Jeremy Taylor (born 1613, died today, August 13, in 1667) was a Cambridge-educated Anglican bishop whose most famous books are Holy Living (1650) and Holy Dying (1651). Both are classics, but there are many other books available that are similar to Holy Living: It reads a lot like Law’s Serious Call, Bayly’s Practice of Piety, or Scudder’s Daily Walk.
But Holy Dying is unique. It’s an entire treatise on getting ready for death, with a special focus on the temptations that are likely to assail you during a protracted illness. The full title of the book is:
THE RULE AND EXERCISES OF HOLY DYING:
IN WHICH ARE DESCRIBED THE MEANS AND INSTRUMENTS
OF PREPARING OURSELVES AND OTHERS RESPECTIVELY FOR A BLESSED DEATH:
AND THE REMEDIES AGAINST THE EVILS AND TEMPTATIONS PROPER TO THE STATE OF SICKNESS:
TOGETHER WITH PRAYERS AND ACTS OF VIRTUE
TO BE USED BY SICK AND DYING PERSONS, OR BY OTHERS STANDING IN THEIR ATTENDANCE.
TO WHICH ARE ADDED RULES FOR THE VISITATION OF THE SICK AND OFFICES PROPER FOR THAT MINISTRY.
It’s full of hope and comfort, but what really stands out is the pastoral toughness of Taylor’s approach: He wants the dying to be fully aware that they are tempted to sin in two ways: by being impatient, and by being afraid of death. He arms them against this with powerful mediations on God’s promises.
Taylor’s Holy Dying is unlike anything I can think of in contemporary writing. We have books about death, dying, and grief, but they tend to be pervasively therapeutic, attending to the process of psychological transformation we go through as we adjust ourselves to a new situation. Taylor is writing from an older tradition, the Ars Bene Moriendi or “Art of Dying Well” tradition left over from the middle ages. That tradition has a stronger, sterner dose of realism in it because it takes its stand on a certainty about what the afterlife is. This enables Taylor to make straightforward pronouncements about the handful of ways available to us as our always-fragile life comes to a close.
The book needs to be handled with care. Holy Dying has plenty of gospel in it, but like all of Taylor’s writing, it specializes in applying the strictness of the law to the conduct of the Christian. It even features an extended application of the ten commandments to the scene of the death-bed. Some critics discern an incipient moralism and legalism in Taylor’s works, and while I haven’t read enough of his other writings to convict him on that charge, I do see the grounds for it in what I have read. J.C. Ryle warned that it is possible to spoil the gospel by mingling it with other things, and Taylor tends that way at times. John Wesley said he knew a woman who
would advise no one very young to read Dr. Taylor Of Living and Dying: she added that he almost put her out of her senses when she was fifteen or sixteen year old; because he seemed to exclude all from being in a way of salvation who did not come up to his rules, some of which are altogether impracticable.
One particular sentence of Taylor’s drove Wesley himself to distraction. In Holy Living, Taylor said “The true penitent must all the days of his life pray for pardon and never think the work completed till he dies. Whether God has forgiven us or no we know not, therefore still be sorrowful for ever having sinned.” Wesley agreed that a Christian should humbly ask for pardon on a daily basis, but recoiled vehemently against the idea that we cannot know “whether God has forgiven us or no.” Indeed. Slips like these are rare in Taylor, but the fact that they are there at all is sufficiently alarming.
Jeremy Taylor was a royalist in the age of Charles, and a Laudian, anti-Roman and anti-Puritan but an outspoken advocate of religious liberty. His career was hindered by the ups-and-downs of the English Civil War, and when the Puritans were in power, Taylor suffered abuse.
In religious matters, he is in many ways the polar opposite of his contemporary John Milton, and he is one of the handful of writers who rank alongside Milton as masters of the English language. Taylor has been called (by Coleridge!) the Shakespeare of Theology and the Spenser of Prose; he has been compared to Demosthenes and Chrysostom; there is hardly a superlative that has not been applied to his prose style. His vocabulary and erudition are amazing. His sentences often run more than two-thirds of a page, with hypnotic elaboration and multiplied parallelisms. His imaginative power propels him to feats of verbal inventiveness that have to be seen to be believed. Here is a passage from Holy Dying that Coleridge ranked “among the most sublime passages in English literature:”
But if we could, from one of the battlements of heaven, espy how many men and women at this time lie fainting and dying for want of bread, how many young men are hewn down by the sword of war ; how many poor orphans are now weeping over the graves of their father, by whose life they were enabled to eat ; if we could but hear how many mariners and passengers are at this present in a storm, and shriek out because their keel dashes against a rock or bulges under them ; how many people there are that weep with want, and are mad with oppression, or are desperate by a too quick sense of a constant infelicity; in all reason we should be glad to be out of the noise and participation of so many evils. This is a place of sorrows and tears, of great evils and constant calamities: let us remove hence, at least in affections and preparations of mind.
Coleridge took Taylor’s prose to be a proof that “poetry of the highest kind may exist without metre,” and called the two Holy books “a sacred and didactic poem in almost as wide a sense of the word as the Commedia of Dante.”
No matter what Taylor wrote about (government, the life of Christ, marriage, breastfeeding), he brought that sort of literary force to it. He always repays a close reading, whether you think you’re about to die or not.