The Circuit-Riding Missionary and
Gilded Age Methodism
South Africa launched William Taylor onto a global stage. Between 1870 and 1896, Taylor lived as a roving missionary, preaching in the Caribbean, Australia, Ceylon, India, the west coast of South America, Brazil, Liberia, Angola, and the Congo basin, not to mention numerous locales in Great Britain and across the United States. Taylor’s popularity grew to the point where he became the most famous, the most controversial, and arguably the most influential single missionary in the largest Protestant denomination in America, the Methodist Episcopal Church (MEC). In a paradoxical but typically evangelical fashion, Taylor’s fame and influence as a missionary of the MEC grew from a critique of that same denomination.
The critique grew from Taylor’s old-school Methodist view of how missionary work ought to be done. This vision held important implications for cultural engagement. Taylor’s old-school Methodism embodied American characteristics of individual autonomy, democratization, religious disestablishment, and pragmatic attitudes toward media, transportation, and technology. But Taylor’s oldschool Methodism also ran against powerful trends in Gilded Age American culture in that it resisted bureaucratic centralization, harked back to primitivist theological authorities, and pointed to a more supernaturalistic view of how the Holy Spirit moved.
Taylor’s attempt to influence religious life in South Africa affected his missionary vision in one more paradoxical respect. Charles Pamla and other black Africans helped convince Taylor that ordinary, “uncivilized” individuals were perfectly capable of building Methodism from the ground up. This conviction created tensions with many in the Methodist establishment who embraced the progress of civilization. Taylor’s faith in “uncivilized” individuals pulled his missionary program toward positions where he began to downplay Western conceptions of race, ethnicity, gender, and nationality.
Taylor’s missionary program resonated deeply with a segment of American evangelicalism known as the holiness movement. Increasingly dissatisfied with