South Africa, a middle-aged man came up to him and said, “You won’t remember me, sir. But I shall never forget the day that you held up an apple with a fair skin, but with a rotten core. I felt, that’s me! I was only a young soldier then, but from that day my heart was changed, and I have never looked back on my Christian life’s road.”

In personal work the Chaplain-General’s method was to secure the confidence of the one he wished to address, and he would get on friendly and comfortable terms with him before he put the all-important question in a natural way. Generally, his words were appreciated, but sometimes, at first, they were not kindly received. For instance, on one occasion, after having engaged a young officer in conversation on ordinary topics, he asked, “Now what are you doing about religion?” The officer replied off-handedly: “Oh, I've no time for things like that.” “Then you are not all there,” said the Bishop, banteringly, with his charming smile. “Not all there!” replied the officer, angrily. “What do you mean?” “I mean what I say. If you have not religion you are not all there. Man is made of body, soul, and spirit and he who lacks the last—spiritual life—is wanting!” The officer no longer disputed the Chaplain-General’s statement and the way was opened for a helpful talk about the things which mattered most.

When the Chaplain-General felt that necessity demanded it, he would fearlessly seek out and deal personally with officers or others who he had reason to believe were not exercising a good influence over the men.

The demands made upon the Chaplain-General for services, addresses and visits to various towns to hold religious services, in addition to his official work, were so great that he had practically no leisure. His engagements included all sorts and kinds, from boys’ camps to the addressing of vast concourses of seafaring men in St. Paul’s Cathedral. In the first year of his office he spent only four days in his own home, and that year was typical. A favourite saying of his was, “The reward for work is more work,” and surely no man could claim this more truly as his own experience than Bishop Taylor Smith.



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