Conversion then and now

This famous world-travelling evangelist was born in Virginia. His family background was ‘Scotch-Irish of the Old Covenanter type’.

He taught school before being accepted in 1843 by the Baltimore Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. After appointments to rural circuits Taylor moved to Washington in 1846, and married Anne Kimberlin. In 1849 he was sent as one of the first two Wesleyan missionaries to California where he became known in the frontier town of San Francisco for his forceful street preaching and for his work among seamen.

When a seamen's bethel (chapel), for which he was personally liable, burned down in 1856, Taylor was given leave by the California Conference to raise money to repay the outstanding debt on the building. He conducted religious revivals in the Midwest and eastern United States and Canada.

Taylor was told that Australia was a likely field for evangelism and fundraising. After travelling to Great Britain, Palestine and Egypt, he arrived in Melbourne in June 1863 where he conducted nightly revival services for large crowds.

He generated an ‘outburst of religious exaltation’ in the colony, attracting many by his nervous energy and by his informal ‘Yankee' preaching - which at least one of his Methodist brethren did not find to his liking - 'It is not Mr Taylor's talent which secures, wins popularity.' He wondered whether the secret of his success was his eccentricity.

To meet the $23,000 bethel debt he conducted lectures and sold copies of his many books, especially his Seven Years' Preaching in San Francisco and California Life Illustrated. In June 1864 he was in Tasmania and then in New South Wales and Queensland till the end of the year.

He reached Auckland at the beginning of 1865 and spent three months travelling throughout the country. He visited Auckland, Wellington, Nelson, Christchurch and Dunedin. The newspapers were generally supportive of his lecture series and they commended his first-hand knowledge of California and the Holy Land (he had recently visited there), and his understanding of St Paul.

The presentations on those subjects were where the takings were good – two shillings to attend one lecture, and 7/6d for the whole series. A lady and a gentlemen together only paid 10/- for the lot.
But Taylor was first and foremost an evangelist, and one newspaper report referred to the 400 people who were present outside the Union Bank in Queen St in Auckland for an open-air service.
Taylor also had a more immediate and longer-term influence within New Zealand Methodism. Through his work in Christchurch four young men – Henry Bull, brothers Fred and Henry Dewsbury, and Samuel Garlick – all owed their conversions to California Taylor. These were men who left their mark on the Methodist Church here.

Two others who came later to New Zealand from across the Tasman, Joseph Blight and Thomas Theodore Thomas, were equally influenced by him when he conducted his missions in South Australia.
In 1866 Taylor continued his missionary work in South Africa, and then returned to Australia by way of the West Indies in 1869 but these later meetings failed to arouse the religious fervour of his first tour.
He won later fame for the missions he established in India, South America and Africa, and the Methodist Episcopal Church appointed him missionary bishop to Africa in 1884. He retired to California where he died at Palo Alto on 18 May 1902.

Methodism was an essential part of the Evangelical Revival. Until the 1960s it didn’t question the role of the mass evangelist. By then the likes of Billy Graham had become a challenge to our old assumptions.
So how do we talk to others about ‘conversion’ in 2015, exactly 150 years since California Taylor did just that in Godzone.

Wlliam 'California' Taylor 1821-1902

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Last updated on 30 September 2020, 6:00 PM