(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The Great Exemplar, a life of Jesus that blends meditation, prayer, and biography, is a monument to Jeremy Taylor’s religious devotion, his widely praised style, and practical Christianity. The work, six hundred pages in the 1657 edition, was written amid tranquil surroundings at a benefactor’s estate in South Wales during a time in which national upheaval toppled a king and threw the Catholic Church into turmoil. The task of writing the life of Jesus Christ became for Taylor a refuge from the turmoil and enabled him to incorporate his early writings into one large volume with a single purpose: to define true Christian devotion and to offer a model of holy living based on Christian fundamentals.

The narrative is broken into relatively short sections, each accompanied by “Considerations” and one or more “Discourses” on parts of the story; each section is also followed by a prayer. This additional material forms the largest part of the book, suggesting that Taylor’s primary goal was to explain and instruct. In one of the discourses, for example, he painstakingly explains the meaning of every phrase in the Lord’s Prayer, and in another discourse, he discusses at length the benefits of baptism and its scriptural importance; in yet another, he explains the Lord’s Supper in relation to Anglican orthodoxy. Sometimes, the practical overrides the theological impulse, as when he accompanies the account of Jesus’ birth with a nine-page homily exhorting new mothers to breast-feed their infants themselves rather than use a wet nurse.

Beginning with the Annunciation and ending with the Ascension, Taylor traces Jesus’ journey through city, mountain, and desert, describing events and explaining Jesus’ sermons and parables while keeping an eye on the historical events that led to the Crucifixion. Taylor does not rely exclusively on biblical writings to describe the life of Christ. In recounting the fate of Zachary, the father of John the Baptist, for...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Carroll, Thomas K. Wisdom and Wasteland: Jeremy Taylor in His Prose and Preaching Today. Bodman, Cornwall, England: MPG Books, 2001. A survey of Taylor’s life, character, and theology based on excerpts from his writings, each having its own introduction.

King, James Roy. “Jeremy Taylor: Theology and Aesthetics.” In Studies in Six Seventeenth-Century Writers. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1966. Explains the intellectual, literary, and theological context in which The Great Exemplar was written, together with Taylor’s purpose in mixing meditations and prayers with his narrative.

McAdoo, H. R. First of Its Kind: Jeremy Taylor’s Life of Christ—A Study in the Functioning of a Moral Theology. Norwich, Conn.: The Canterbury Press, 1994. A thorough examination of the style, plan, and theology of The Great Exemplar, as well as its influence on Anglican tradition.

McAdoo, H. R. Jeremy Taylor: Anglican Theologian. Dublin: Church of Ireland Historical Society, 1997. A lecture appraising Taylor’s prose style and literary achievement and assessing his theology and orthodoxy.

Porter, Harry Boone. Jeremy Taylor Liturgist. London: Alcuin Club, 1979. Discusses Taylor’s position regarding Anglican orthodoxy as it is expressed in his writings, including The Great Exemplar.