The Devil’s Chaplain
The ‘Reverend’ Robert Taylor, a former Church of England clergyman, blended ultra-radical politics with a fierce opposition to religion. He was twice convicted of blasphemy, the first time in 1827 on an indictment for a blasphemous discourse at Salters’ Hall and on another for conspiracy to overthrow the Christian religion.
Born in Edmonton, north of London, Taylor initially trained as a surgeon, but “as he exhibited a strong religious feeling, and great powers of oratory, he was persuaded by his friend the Rev. Thomas Cotterell, to take holy orders in the Established Church of England, which he did by matriculating in St. John’s College, Cambridge, and became a zealous evangelical preacher, at first in London, and afterwards in Surrey.”
However, Taylor had an enquiring mind, and contact with freethinkers led him to scepticism… His intense curiosity and desire to find the truth found him studying the roots of Christianity and its interesting connections to astrology and the signs of the zodiac. He came to the conclusion that Christianity is based on much older religions and its rituals are directly descended from ancient Egyptian and pagan practices.
This, “as he was too honest to conceal the truth, he drew the attention of the Bishop of Chichester, who not only remonstrated with Mr. Taylor, but persecuted him by depriving him of his support and recommending retirement. Mr. Taylor made several efforts to be reconciled to the church, but was treated with great severity : till at length resist- ing the oppression, he joined some gentlemen in forming a Society of Universal Benevolence^ of which he became the lecturer, in a small theatre in Dublin ; from which he was driven by Protestant zeal.”
In 1824 Taylor arrived in London, and began lecturing and debating religion, establishing The Christian Evidence Society. Some of his discourses were printed in The Lion, published by Richard Carlile, others were compiled in a volume known as The Devil’s Pulpit (Taylor having been dubbed the Devil’s Chaplain by radical orator Henry Hunt.)
In 1827 the Mayor of London had Taylor arrested for blasphemy, based on his writings in The Devil’s Pulpit: “the arrest being made so late on a Saturday night as to prevent bail being obtained, and thereby the man of power gained the petty advantage of disappointing the public by preventing Mr. Taylor’s lecture on Sunday. A persecution was now organized ; Wright, a Bristol Quaker and banker, took this opportunity to press a debt, and threw the orator into prison. During the same year a second indictment was preferred, including several of Mr. Taylor’s friends, but they were never brought to trial.”
On October 24th 1827, Taylor was convicted on one of these indictments by an English Church and King jury, and Sentenced to one year’s imprisonment in Oakham gaol for one year, with securities for good behaviour for five years.
At Oakham gaol he met fellow-prisoner Richard Carlile, England’s premier freethinking publisher, famous for expounding and printing radical ideas, and challenging religious and political restrictions. After they were both released they went on a four months lecture tour in May 1829. This series of sermons was meant to challenge the rigid and uncompromising views that were held by Christianity in England at the time. Subjects covered include the origins of Christianity, the real purpose of Jesus and the apostles, and the importance of the zodiac and its symbolism in relation to Christianity.
Together they took over the Rotunda, on South London’s Blackfriars Road. Founded as a ‘Freethought Coliseum’ and debating club, with a capacity of 1000 people, sometime in the 1780s, the Rotunda stumbled through various owners and numerous uses. But in 1830 Carlile and Taylor rented it as a venue for lectures on atheism. The Rotunda’s location played some part in Carlile’s choice of venue, being 200 yards north of Rowland Hill’s chapel (on the junction of Blackfriars Road and Union Street, where the famous Ring later gave birth to modern boxing), a leading centre of religious revivalism of its day. Carlile and Taylor saw the Rotunda as the perfect counterblast to this famous chapel.
At the Rotunda, Taylor preached to large audiences; dressed as a clergyman. Two ‘sermons on the devil’ in June 1830 gained him, from reformer Henry Hunt, the title of ‘the devil’s chaplain.’ He was described him “over the middle size, inclined to be stout, and of gentlemanly manners”…
Taylor’s Rotunda lectures were multi-media extravaganzas, enhanced by 12 zodiacal emblems painted on the dome overhead, and a large board carrying greek ‘hieroglyphs’, a merchanical pointer, an expensive illuminated globe and a clockwork orrery… he was also sometimes accompanied by a female chorus playing guitars. His ‘Divine Service’ was offered on Sundays: a burlesque on bible, it usually started with readings from scripture, expanding into a satire on the Anglican service.
Taylor, unlike Carlile, leant strongly on theatre as a means of propaganda and saw it as a powerful lever of social change… They also disagreed on the demystifying power of satire and ridicule. Taylor’s Rotunda performances featured more and more burlesque and buffoonery, while Carlile always inclined to the more serious and moral style of lecture.
But Carlile also disapproved of Taylor’s levity and clowning, and his wild behaviour, heavy drinking, and consorting with what ‘serious’ radicals saw as unsavoury characters, although he admired his ability to hold mass audiences. Taylor’s spoofs on religious services became wilder and wilder, he dressed as a bishop, parodied church services, and made more and more outrageous blasphemous comments on christian rituals or the scriptures. As a result he was hauled up in court in July 1831 for preaching blasphemy, found guilty, and sentenced to two years’ imprisonment in Horsemonger Lane gaol, with a hefty fine. His friends raised a subscription for him in September 1832.
This jail sentence actually caused a real split between Carlile and Taylor. Carlile thought radicals jailed for their ideas should be stoical martyrs: upstanding, unbending and morally correct. But Taylor was an unsatisfactory freethought martyr: he whined, wrote to the Prime Minister trying to get his sentence reduced, and got caught smuggling brandy into his cell.
Without Taylor’s appeal to large audiences, Carlile struggled to fill the Rotunda, though he continued lectures, with the Southcottian shoemaker John Zion Ward, and Carlile’s free love partner and feminist freethinker Eliza Sharples as speakers… But he just couldn’t put bums on seats, so he eventually gave up his lease on the Rotunda in March 1832.
Taylor’s public career “was terminated by a marriage with a lady of some property, with whom he retired to France, and there spent in tranquility the remainder of his days, and where he died a few years after at a good old age, leaving no manuscripts as far as is known.”
The Devil’s Pulpit, by Robert Taylor, can be read online/downloaded at:
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online