John Taylor: Teacher of the Atonement

By Andrew C. Skinner

Andrew C. Skinner, “John Taylor, Teacher of the Atonement,” in Champion of Liberty: John Taylor, ed. Mary Jane Woodger (Provo, UT: Religious Studies Center, Brigham Young University, 2009), 309–26.

John Taylor, Teacher of the Atonement

Andrew C. Skinner

Andrew C. Skinner is a professor of ancient scripture at Brigham Young University.

 

Methodist exhorter, convert to Mormonism, missionary, Apostle, and ultimately third President of the Church, John Taylor believed in the power and efficacy of the Atonement of Jesus Christ from his youth. That conviction of Christ’s redemption became the foundation of his teaching and was rooted in personal revelation (beginning when he was a boy) as well as his study of the Old and New Testaments, which also led him to find the restoration of primitive or original Christianity, as described in the Bible. The restored gospel of Jesus Christ brought to President Taylor new understanding of the Atonement, and its significance deepened for him after he was ordained to the apostleship in 1838. His ever-growing knowledge of the profundity of the central act in the Father’s plan culminated in the publication of The Mediation and Atonement of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in 1882, while serving as President of the Church. This was the first major treatise written by an Apostle of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints devoted entirely to the Atonement. It represented a lifetime of study and reflection and continues to have an impact on the Church and its teachers to this day.

Formations

We cannot fully understand or appreciate President Taylor’s role as teacher of the Atonement without looking at the origins and development of his personal witness of Christ’s singular act of Redemption. His childhood is a key to understanding his testimony of the Atonement. From the start, he was a spiritually sensitive soul who, as a small boy, saw a genuine vision of an angel holding a trumpet to his mouth heralding a new era before the First Vision occurred. Therefore, it is not surprising that he came to appreciate the Savior at a young age and became an ardent advocate of the plan of salvation. His sense of the significance of our Lord’s mission was rooted in the experiences of his formative years. He inherited a keen intellect and religious inclination from his parents. His well-educated father, for example, was proficient in Greek and Latin, two important languages for deeper study of Christianity, even in our day. By his parents, young John “was thoroughly trained in the catechism and prayers of the Church of England, into which he had been baptized as an infant. [His] father and mother also exemplified in their conduct the religious principles they sought to inculcate in [their] son.”[1] Throughout his childhood and teenage years, he exhibited a deep reverence for Deity and “dreaded nothing so much as offending him.”[2]

A catechism is a body of instruction that every individual was to learn and be able to recite before being brought to an Anglican bishop to be confirmed. The Church of England Catechism of 1662 taught young John Taylor much about Jesus Christ that is good. The articles of belief, part of the Catechism to be rehearsed before the one conducting the instruction, states:

I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of [heaven] and earth:

And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord, Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, Born of the Virgin Mary, Suffered under Pontius Pilate, Was crucified, dead, and buried, He descended into hell; The third day he rose again from the dead, He ascended into heaven, And sitteth at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead. . . .

Question. What dost thou chiefly learn in these Articles of thy Belief?

Answer. First, I learn to believe in God the Father, who hath made me, and all the world.

Secondly, in God the Son, who hath redeemed me, and all mankind.

Thirdly, in God the Holy Ghost, who sanctifieth me, and all the elect people of God.[3]

At other points in the Catechism of the Church of England, the doctrine of salvation through Jesus Christ was clearly emphasized. There would have been no question in young John’s mind about the importance of this fundamental principle. In addition, the Church of England recognized the Old and New Testaments as its source of authority for doctrine. Scripture was held in high regard. However, the Church of England also upheld (as it still does) the traditional Christian teachings expressed in the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed—teachings about the nature of God that are not biblical.[4] Thus, it is no wonder that the Spirit of God would move upon the future Church President to search for greater truth as found in the King James biblical text, not filtered through the lenses of fourth-, fifth-, and sixth-century Christianity, which became steeped in creeds and councils.

A second important factor in the formation of Taylor’s Christ-centered development was his intense study of the Bible as a young man, between 1823 and 1832, after he moved to Penrith, Cumberland (now Cumbria). During this period he received the inspiration of heaven as if communicated “by angelic or supernatural beings.”[5] In fact, most of his leisure hours during these nine years were spent in studying the Bible, reading works on theology, and praying. “Believing that ‘every good and perfect gift proceedeth from the Lord,’ he prayed frequently in private.”[6] Thus, it is not hard to see how young John Taylor’s testimony of his Redeemer deepened during this period. The foundational doctrine he was studying was the coming of the Messiah and his redemptive act. President Taylor was thoroughly immersed in this core message. In addition, he was tutored by the Holy Spirit. “Manifestations of its presence were frequent, not only in the expansion of his mind to understand doctrines and principles, but also in dreams and visions.”[7] Various New Testament passages acknowledge that a testimony of Jesus and personal revelation by the Holy Ghost go hand in hand, and President Taylor was well acquainted with those passages.[8]

Still another factor in the development of Taylor’s powerful witness of our Redeemer was undoubtedly his wife. After being appointed a Methodist exhorter or lay preacher in 1825 at age seventeen, he determined, by revelation, to go to the New World to fulfill his divine destiny.[9] Upon his arrival in Toronto, Taylor associated with the Methodists of the city and began preaching the gospel as he understood it from the New Testament. There he met Leonora Cannon and married her in January of 1833. Leonora was a kindred spirit to John and a fitting companion. Her life was also grounded in biblical religion, devotion to God, and personal revelation. Her Christ-centered outlook is demonstrated in a tender passage from her diary (Sunday, July 29, 1832): “I thank God for the kindness I meet with from the Family he hath placed me in I want to beg of the Lord that he would shine upon there Hearts bless them in there Souls. and Bodys. and bring them to the knowledge of Himself whom to know is life eternal.”[10]

Search for Truth in the New World

In Toronto, John and Leonora joined The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The centerpiece of their conversion was the Bible. In his role as Methodist exhorter, John had heard several derogatory rumors about Mormonism. He remembered well the words of one of the ancient Apostles: “Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: for he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds” (2 John 1:9–11).[11] Those not grounded in the doctrine of Christ were to be ignored. But, over time, Taylor came to realize he had been misled about Mormonism. He undertook an independent study of the doctrines being presented. He wrote down at least eight sermons delivered by Elder Parley P. Pratt and carefully compared their contents with doctrines and teachings of the Bible. The truth of Elder Pratt’s teachings became overpowering as John realized that his American tutor was not only sincere but “well schooled in the Bible.”[12] John and Leonora Taylor were baptized on May 9, 1836. In his later years, President Taylor said that from that moment on, he “never doubted any principle of Mormonism.”[13]

Testimony Matures

That the Lord had great things in store for John Taylor is evidenced both by his ordination to the Melchizedek Priesthood shortly after his baptism and his being put in charge of the expanding Church in Upper Canada. His testimony of the Savior and the true Church were rooted in his thorough knowledge of the Bible, and that knowledge saw him through many a challenging experience, even allowing him to be an instrument of correction to some of the Brethren in Ohio, senior to him, who had erred.[14] We often hear that a testimony is strengthened in the bearing of it. It seems likely that John Taylor’s testimony of the Savior deepened precisely because he put his testimony of the Prophet Joseph Smith on the line, so to speak—defending the Savior’s chosen mouthpiece against formidable opposition from those who had once known better.

Not surprisingly, in the autumn of 1837, John Taylor, then back in Toronto, was called by the Prophet Joseph Smith to fill a vacancy in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles that was created by the excommunication of John F. Boynton. He was now being asked to devote full-time service to bearing special witness of the name of Christ in all the world (see D&C 107:23). He never shrank from that duty, though he felt, as he said, “my incompetency.”[15] Years later, looking back on his call to the Twelve and the feelings it evoked, Elder Taylor also said he regarded it as not only a lifelong call “but for eternity also.”[16]

Though the passing of years brought maturity and change, the one thing that did not change was President Taylor’s consistent practice of preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ by appealing to the Bible. The New Testament witness formed the foundation of John Taylor’s knowledge of the power and effects of the Savior’s atoning sacrifice throughout his apostolic and presidential years. In a funeral sermon he gave in Salt Lake later in life, President Taylor summarized the hope that the Atonement gives, in a very personal way, to those who strive to have faith in Jesus Christ:

If we have secured the favor of God, if we are Saints of the Most High, if we have the Holy Ghost dwelling in us, if we are walking in the path of righteousness, . . . we should feel satisfied if we are laid away without much ostentation and show; and in thus attending to the obsequies of those who pass away, we fulfil the duties which God has placed upon us. And He will take care of them afterwards.

If it were not for the atonement of Jesus Christ, the sacrifice he made, all the human family would have to lie in the grave throughout eternity without any hope. But God having provided, through the atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ, the medium whereby we can be restored to the bosom and presence of the Father, to participate with Him among the Gods in the eternal worlds—he having provided for that has also provided for the resurrection. He proclaimed Himself the resurrection and the life. . . . By and by the tombs will be opened and the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and they shall come forth, they who have done good to the resurrection of the just, and they who have done evil to the resurrection of the unjust.[17]

On a much earlier occasion, President Taylor expressed the same great joy that has come to most of us as we have contemplated the almost incomprehensible goodness and self-sacrifice of Jesus of Nazareth. In 1863 he said, “I rejoice that we have a Savior who had the goodness to come forth and redeem us; and I rejoice that we have a Savior that yet looks forward to the redemption of the world.”[18]

One of President Taylor’s gifts was the practical application of profound gospel principles and doctrines in his teachings and sermons—the ability to show how these doctrines and principles articulated in the scriptures provide helpful meaning to our lives. In a discourse delivered in the Salt Lake Tabernacle in 1853, he described how the Atonement is really a very personal intercessory action, helping us to make sense of this school of human experience known as mortality:

It is necessary, then, that we pass through the school of suffering, trial, affliction, and privation, to know ourselves, to know others, and to know our God. Therefore it was necessary, when the Saviour was upon the earth, that he should be tempted in all points, like unto us, and “be touched with the feeling of our infirmities,” to comprehend the weaknesses and strength, the perfections and imperfections of poor fallen human nature. And having accomplished the thing he came into the world to do; having had to grapple with the hypocrisy, corruption, weakness, and imbecility of man; having met with temptation and trial in all its various forms, and overcome, he has become a “faithful High Priest” to intercede for us in the everlasting kingdom of His Father. He knows how to estimate and put a proper value upon human nature, for he having been placed in the same position as we are, knows how to bear with our weaknesses and infirmities, and can fully comprehend the depth, power, and strength of the afflictions and trials that men have to cope with in this world, and thus understandingly and by experience, he can bear with them as a father and an elder brother.

It is necessary, also, inasmuch as we profess that we are aiming at the same glory, exaltation, power, and blessings in the eternal world, that we should pass through the same afflictions, endure the same privations, conquer as he conquered, and overcome as he did, and thus by integrity, truth, virtue, purity, and a high-minded and honorable course before God, angels, and men, secure for ourselves an eternal exaltation in the eternal world, as he did.[19]

Thus, too, John Taylor believed that in some small way, each of us would have to replicate in our lives the life of the Master by experiencing what he experienced (undoubtedly in a lesser degree or intensity) and conquer as he conquered. Exaltation requires each of us to live a life patterned after Jesus Christ in exacting ways. Just as the Atonement required Jesus to suffer for us, it requires us to suffer for him, for his name, and to offer the kind of sacrifice he did. Such is also the witness of the Doctrine and Covenants (see D&C 138:13).

Publication of The Mediation and Atonement

For more than three years after President Brigham Young’s death in August 1877, the Quorum of the Twelve presided over the Church (from August 1877 to October 1880). The Lord then inspired his servants to ordain John Taylor as the third Church President after he was sustained in October general conference of 1880. Once accomplished, President Taylor was invested with the highest power a person on earth can hold; he was the only person on earth authorized to exercise all priesthood keys at any time; he possessed the same authority and responsibility as all other prophets, ancient and modern, to testify of Jesus as Messiah, Son of God, and Redeemer of the world. From scripture, John Taylor knew that all prophets have so testified. As Abinadi said, “For behold, did not Moses prophesy unto them concerning the coming of the Messiah, and that God should redeem his people? Yea, and even all the prophets who have prophesied ever since the world began—have they not spoken more or less concerning these things?” (Mosiah 13:33). President Taylor knew the truth and significance of John the Revelator’s declaration that “the testimony of Jesus is the spirit of prophecy” (Revelation 19:10; emphasis added). Here the ancient Apostle tells us that the testimony, or witness (Greek, marturia) of Jesus is the spirit (Greek, pneuma, also meaning “breath, life force, or power”) of prophecy—as the Greek text of this verse indicates. We know that President Taylor pondered this passage—the depths of its meaning—because he alludes to it without explicitly citing it in his writing: “These scriptures evidently [clearly] show that the testimony of Jesus was the very principle, essence and power of the spirit of prophecy whereby they [ancient prophets] were inspired.”[20] Perhaps President Taylor was so familiar with this passage and its message because it bears so directly on the prophetic office he held.

Another biblical passage with which President Taylor was also intimately acquainted tells us that the Savior himself taught that all the prophets testified of his Messianic redemption. This he did as he traveled on the road to Emmaus and rebuked two of his disciples: “Then he said unto them, O fools, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken: ought not Christ to have suffered these things, and to enter into his glory? And beginning at Moses and all the prophets, he expounded unto them in all the scriptures the things concerning himself” (Luke 24:25–27; emphasis added).[21]

Therefore, even though the tremendous cares and labors of the prophetic office weighed upon President Taylor and so many matters demanded his attention, two years into his presidency he published, at age seventy-three, the first book-length treatment of the Atonement by a General Authority, The Mediation and Atonement. It is a work of tremendous significance, though not for any profound literary exhibition or skill. To be sure, it is President Taylor’s witness of the singular and preeminent role of the Atonement of Jesus Christ in the whole of the plan of salvation. But it is also a discussion of what have been called the three pillars of eternity—the Creation, Fall, and Atonement—and their doctrinal interrelationship. He chose to let the words of scripture speak for themselves. The contents of the two-hundred-plus-page volume is made up of at least 367 references from the standard works that pertain to the great plan of redemption and President Taylor’s brief commentary on their meaning and significance.

Some of the quoted passages are quite lengthy and others are very brief. Apparently, President Taylor felt the phrase in Luke 24:46, “Thus it behoved Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead on the third day,” to be of special significance, and he referred to it throughout the volume. An informal tally of the passages quoted or directly referenced reveals some enlightening information.

 

Standard work

Total number of references

Most-cited book

Number of references in most-cited book

Most-cited chapter in that standard work

Old Testament

73

Genesis

26

Isaiah 53

New Testament

145

Gospel of John

22

Luke 24

Book of Mormon

67

2 Nephi

15

2 Nephi 9

Doctrine and Covenants

49

 

 

D&C 76

Pearl of Great Price

33

Moses

26

Moses 5

 

It is not surprising that President Taylor made reference to biblical passages so many more times than to passages in the other standard works (in fact, almost twice as many times if we count those passages from the book of Moses that are revisions of Genesis.[22] Truly, he loved the Bible! That he desired to illuminate the long line of ancient prophetic predecessors who testified of Jesus’s salvific purpose, and also to place himself in that line, is evident from the book’s narrative. Said he, “In making this examination, we will first quote from the writings of the Old and New Testaments, and, although we are informed by later revelations that ‘many parts which are plain and most precious’ have been taken away therefrom, yet there is a large amount of testimony left in this valuable and sacred record, which plainly exhibits that the principle of the atonement was fully understood by the Prophets in former ages.”[23]

Elder B. H. Roberts’s assessment of The Mediation and Atonement confirms my own and is interesting in its own right for the inference it contains concerning the nature of the attacks on the Atonement that had surfaced in his day:

It is not a work ambitious of displaying literary skill, or written with a view to meet the shallow and trifling objections urged against this great, central fact of the gospel by glib-tongued infidels and repeated without thought by their apish followers. It was the object of the author to bring together all the testimonies to be found in holy writ on this subject, as well in modern as in ancient scripture; and most admirably did he succeed, linking the testimonies together with such remarks as make their meanings and bearings clear, and increase the value of the original passages.[24]

Though biblical passages are emphasized, we should not suppose that the scriptures of the Restoration were accounted as being of little worth by President Taylor. He quoted lengthy passages from the Book of Mormon and Doctrine and Covenants. President Taylor was especially keen on what he referred to as the Inspired Version of the Bible (Joseph Smith Translation). Several times he quotes a passage from the King James Version and then quotes Joseph Smith’s inspired revision to emphasize the greater light and truth that came from the Prophet. The chapter of scripture to which he made the most references is Moses 5. President Taylor emphasized throughout his volume that all things were and are to be done in the name of the Son (see Moses 5:8) by virtue of his being the Mediator between God and man and also his becoming “by right the dictator and director on earth and in heaven for the living and for the dead, for the past, the present and the future, pertaining to man as associated with this earth or the heavens, in time or eternity, the Captain of our salvation, the Apostle and High Priest of our profession, the Lord and Giver of life.”[25]

Because he knew the scriptures so well, President Taylor’s succinct commentary found in The Mediation and Atonement contributes to our understanding of the profound connection between the ancient sacrificial system and Christ’s sacrifice. His insights link such passages as Leviticus 17:11, “For the life of the flesh is in the blood . . . for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul,” and Hebrews 9:22, “almost all things are by the law purged with blood; and without shedding of blood is no remission.” Above all, President Taylor helps us to see how sacrificial animals were a fitting representation of Jesus Christ:

From the commencement of the offering of sacrifices the inferior creature had to suffer for the superior. Although it had taken no part in the act of disobedience, yet was its blood shed and its life sacrificed, thus prefiguring the atonement of the Son of God, which should eventually take place. . . . Millions of such offerings were made. . . . With man this was simply the obedience to a command and a given law, and with him might be considered simply a pecuniary sacrifice: with the animals it was a sacrifice of life. But what is the reason for all this suffering and bloodshed, and sacrifice? We are told that “without shedding of blood is no remission” of sins. This is beyond our comprehension. Jesus had to take away sin by the sacrifice of Himself, the just for the unjust, but, previous to this grand sacrifice, these animals had to have their blood shed as types, until the great antitype should offer up Himself once for all. And as He in His own person bore the sins of all, and atoned for them by the sacrifice of Himself, so there came upon Him the weight and agony of ages and generations, the indescribable agony consequent upon this great sacrificial atonement wherein He bore the sins of the world, and suffered in His own person the consequences of an eternal law of God broken by man.[26]

And finally, we see that President Taylor’s perspective on Christ’s Atonement took into consideration the relationship between this infinite act and the vast universe of which we are part. The Atonement was all-encompassing. Christ’s suffering “was not simply the suffering of personal death”;[27] but rather,

His suffering affected universal nature.

“World upon world, eternal things,

Hang on thy anguish, King of kings.”

When he gave up the ghost, the solid rocks were riven, the foundations of the earth trembled, . . . and all material things were convulsed with the throes of seeming dissolution. . . . Thus, such was the torturing pressure of this intense, this indescribable agony, that it burst forth abroad beyond the confines of His body, convulsed all nature and spread through all space.[28]

The weaknesses of The Mediation and Atonement are insignificant (the inconsistent use of citations when quoting scripture, and some repetitiveness near the end), but the power of the message is not! Christ is the author of salvation for all creation. President Taylor taught that message his whole adult life. Because so much occurred during his administration, we may be inclined to forget that President Taylor was above all else an eminent teacher of the Atonement. As was said of him at his funeral by Elder Lorenzo Snow, President John Taylor was like the Apostle Paul—one who taught “those principles which pertain to the exaltation and salvation of the human family; and he was willing to make any sacrifice . . . to accomplish this object, that his testimony in regard to the Son of God and those principles that he had espoused might be carried forth to the nations of the earth—to the whole human family.”[29] Indeed, John Taylor was one of those “entrusted with the keys of eternal life to the human family.”[30] As such, he knew that in the Atonement of Jesus Christ lies our only lasting hope for happiness.


[1] Francis M. Gibbons, John Taylor: Mormon Philosopher, Prophet of God (Salt Lake City: Deseret Book, 1985), 8.

[2] B. H. Roberts, The Life of John Taylor (Salt Lake City: Bookcraft, 1963), 26.

[3] From The Book of Common Prayer, 1662 edition (http://www.eskimo.com/~lhowell/bcp1662/baptism/catchism.html/).

[4] Jeffrey R. Holland, “The Only True God and Jesus Christ Whom He Hath Sent,” Ensign, November 2007, 40.

[5] John Taylor, in Roberts, Life of John Taylor, 28.

[6] Roberts, Life of John Taylor, 26.

[7] Roberts, Life of John Taylor, 27.

[8] See, for example, 1 Corinthians 12:3 and Revelation 19:10.

[9] Roberts, Life of John Taylor, 29.

[10] Leonora Taylor, in Roberts, Life of John Taylor, 472; original spelling, punctuation, and grammar retained.

[11] See also Roberts, Life of John Taylor, 36.

[12] Gibbons, John Taylor, 3–4.

[13] John Taylor, in Gibbons, John Taylor, 4.

[14] When, for example, as a new convert he visited Kirtland, Ohio, for the first time in spring of 1837, and found spiritual turmoil owing to many attacks on the credibility of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Elder Taylor stood in a meeting in the Kirtland Temple and reminded the evil speakers that it was Joseph, under the hand of the Lord, who had revealed all they knew. He then compared his evil-speaking brethren to those who railed against Moses: “The children of Israel, formerly, after seeing the power of God manifested in their midst, fell into rebellion and idolatry, and there is certainly very great danger of us doing the same thing” (in Roberts, Life of John Taylor, 41).

[15] John Taylor, in Roberts, Life of John Taylor, 48.

[16] John Taylor, in Roberts, Life of John Taylor, 48.     

[17] John Taylor, in Journal of Discourses (London: Latter-day Saints’ Book Depot, 1854–86), 22:356.

[18] Deseret Weekly News, March 4, 1863, 282.

[19] John Taylor, in Journal of Discourses, 1:148–49.

[20] John Taylor, The Mediation and Atonement of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (Salt Lake City: Deseret News, 1882), 12.

[21] See also Taylor, Mediation and Atonement, 7–8.

[22] The whole book of Moses is really Joseph Smith’s inspired revisions of and additions to the first few chapters of the biblical book of Genesis.

[23] Taylor, Mediation and Atonement, 11.

[24] Roberts, Life of John Taylor, 367–68.

[25] Taylor, Mediation and Atonement, 171.

[26] Taylor, Mediation and Atonement, 149–50.

[27] Taylor, Mediation and Atonement, 150.

[28] Taylor, Mediation and Atonement, 151–52.

[29] Lorenzo Snow, in Roberts, Life of John Taylor, 441.

[30] Franklin D. Richards, in Roberts, Life of John Taylor, 451.