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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

Diversity of Interests

From the moment of Bishop Taylor Smith’s return from Sierra Leone and his appointment as Chaplain-General many and varied were the appeals he received to conduct meetings, preside at private and public gatherings, and so forth. So fully was he occupied with official and unofficial duties that, as has already been inferred, he had practically no leisure; yet, because of his habit of rising at dawn, he found time to keep in touch with an increasing circle of friends by means of letters. He never allowed the answering of correspondence to stand over from day to day—each letter was dealt with on the day of its receipt.

He was deeply interested in undergraduates. “I shall never forget the sermon he preached at St. Peter-le-Bailey, Oxford, some thirty years ago,” writes one; “and the happy gathering in the rectory afterwards when the Bishop was the centre of a joyful group of undergraduates, whose laughter gave testimony to the wonderful sympathy existing between them and himself, and the power with which he was able to enter into their minds and spirits. I suppose, if one were to attempt to put into one word the outstanding element in his personality, one would say, ‘sympathy.’”

His interest in boys’ and officers’ camps was almost proverbial, and he attended such as regularly as his duties as Chaplain-General permitted. The Officers’ Christian Union and the Soldiers’ and Airmen’s Christian Association both had a particular place in his heart.

Many friends have vivid recollections of his challenging them for their “best thoughts”. He did so on one occasion in strange circumstances. Lieutenant Gay-Roberts of the R.H.A., who was a member of the S.C.A. Council, and Garrison Secretary for Woolwich, accompanied the Bishop to the station on the occasion of his returning to London from a visit there. “And what is your ‘best thought’ for to-day?” asked the Bishop, as they parted from one another. The lieutenant replied hurriedly: “You give me yours for a change, sir?” “Very well, you shall have it: ‘They that live in Christ Jesus never see each other for the last time’”; and the train moved off. That same afternoon Gay-Roberts fell from his horse and was killed.

At this point it may be appropriate to mention some of the Bishop’s favourite and characteristic “best thoughts”:—

“Prayers and praises go in pairs:
He has praises who has prayers.”

“Beware of the barrenness of a busy life!”

“Oh God, give me eyes to see and grace to seize every opportunity.”

“It is not for us to obtain the victory, but to appropriate the victory Christ has obtained.”

“Where there is a doubt there is no doubt.”

“Prayer—Care—and you’re there!”

“He who bids us forward go
Cannot fail the way to show.”

“Walking with God means talking with God.”

“Waiting time is not wasted time.”

“You are not what you think you are; but what you think, you are!”

“Father of Life, give me life more abundantly. Save me from the impotence that comes from partial living!”

Here we may also add A Soldier’s Prayer, which he wrote and which was printed on the flyleaf of millions of Scripture portions issued to the troops:—

“Almighty and Everlasting God, by whose grace Thy servants are enabled to fight the good fight of faith and ever to prove victorious: We humbly beseech Thee so to inspire us that we may yield our hearts to Thine obedience, and exercise our wills on Thy behalf. Help us to think wisely; to speak rightly; to resolve bravely; to act kindly; to live purely. Bless us in body and in soul, and make us a blessing to our comrades. Whether at home or abroad may we ever seek the extension of Thy Kingdom. Let the assurance of Thy presence save us from sinning; support us in life, and comfort us in death. O Lord our God, accept this prayer for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.”

The Alliance of Honour, of which he was President for a large number of years, gave him many opportunities of public appeal to large crowds of men throughout the country. In dealing with men personally, or in small companies, he made the most of his opportunity. And he was constantly in demand to speak at men’s meetings. The Rev. Norman Bennet tells us that the Chaplain-General addressed such a gathering at his church when he was the Rector of Charmouth. The subject admittedly was a difficult one, but he tackled it in such a reverent and open manner, that he made a great impression on all. Perhaps one of the factors contributing to his success as a speaker on this subject was that those who listened to him realized that he was a man who had full mastery of himself.

Throughout his life, Bishop Taylor Smith had been fond of camping. It is not surprising therefore that with his great love of young people, and his ability to captivate them, he became a very welcome visitor at camps held for public schoolboys, and in this connection he did a remarkable work. He was, in fact, present at the earliest of these camps, held just prior to his leaving for Sierra Leone as Canon-Missioner, and from that day until his death, whenever he was available, the camps drew him like a magnet. As a result of a heart-to-heart talk with him, many a boy was brought into vital touch with the Saviour. The lads loved him. His unassuming jovial disposition appealed to them, his manliness gripped them. One who has memories of serving the Bishop as “orderly” at one of the Universities and Public School Camps in 1906 wrote:—

“The Bishop was spending a week in the camp, living in his green rot-proof tent that he had had out in Africa. As my family was known to the Bishop he selected me, a lad of fifteen, as his orderly for the week. One of my duties was to call the Bishop every morning, taking him his shaving water.

The following routine invariably took place:—

“On waking up, the Bishop demanded something for his soul, and I had to recite to him a text, which, needless to say, I had carefully prepared. Hearing the text, he would give me one of his characteristic talks thereon. Next the Bishop demanded something for his mind, and I had to be prepared to tell him a funny story, no easy job at 7 a.m. The Bishop always pretended not to be amused, and then after teasing me there for awhile, he would laugh at me and with me, and tell me a better one. Finally, the Bishop demanded something for his body, and I then had to hand him the shaving water.

“This routine for soul, mind and body was always carried out every morning, and, as a lad of fifteen, I found it very embarrassing to have to provide a Bishop with daily texts and funny stories. When I called at the War Office en route for France during the War, he reminded me of this, and made me promise to try and minister to Tommy’s soul, mind and body in the same order.”

Throughout his ministry Bishop Taylor Smith had realized the importance of presenting religion to children in such a way that it would attract them. He gave the matter thorough study and became an expert in the handling of children’s services. He specialized in the giving of object lessons and illustrated addresses. He definitely believed in the possibility of a child being deeply convicted of sin and as truly converted. This belief was based on his own experience; moreover, his increasing association with men and women had revealed the value and urgent necessity for child conversion. If the day of decision were delayed, a man might become hampered by bad habits and vices, and consequently find it much more difficult to become a Christian.

His love for children was intense. He has been referred to as the Bishop who “never grew up”: perhaps it would be truer to describe him as a man who never grew old. A physical, mental and spiritual giant—yet retaining simplicity of habit, humility of spirit and a lovable disposition.

When in 1925 Bishop Taylor Smith retired from the position of Chaplain-General to the Forces, he was at once asked to accept the Presidency of the Children’s Special Service Mission, which he held until the day of his death. He was also President of the Scripture Gift Mission, another society which always had a very warm place in his affections, more especially on account of its work in distributing portions of the Scriptures among men in the forces. Among other societies with which he was intimately connected mention may be made of the Church Missionary Society, the World’s Evangelical Alliance, the Boys’ Brigade, and the Scripture Union.

                                                                       *            *            *            *

During Bishop Taylor Smith’s youth and student days, the Convention held annually at Keswick was attracting an ever-widening circle of men and women who were seeking a “closer walk with God”. It was not, however, until after he returned from Sierra Leone for a rest period—he was then Canon-Missioner—that he occupied a seat on the platform at Keswick. In later years (after his return to England) he became an annual visitor to the Convention, where his public utterances were eagerly listened to. He always had a message to give—simple and direct—backed by a personal testimony of God’s dealings with his own soul, revealing how men and women could be wholly and entirely given up to doing the will of God.

At Keswick young people, as elsewhere, sought him out and shared their problems with him, always receiving helpful counsel, and this was often expressed to them in such a way that it was indelibly fixed on their minds. On the last occasion that he attended the Convention, one night at a late hour, after the Bishop had retired to rest, a car drove up to the hotel where he was staying, with a small deputation from a young people’s camp to beg him to come along with them, as there were many seeking spiritual help. Quite cheerfully the Bishop turned out and went off at that late hour to help these young people. It meant the loss of some hours of sleep, but, like his Lord, the Bishop was ever ready to respond to any call of spiritual need.

Whilst at Keswick, on one occasion, a lady told him that she was bringing a colonel to hear him preach at Crosthwaite Church. “He is an unbeliever and openly laughs at religion,” she said. “We are offering up much prayer that God will speak to him while he is at church.” The Bishop was greatly burdened in mind as to which of the many texts under consideration would convey the Lord’s message to this man. At length the direction came. “I fought in my spirit,” he said afterwards, “against the use of the one text which was present in my mind again and again—‘By this time he stinketh!’ In obedience, however, to the Spirit of God I spoke on those words. Death—the wages of sin! ‘Sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death.’ God used the straight but painful message, for the colonel was convicted and saved.”

The Bishop did not confine his interest to the large Conventions held at Keswick. He was a very familiar and welcome figure at the smaller Conventions held at various centres, and was ever ready to give of his very best, and sought by all possible means to build up and enrich the faith of those who had thus come apart for a season of spiritual refreshment.

In the later years of the Bishop’s life, his days were increasingly filled with this kind of service. Not merely did he attend the Conventions in this country, but he went forth to the “Keswick” Conventions overseas and to conduct similar campaigns in Canada, the U.S.A. and Australia.



>>Chapter 8: The Journey's End

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