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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

St John's, Highbury

John Taylor Smith would have liked to have had the advantages of a university training. He was not in a financial position to do so, but the way opened up for him to enter the London College of Divinity, of which the Principal at that time was the Rev. Henry Boultbee, D.D. This college was noted “for its vigorous Protestantism and its unflinching Evangelical outlook”. Its motto—“Woe is unto me if I preach not the Gospel” —expressed the urge which brought the earnest company of students thither.

At college, Taylor Smith took no high honours theologically; in fact, it is said that he took only a third-class in the preliminary examinations for holy orders. Intellectually, he was just an average student; but he possessed an outstanding personality, and his contemporaries are full of stories revealing his deep spiritual experience and the influence he exerted in college and in connection with the college missions.

It was the custom of the students of St. John’s to select a motto for their own edification. Taylor Smith chose, “As now—So then.” Some years after he had become Bishop of Sierra Leone, he was present at a “squash” in one of the rooms of his old college, and in the course of his conversation he referred to his motto.

“When I entered this place,” he said, “I was then about twenty years of age. I asked God to give me a motto to live by. Then came to my mind four words, ‘As now—So then.’ I took that motto to my heart and made it a practice in my life.

As now! If I am careless, prayerless, slack and lazy now—so shall I be when I am ordained. As now! If I am careful, prayerful, studious now—so shall I be when ordained.”

One day Taylor Smith entered the room of a fellow-student. He observed the latter’s motto-card and read the one word—SATISFIED. Having studied it for a moment, he turned to his companion and said, “Look here, old chap, I should take that down if I were you.” The man looked surprised and said, “What do you mean, Taylor Smith?”

‘‘It’s not true! You know it’s not! And even if it were true, it ought not to be! Why not change it to ‘HE SATISFIES’? There is all the difference between the two. One is static, the other is a living experience.”

The St. John’s Hall curriculum has always emphasized that each student during term-time must take part in some active evangelistic work. Hence, men were sent out on Sundays to take part at one of the College missions, or to help in the Sunday work of one or other of the poor parishes which abound in North London. Taylor Smith was always in demand for either children’s meetings or men’s rallies. As a young student, therefore, he gave promise of what he was to become in later years.

Of those days, Taylor Smith wrote in later life:—

“Clergymen and laymen were seeking after holiness, and great was the controversy, keen the searching of men’s hearts. How well I remember a fellow-student saying to me, ‘Have you the testimony?’

“I said, ‘What do you mean?’

“He said, ‘Have you the testimony that Enoch had before he was translated?’

“I said, ‘I am not sure that I have.’

“Hebrews xi. 5 records the testimony, ‘By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him; but before his translation he had this testimony, that he pleased God.’ It arrested my attention; again it drove me to my knees, and I prayed that in my daily life I might please God. It was a question which I have never forgotten. Have you the testimony that you are pleasing God?”

Such was the young man who, in 1885, was ordained deacon by Bishop Thorold of Rochester at Battersea Parish Church, and who, the following year, was priested at Rochester Cathedral. His one and only curacy was served at St. Paul’s, Upper Norwood, London.

There were several outstanding features which marked his work as a curate, and, perhaps, foremost were his services for children. In those days Norwood was a residential district with a large number of influential and fairly wealthy people living in and around the parish. Sunday after Sunday found the church crowded in the afternoon with little people who would not miss that Sunday service if they could help it, for John Taylor Smith was perhaps the most attractive and popular speaker to children of his time. He possessed the capacity to hold the attention of even the tiniest tots as well as of the boys and girls in their teens. His humour, his fund of simple, telling illustrations, his ability to dwell in the land of imagination and make the Bible stories live, were among the secrets of his marvellous success. Added to these attractions was a genuine love of children, and the children quickly recognized this and loved him in return.



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