James Taylor: a wild ride!

James Taylor (1860-1868)

Talk about a life of peaks and troughs. Collins Street’s second pastor James Taylor was the roller coaster man!

After years of struggling on without a leader, the deacons at Collins Street finally sent a desperate letter to the Baptists in Great Britain: ‘help!’  Their answer came in the form of another bloke from Birmingham, the Reverend James Taylor, a charismatic Scotsman who arrived in Melbourne in 1857.

Unlike Ham, Taylor was an absolute whirlwind, a visionary with his missionary sites set far beyond just one congregation. In fact he was so distracted by opportunity once he arrived, Taylor didn’t have the time to be officially installed at Collins Street until 1860. He was just too busy!

Under Taylor’s leadership Collins Street boomed. In 1858 the chapel was enlarged to seat 700 and could accommodate 250 for Sunday School. Still, the numbers were growing so fast a new building scheme was hatched. During the rebuild the church held its services in the Theatre Royal in Bourke Street with a seating capacity of 3,000+. The new sanctuary was opened in 1862.

In a relatively short period of time, Taylor had restructured the church organizationally, added multiple and regional Sunday Schools, commenced mid-week bible classes attracting more than 130 people each week, opened the Gospel Hall in Little Bourke Street to serve the poor, and established classes of theology for young men wishing to become preachers. On top of all that, Taylor was a pioneer in religious journalism. He served as editor of The Christian Times and The Australian Evangelist. He was particularly strident in his published criticisms of other clergy (and much despised for it).

The historian Mervyn Himbury says that is was during Taylor’s tenure that Collins Street became one of the nation’s great city churches. By 1866 the membership of Collins Street had reached 583, with 77 baptisms in the previous year. But there Taylor’s ride peaked and his subsequent descent was breathtaking.

In 1868, it was discovered that Taylor has been in a long-term sexual relationship with Emily Gibb, the wife of one of the deacons. Taylor’s demise was immediate and catastrophic and left the wider Baptist denomination reeling. Given Taylor’s notoriety far beyond the church, the unfolding and excruciating details of the scandal were headlined day after day in The Age and The Argus. The blow to the church was severe; more than 200 members resigned and left immediately.

Taylor was larger than life, obviously a gifted man of incredible charisma and influence. What he achieved with Collins Street was extraordinary. Like all of us, though, he harboured within as much darkness as he did light. And as they say, the higher they fly the harder they fall.

What is difficult to comprehend is that just two years before the exposure of his own long-term ‘indiscretion’, Taylor had been especially ruthless in his excommunication of a church deacon for the very same sin. It’s likely his own affair was already underway at the time.

Hmm … now there’s some pastoral pathology to unpack!


  1. I’d love to see a painting/picture of this intriguing, charismatic and very human man – but perhaps the church expunged his image?


  2. Interesting – could easily be a 21st C story with some different names – not much changes. Driven people get stuff done but often at great cost.


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