Half way through the nineteenth century not a single brick building could be found in the entire city of San Francisco, and only a few timber ones existed. Ninety percent of the then twenty thousand residents of this lawless town were gold prospectors camping in tents crowded along muddy streets. Only ten of those regular residents were women but dancehall girls, gambling dens, whisky saloons and brothels abounded in that lawless frontier town.
A Whisky Barrel Pulpit
Few ministers would choose a street corner for a worship service or a whisky-barrel for a pulpit but Methodism’s pioneer preacher, William Taylor, did so in California. For seven years from 1849 he proclaimed the Gospel thus to thousands of the frontier settlers — miners who were popularly known ever after as “the Forty-Niners” because they had rushed to the new state hungering for the gold discovered at Sutters’ Creek and in the hills near San Francisco.
A plaque originally erected in Portsmouth Square by the Methodist Historical Society, and now in possession of Temple Methodist Church notes that: “Here, on December 3, 1849, William Taylor preached to miners who crowded this park the first of 600 sermons on this city’s streets and docks. Later he preached on six continents but was commonly known as “California” Taylor.
Stuart Taylor, William’s farmer father was of Scottish-Irish descent. In Virginia, Stuart was so opposed to slavery that he released his own servants and even paid passage for some of them to return to Liberia. Unexpectedly converted through a local Methodist revival, Taylor senior launched immediately into a 40-year itinerant evangelist ministry leading his son also into circuit Wesleyan ministries and ultimately into the pastorate of a prestigious church in North Baltimore.
Challenged to Change His Approach
The exploding California population quickly demanded the attention of national Methodist leaders who searched in vain for a church planter to pioneer their work in the West and finally convinced William that this could be God’s call for him.
In Baltimore he was so commissioned and sailed for San Francisco on April 19, 1849. Taylor’s approach to religion involved stern disciplined behaviors which led him to voice severe criticisms of the shipboard dances and even the making of emergency repairs to the ship on Sundays.
Mellowed by the long, arduous sea journey around Cape Horn, the birth of a sickly daughter while on voyage (she died in San Francisco only seven months later), and warm relationships with passengers, Taylor adjusted his preaching style completely. From a regular denunciation of congregational sins he moved to simple Gospel proclamations, expanded his illustrative skills and used more persuasive arguments rather than aggressive criticisms to share his convictions. He realized that such changes attracted many more to his on-board services than his previous approaches.
On his first Sunday in San Francisco Taylor had preached from the pulpit of the First Baptist Church, then a small wooden chapel. By the third Sunday after his arrival when his own small precut timber building had arrived freighted from Oregon and been hastily erected on the plot reserved for it, he had gathered a dozen or more of Methodist background into worship. Then, with the help of a few of these faithful, he built a home for his family nearby cutting the timber himself and shipping it from across the Bay.
Within the first few weeks of his arrival he and his wife marched to Portsmouth square in the heart of the gambling saloon district and began singing so loudly that the saloons and gambling dens quickly emptied to see what the noise was all about. There they found a six foot, 207 pound man gathering passers by into an informal Christian service. Taylor would use a carpenter’s bench or a wheel barrow, or whatever else was at hand. He would then appeal for order on the basis that they were all respectable and, preaching under the new United States flag, he would fearlessly challenge the sinful life-styles of their frontier culture pointing to the power of Christ to transform lives even in that difficult society.
A Fearless Proclaimer
One of Taylor’s favorite preaching spots was down at the harbor’s Long Wharf. With the ease and grace of a man at his own fireside, Taylor would climb atop the nearest whisky or pork barrel and engage passers by in dialogue.
After greeting each of the nationalities which stopped to watch the proceedings, he and Mrs. Taylor would sing a few gospel songs. Then, with a voice that echoed loudly up and down the muddy streets, he would choose a simple text and proclaim the power of Christ to transform lives and give victory over the sins and temptations of the restless city.
He would call his listeners to accountability before God sometimes actually entering the bars and brothels to speak fearlessly to their customers. Strangely the power of his message and the boldness of his person led to acceptance even in such situations. In this manner he often preached at different street locations four or five times a day.
If rowdyism or interruptions threatened to overwhelm his meeting, he would appeal to the “fair play” instincts of his hearers (he always referred to them as “gentlemen”). He would point to the U.S. flag he always flew at his side as a symbol which stood for his right of free speech and assembly and ask some listeners to keep order for him.
His regular followers respected him, and, because he always treated them with honor and courtesy, quickly took care of any who sought to disturb him. He would often refer to the Brothers and families his hearers had left behind in the East as not only depending on the miners but also as those who trusted them to live as men of quality and integrity. Many times the toughest miners and the many sailors visiting the port among his listeners would break down into tears.
He quickly established a book depository and planted infant Methodist fellowships in the nearby towns of San Jose, Santa Clara, and Santa Cruz then volunteered to serve as the chaplain of the new two-story San Francisco hospital demanded by the harsh winters and disease-breeding conditions of that shanty town. He not only visited the sick, but aided the poor, defended American Indians and preached in Chinese labor camps. He founded the Wesleyan college which has since divided to become today’s University of the Pacific and the Pacific School of Religion on the Berkeley University of California campus.
City Founder
Taylor is known in San Francisco history as the founding pastor of First Methodist Church, as the city’s first hospital chaplain, and as the founder of the Seamen’s Mission for those visiting from overseas. He met a large part of the debts incurred through his publication of two volumes Seven Years Street Preaching in San Francisco (1857), and California Life Illustrated (1858). As one of San Francisco’s “founding fathers” his official portrait is included in the Pioneers mural in the Public Library of the city.
By 1851 Taylor and Isaac Owen of the Sacramento valley had enlisted over 500 members in twelve churches across Northern California and founded a religious periodical. When they saw that visiting sailors often got so drunk that they were kidnaped and sold out to sea, they started a Seamen’s Mission with overnight accommodations and regular ministries for their needs.
World-Wide Ministry
During an 1856 visit back East revival blessings attended his evangelistic meetings in Brooklyn, Baltimore, New Jersey, and Maryland. He went on to preach in almost every Methodist pulpit in Philadelphia that year and in the fall went to New England and down to Richmond for the winter.
Sensing that the seven-year California experience of proclaiming the Gospel message effectively had prepared him so that God’s hand for evangelism was evidently upon him Taylor then moved into a full-time itinerant evangelistic ministry. Serving between 1858 and 1860, he ministered across Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and Iowa.
William Taylor is best known in Christian history as a world-wide evangelist who traveled and preached on all six continents — his world journeys totaling 250,000 miles. At that time he probably had no equal as an evangelist apart from the Apostle Paul and John Wesley. He authored eighteen volumes, mainly about his ministries in various parts of the world, and sold tens of thousands of these books to generate income for his family and for his overseas missions programs.
While visiting Canada he heard stories of the Australian Gold Rush and its similarities to the California frontier. Feeling led to share his strong Gospel there, he preached for the Australian Methodist national organization for three years (after first spending seven months of itinerant evangelism in England and Ireland), adding thousands to the Methodist Churches of New Zealand and Australia. He followed these tasks with extensive preaching missions to Europeans in India and South Africa. Barbados and British Guiana were next, and then a six year return visit to the Australian cities.
After a return to England to help D. L. Moody with his 1875 London Campaign, he made multiple trips to South America and the West Indies, founding churches and self-supporting Christian schools. Taylor’s South African visit became something of a watershed experience leading him in to a much broader ministry as one biography affirms: “In no small part Taylor’s preaching was a catalyst that transformed the Wesleyan Church into one of South Africa’s largest denominations. It also catapulted Taylor into an international evangelist” (Rousselow and Winquist, 1996:37).
Wherever he traveled, Taylor stirred up the flames of revival. His passion for evangelism and for responsible Christian living as a witness to those outside of the church changed the face of Australian Methodism, giving his services gratuitously. He received only what the Lord supplied from those moved to provide support and made no demands for specific financial returns. His ministry crossed denominational lines and led finally to a two week central city campaign in Sydney.
This was held in Hyde Park under elaborate lights erected around a large platform. It is estimated that as many as eleven thousand converts resulted from his Australian evangelistic labors, and his ministry there has been designated as an expression of true revival (Orr, 1976). He took to heart John Wesley’s affirmation, “the world is my parish,” and did more to expand the work of Methodism than any other in the nineteenth century.
He won thousands to personal faith in Africa, Asia, and Latin America as well as in the U.S.A., and in large measure is the one responsible for the breadth and energy of Methodist Worldwide Missions. He made a typical preacher’s blunder when he saw the huge Eucalyptus trees in the Australian Forests and shipped thousands of seedlings to his wife in San Francisco to be planted for California’s building industry. As that particular timber cannot be milled and dressed successfully, his herculean efforts were wasted. (He may be amused to find that, because of the planting of Eucalyptus as a result of his efforts, today the city zoos all over the West can house Australian Koala bears and feed them with their natural nutrition — an achievement which zoos all over the nation envy!)
Bishop of Africa
Called to Liberia to rescue failing Methodist missions in that state, Taylor was elected Bishop of all Africa where he developed creative programs that centered on the use of indigenous personnel for ministry and endeavored to make missions self-supporting through the cultivation of coffee plantations and similar plans.
While not all of these ventures were as successful as he had hoped, Taylor’s mark upon Africa remains as a pioneer who lifted Christian ministries here to new levels as a visionary who led with incredible energy and passion.
In retirement, as he resided in San Francisco from 1884 on, Taylor continued to make trips to Africa and to the Eastern United States and to be active with his virile evangelistic preaching until his decease in 1902.
In 1898 he published The Flaming Torch In Darkest Africa: The Story Of My Life, a 750 page autobiography. William Taylor is buried in Oakland’s Mountain View cemetery where his grave is designated as an historic site.
His aggressive no-holds-barred approach to evangelism exactly fitted the needs for vital faith demanded on the Western frontier days although many in the East sought respectability and a return to a more restrained European-like religious practice. Accordingly, in 1890, Fort Wayne College (now of Upland, IN) was renamed Taylor University in honor of this famed Methodist evangelist and missionary pioneer. The original college, sponsored by the National Association of Lay Preachers, a company of men largely self-educated through a rigorous reading program outside of formal schooling, grouped a vigorous section of Methodists distinct from their then prevalent hierarchical structure, and one committed to the Wesleyan Holiness tradition. These rugged early Midwest Methodists saw Taylor as a figure whose energetic commitment to the Gospel made him tower over many others of his era and set him as a fit model for their evangelical school
A Significant Ministry
Convinced he could move mountains, Taylor was often controversial with a spirit of faith. His strong common sense led him to grapple confidently with impossibilities.
Many areas of friction arose between him and the Methodist Board of Missions as he believed that the Methodist Churches established around the world should be independent of home control. His missions philosophy was close to that practiced by our contemporary U.S. Peace Corps where volunteers live and work directly with local people.
A man possessing powerful preaching skills, a commanding personality, extraordinary energy, and vital faith, his Spirit-filled holy boldness is reminiscent of the apostolic tradition. Restless by nature and rugged in character, he transformed the Christian reality from its Western and white-dominated world into a worldwide faith. He always thought positively believing a solution to any problem existed and that he could find it.
In a volume titled The Model Preacher (1857) Taylor affirmed five characteristics for effective ministry based on the “the Great Teacher’s model for Gospel preaching.” These he listed as 1) Clearness; 2) Earnestness; 3) Naturalness; 4) Literalness; and 5) Appropriateness. At least seven perspectives of Taylor’s ministry appear to be sources for his success and each has high relevance for us today.
1. The Courage of His Location. He carried his message right into enemy territory just as Paul went to the synagogues and the market places. For us today this means we should move out to the secular community and be bold and aggressive in assertions with the media and use everything to Gospel ends from television opportunities to Rotary Club meetings.
2. The Clarity of His Message. He did not merely attack evil but focused on the simple proclamation of justification by faith in the grace of God. He would lay down an accepted truth and develop his new themes upon this. He avoided debate and argument in favor of the clear declaration of Gospel truth. Today we often spend too much time talking about what does not work in life and too little in declaration of how faith is so significant for all.
3. The Strength of His Conviction. He possessed an unlimited confidence in the power of the Holy Spirit to take the Word of God and effect a spiritual rebirth in lives of listeners as he preached. Today’s preachers need to return to such a faith.
4. The Scope of His Vision. The breadth of his Christian interests ranged wide — from a compassion for the hospitalized and for disadvantaged seamen to the planting of churches and the establishment of university education. Men and women today continue to look for leaders whose commitment to spiritual issues touches all of life and not just a portion of it.
5. The Dynamic of His Communication. His preaching embraced the simple skills of well-honed vocal abilities and the employment of identifiable life-situation illustrations. Too many of us ignore such requirements to our peril.
6. The Appeal of His Approach. His entry to his hearer’s interest was always at the highest ethical level. He spoke of family, mother, and home, and preached under the national flag. His credibility was bolstered at every turn by his life and actions such as never allowing a collection to be taken for his ministry from the street Services although many listeners wanted to do so many times. Instead, he would announce where he was Scheduled to preach the next Sunday and indicate that a collection there would be appropriate.
7. The Authenticity of His Spirit. Taylor and his supporters advocated a deeper Christian life doctrine — a “second work of grace” which they believed could lead into a path of unreserved commitment to God’s will, an absolute confidence in His power, and an unquestioning love for Him at all times. This strain of Wesley an “sinless perfection” ultimately spawned many of the holiness groups which exist today including the charismatic dimensions of this emphasis.
Most contemporary mainline preachers will opt for the more stable “soul’s union with Christ” view of sanctification expressed through the “Keswick” movement and in such volumes as Henry Blackaby’s, Experiencing God (1994), the finest expressions of which are now revealed in such works as John Piper’s Desiring God (1996) and its outstanding theological sequel, God’s Passion For His Glory (1998). But, whatever your preference, while no one but the Lord could judge how close to such a standard William Taylor came, his life undoubtedly glorified God in unusual ways. His obedience was indeed thorough, his faith immovable, and his love unwavering.
Our materialistic culture displays its own “Gold Rush” mentality. Such lessons from the life and approaches of William Taylor are just as relevant for today as they were one hundred and fifty years ago.
For further reading:
J. Edwin Orr, Evangelical Awakenings In the South Seas (Minn. MN: Bethany, 1976)
Paul, John H., The Soul Digger (Upland, Ind. Taylor Univ. Press, 1928.
Rousselow, Jessica L. and Winquist, Alan H. God’s Ordinary People — No Ordinary Heritage (Upland, Ind.: Taylor University Press, 1996).
Taylor, William, Four Years’ Campaign In India (New York, N.Y.: Phillips and Hunt, 1880).
Taylor, William, Infancy and Manhood of Christian Life (London, UK: S. W. Partridge, 1875).
Taylor, William, The Model Preacher (New York, N.Y.: Carlton and Porter, 1857).
Taylor, William, Seven Years’ Street Preaching In San Francisco (New York, N.Y.: Carlton and orter, 1857).
Taylor, William, The Story of My Life (New York, N.Y.: Eaton and Mains, 1896.

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