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Reverend Robert Taylor (1784–1844), was an early 19th century Radical, a clergyman turned freethinker whose "Infidel home missionary tour" was a dramatic incident in Charles Darwin's education, subsequently leaving Charles Darwin with a horrifying memory of "the Devil's Chaplain" as a warning of the dangers of dissent from established Church of England doctrine.

Qualification and turn to anti-clericalism

Taylor studied at St John's College, Cambridgemarker for three years to qualify as a clergyman. At that time the University of Cambridgemarker was under the established Church of England and most students were preparing for positions in the Anglican church. The Revd. Simeon gained Taylor his first curacy, but five years after ordination Taylor gave up Christianity and turned from evangelism to eccentric anti-clericalism.

He set up a Christian Evidence Society and lectured in Londonmarker pubs dressed in elaborate vestments, attacking the Anglican liturgy and the barbarities of the Establishment for what he called its "Pagan creed". At this time blasphemy was a criminal offence against the Anglican faith "by law established", and he was sentenced to a year in gaol. In his cell he wrote The Diegesis, attacking Christianity on the basis of comparative mythology and attempting to expound it as a scheme of solar myths.

Infidel home missionary tour

On his release he joined up with the Radical Richard Carlile and, with his book newly published, set out on an "infidel home missionary tour". On Thursday 21 May 1829 they arrived in Cambridgemarker and strolled round the colleges, then in the evening attended Holy Trinity Church for a hell-fire sermon by the Revd. Simeon which they sneered at as "one of the worst imaginable for the morals of mankind".

Next day they rented lodgings for a fortnight above a print shop in Rose Crescent from the unsuspecting landlord William Smith, as their "Infidel Head-Quarters". By noon they had sent a printed challenge to the Vice-Chancellor, the leading Doctors of Divinity, the heads of all the colleges and the Revd. Simeon:

They then went around the University precincts, with Taylor immaculately dressed in university cap and gown greeting old friends, giving out circulars and seeking out freethinkers.

On the Saturday morning an anticipated article about their mission failed to appear in the morning paper. The university Proctors who were in charge of discipline interrogated the landlord, then demanded his lodging-house licence. Smith refused to hand it over, and appealed to the Vice-Chancellor, "most deferentially" asking the reason as he had not violated any regulations, and the licence had been granted its annual renewal the day before, but had no reply. The Vice-Chancellor and Proctors revoked the licence and made the lodgings out of bounds, posting a notice in the butteries of all the colleges to warn the students, who included Charles Darwin in his second year.

The Radical pair responded to this "paltry spite" the next day by putting a public notice on the door of the University Library, challenging a university that "punishes the innocent... crushes the weak... oppresses [and] persecutes", taking away half the livelihood of Smith, with his wife and six children. On Monday all the students were talking about this iniquitous situation, and a group of "young men" prepared vigilante action against the Radicals to avenge the landlord. Carlile and Taylor heard of this, and on Tuesday apologised to the landlord, prodded the authorities to restore his licence, and slipped out of town. They were satisfied that they had uncovered "about fifty... young collegians, who were somewhat bold in vowing Infidelity among each other", though few would "break... the shackles" of their education and they would have "a most painful conflict to endure."

The Devil's Chaplain

Amidst public unrest in July 1830 when the French king was deposed by middle class republicans and given refuge in England by the Tory government, Carlile gave Taylor a platform in The Rotunda, a ramshackle building on the south bank of the River Thames where republican atheists now gathered. Several times a week Taylor dressed in "canonicals", staged infidel melodramas, preaching bombastic sermons to artisans. Two Sunday sermons on "The Devil" caused particular outrage when he pronounced "God and the Devil... to be but one and the self-same being... Hell and Hell-fire... are, in the original, nothing more than names and titles of the Supreme God." He was then dubbed "The Devil's Chaplain", and thousands of copies of his ceremonies were circulated in a seditious publication, The Devil's Pulpit. As the Tory government collapsed in November, Taylor preached against the establishment while a revolutionary tricolour flew from the roof of The Rotunda.

At the start of April 1831 Taylor was again indicted for blasphemy over two Easter sermons in the last days of The Rotunda. He was sentenced to two years' imprisonment in Horsemonger Lane Gaolmarker whence he sent protesting letters to The Times, but his pleas were snubbed by the Home Secretary. In a letter to W.Watts he described his physical decline and fear that "the Christians have determined to kill me.... I never expect to leave this Bastile but Heels foremost. Your greatly obliged Murdered Friend, Robert Taylor." Despite these fears, he lived on till 1844.

Darwin recalls Taylor

Taylor would be remembered by Charles Darwin as a warning example of an outcast from society who had challenged Christianity and had been imprisoned for blasphemy, one of many warnings that gave him a well-founded fear of revealing his theory. In 1857 as he worked towards the publication of Darwin's theory he wrote "What a book a Devil's Chaplain might write on the clumsy, wasteful, blundering low & horridly cruel works of Nature!" in what Desmond and Moore argue is a reference to Taylor's nickname. However the term "the Devil's Chaplain" goes back to Chaucer who has his Parson say "Flatereres been the develes chapelleyns, that syngen evere placebo."

As the reaction to Darwin's theory developed in March 1860 he described his close ally Thomas Huxley as his "good and kind agent for the propagation of the Gospel – i.e. the devil's gospel."

External links


  • Adrian Desmond and James Moore, Darwin (London: Michael Joseph, the Penguin Group, 1991). ISBN 0-7181-3430-3
  • Julian Browning Autographs Religion & Philosophy, note on Autograph Letter, Signed, to W.Watts, 4 November 1831.

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