“The Famous Backwood’s Preacher”
It would require a sizeable volume to do justice to the life and works of the great modest, unassuming John Taylor. He was not considered a great preacher even by those of his own faith, and was bitterly hated by many who were not of his faith. Although he may not have been a great preacher, he was truly a great and good man. Perhaps no preacher in the history of Alabama was more devoted to his religion and more severely persecuted than John Taylor. So great was his faith and so pure was his life, J. W. McGarvey, Lexington, Kentucky, said that he deserved to be canonized. Mr. Taylor lived for many years west of Frankfort on Lost Creek, a tributary of Cedar Creek.
Mr. Taylor is said to have come to America from Ireland in the early part of the nineteenth century. He reared a family of several children, two or three of his sons serving in the Confederate army. For many years, his grave was unmarked, but the congregation of Rock Creek Church has since erected a suitable marker. He has been dead for a great many years.
Regarding the merits of Mr. Taylor’s preaching and the many persecutions that he suffered, we shall quote largely from the late F. D. Srygley’s “Larimore and his boys.” Mr. Srygley knew John Taylor very intimately and therefore, wrote with authority. In Chapter IV of the book to which we have referred, Mr. Srygley says:
“T. B. Larimore, (T. B. Larimore is now living at Berkley, California, and is on his eighty-fifth year. He is one of the most beloved preachers in the history of the United States. Members of all Protestant denominations affectionately call him ‘Brother’ Larimore. His life has been devoted to the cause of the Church of Christ) made his first, missionary journey through North Alabama on foot in company with John Taylor. The latter was one of the first preachers of the doctrine of that church (Church of Christ) in that country and his ministerial labors dated back to the very beginning of the reformation.
“A queer old man was John Taylor. In early life, he was a Baptist; but he always had a way of thinking out conclusions for himself which constantly brought him no little trouble in that church. He never could understand from reading the New Testament that God had promised to pardon his sins before Baptism, and hence caused trouble at the very beginning of his religious life by requesting to be baptized for the remission of sins. However, he was received into the church by a special and very liberal interpretation of what then prevailed as ‘Baptist usage’ in that country, and soon began to preach. Then came the tug of war. Those people were not the sort of folks to quietly sit and hear Taylor or anybody else say their religious ideas were not correct, and John Taylor was not the sort of man to fail to declare his honest convictions from the pulpit.
“He had long tolerated errors and excesses in the guise of religion, because he neither wished to be an agitator against time-honored traditions, nor say any definite way to correct them; but once the issue was fairly made and the conflict openly begun, he gave himself wholly and reservedly to the support of his cause. The first move was to exclude him from the Baptist Church for preaching Campbellism. ‘And before God, brethren’, the old man would say in his earnest manner in after years’, I had never heard of Campbellism nor of Alexander Campbell before in all my life. That was way back when Campbell first began to preach. The truth is, he learned Campbellism from the New Testament and was excluded from the Baptist Church for preaching it in North Alabama before he heard of Alexander Campbell or his teaching. John Taylor was a brave man and an honest one, too, whatever else may be said about him, and as such, he preached his convictions. From the time he was excluded from the Baptist Church for preaching Campbellism, it is impossible for any one who knows nothing about those times to form any idea as the fierceness and bitterness of the war of words and clash of arguments which agitated the people of every neighborhood. It was literally a hand-to-hand conflict, unceasing and without quarter. There were no reserve forces on either side; all the available forces of both sides were called into action. The moral courage and self-sacrificing zeal and devotion to conviction exhibited by the grand old man and his few co-laborers in North Alabama in the early days of the reformation beggared all powers of description. Shoulder-to-shoulder with him in those days which try men’s souls, stood John McKaleb of Fayette County, Jerry Randolph and his brother, Dow, Mat Hackworth and a few others. These were all men of courage and convictions, and each the equal of John Taylor in every respect. It is to be regretted that no connected history of these men and their labors has been preserved. I knew John Taylor from my earliest recollection, and many an hour have I listened to him tell of the trials and triumphs of his teaching in North Alabama in the beginning of the reformation. But as I have no chronological order of events, I can only give the account of certain incidents which impressed themselves upon my mind as I heard them related by the good old Brother Taylor on more than one occasion. From such broken fragments of history as these, the reader is left to infer the general character of those times.”
John Taylor was a smith and carpenter by trade, and so constant was the discussion of religious themes among all classes of people, that he never went to his shop without his Bible. He had a way of carrying a small leather bound Testament in his hat, and, from constant rubbing against the top of his head, both backs of the book were worn in holes, and as he always believed, the hair smoothed off the top of his head leaving him prematurely bald as an onion. He was so familiar with the New Testament, when in the prime of his life that if any verse of it were read to him he would readily name the book and chapter and repeat the succeeding verse from memory. He delighted in this exercise, and often entertained a circle of friends around the fireside in this way for hours at a time. Such a man, in such a country, was, of course, as a city set on a hill which could not be hidden. Unable to put him down by fair means, men of small minds and bitter prejudice soon began to try to suppress his teaching by intimidation. But John Taylor was one of the men whom intimidation will not intimidate. One night while he was preaching, some bad men shaved the mane and tail of his horse close, and cut off the stirrups from his saddle. Some, and perhaps all, of the men before mentioned as his co-labors, were present on that occasion and each one shared the same fate. The good old man received such treatment in perfectly good humor, and laughingly remarked that Jesus rode into Jerusalem on a shaven-tailed donkey and without stirrups; therefore, he thought it no great hardship to ride through the country in that style. Once when he was preaching, a great bully stood up in the audience and several times interrupted him by speaking out in a loud voice and saying, “That is a pack of old Taylor’s lies.” He continued his sermon without any notice at all of the ruffian. Once a lady confessed Christ and asked to be baptized. A man who was known to be a dangerous fellow wrote him a note stating that if he baptized that woman he would be shot before he came out of the water. Disregarding the threat he baptized the woman; afterwards he baptized the man who made the threat and always retained his friendship to the day of his death.”
Mr. Srygley relates many other incidents concerning the life and works of John Taylor. The Civil War greatly interrupted the growth of the Church of Christ in Franklin County, but when the war was over, Mr. Taylor was able to carry on his great work with greater visible results. Speaking of this period Mr. Srygley says:
“Good old Brother Taylor found himself with only a few scattering members, and they were utterly discouraged as well as wholly unable to do anything financially towards setting the cause on foot again. But John Taylor never faltered. His wife was now dead, and all his children large enough to provide for themselves, so he had nothing to do but go about His Father’s business. His first work was to collect from the brethren in Tennessee, Kentucky and other states north, some material help to relieve the actual suffering among helpless women and children in the bounds of his labors. This work finished, he began preaching in earnest. He had not even a horse, so he had a small pouch made in which to carry his hymn-book and Bible, and with this little pouch on his arm, and a stout stick for support, in his hand, he went out on foot, into the dreary, war-swept land to carry glad tidings of great joy to the sorrow-burden hearts of a people in despair.
“As a preacher, John Taylor was never rated high; as a man he was not widely known. In every sense his genuine merits went far beyond his reputation.”
Mr. Taylor not only preached in Franklin, Colbert and several other North Alabama counties as well as in Mississippi and Tennessee. Tolbert Fanning, “a man who helped to make Nashville,” founded the Church of Christ at Russellville. This church was composed mostly of people of wealth and social distinction. John Taylor did not preach much in that class of society, but mostly to the poorer people.
As has already been pointed out, he possessed a delightful sense of humor. It is said that he once told of preaching in Mississippi where there were many mosquitoes. He told some of the neighbors that many of those mosquitoes would weight a pound. They misunderstood the hidden humor, and accused the good old man of telling a lie. Regardless of the reader’s personal religious belief, he must take off his hat to John Taylor as a man true to his convictions.
Source: “Distinguished Men, Women and Families of Franklin Co., Alabama” by R. L. James, Pub. circa. 1927-1930, pages 36-39.