The details of Edward Taylor’s life are not abundant. He was born in or near Sketchley, Leicestershire, England, probably in the year 1645. He may have attended the University of Cambridge or one of the dissenting academies, for when he was admitted to Harvard in 1668, he was given advanced standing. It is certain that he early began training for the ministry. He had been brought to New England by the Act of Uniformity of Charles II; passed in 1662, this law required all schoolmasters (Taylor may have served in that capacity at Bagworth, Leicestershire) and ministers to take an oath of allegiance to the Anglican Church. Of course, Taylor’s religious orthodoxy in the Puritan mode of worship prevented him, in good conscience, from taking the oath.
Taylor records his voyage across the Atlantic with vivid precision in his Diary. Even before his ship could get away from the British Isles, it was beset by a “violent storm” that filled the forecastle of the ship “ankle-deep” with water and so bathed the mate that “the water ran out of the waist of his breeches.” Although the young man often found himself subdued by the constant rocking of the vessel, he was particularly taken with the life he discovered in the sea; he describes more than ten different types of fishes and several kinds of “sea fowl.” On a few occasions, he and the crew spotted different kinds of driftwood. One such event held a pleasant surprise for them. Upon finding “a piece of white fir-wood full of barnacles, which are things like dew-worm skins about two inches long hanging to the wood,” they learned that the other end housed a species of shellfish, so “we had a dish of them.” Toward the end of the journey as the vessel approached land, Taylor saw his first fireflies: “About eight I saw a flying creature like a spark of red fire (about the bigness of an bumble bee) fly by the side of the ship; and presently after, there flew another by. The men said they were fireflies.” The poet’s fascination with nature continued in later years, as poems such as “Upon a Spider Catching a Fly” and “Upon a Wasp Chilled with Cold” attest.
The Diary also records his admission to Harvard, some humorous incidents that occurred there, and his calling, after graduation in 1671, to minister to the congregation at Westfield. While he was at Harvard, he roomed with Samuel Sewall, author of the famous Diary (1878-1882) and the judge at the Salem witch trials. In later years, Sewall names Taylor some fourteen times in the Diary and records in a letter that it was Taylor who induced him to attend Harvard. During his student days, the future minister of Westfield served as college Butler, a position of responsibility that, however, did not prevent him from becoming involved in some youthful acts of relatively innocuous consequence. He took his calling to the ministry of the Westfield congregation, however, very seriously; in his Diary, he records his doubts about his suitability as a minister. This sincere examination of his conscience before God establishes for the first time in Taylor’s known writings the pattern that prevails in his private, poetic “Meditations,” series 1 and 2.
On November 5, 1674, after courting her through letters and verse, Taylor married Elizabeth Fitch of Norwich, Connecticut. Elizabeth died some fifteen years later, having given birth to eight children. Taylor recorded his grief in one of his most moving poems, “A Funerall Poem upon the Death of My Ever Endeared and Tender Wife.” In...
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1692, at the age of about fifty, the Westfield minister was married again, to Ruth Wyllys of Hartford, who bore him six more children and who survived him by about six months. Taylor’s ministry of almost sixty years was a fruitful one. While bearing the responsibility of meeting his congregation’s medical as well as spiritual needs, Taylor wrote his “Preparatory Meditations,” attacked Stoddard’s “liberalism” (Stoddard, who attended Taylor’s ordination on August 27, 1679, had served as Harvard’s first librarian during Taylor’s attendance at the college), received an M.A. degree from Harvard in 1720, and visited Sewall, whom he solicited on one occasion (in 1691) to supervise the apprenticeship of one of his sons to a shopkeeper at Ipswich. Taylor died on June 24, 1729, a much-loved and revered divine whose tombstone records that as a “Venerable, Learned, and Pious Pastor” he “had served God and his Generation Faithfully.”