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  • Tropical Latitude:Prophecy, Orality, and the Rhetoric of Tolerance in Jeremy Taylor's The Liberty of Prophesying
  • John D. Schaeffer

While Jeremy Taylor has long been regarded as the supreme master of baroque English prose, his status as a theologian, and especially as a defender of religious liberty, has rarely been discussed. His reputation as a prose stylist depends upon his treatises Holy Living and Holy Dying, as well as upon his sermons. His theology. and his politics are contained in The Liberty of Prophesying (1647), a work seldom read today.1 In this work, Taylor argues for a latitudinarian theology that would give broad freedom to dissenting preachers, and he addresses the question that plagued Britain until 1660: Who is in the church? His answer: Just about everybody.

Taylor's latitudinarianism, and the religious tolerance it permitted, was grounded in an idea of reason drawn from rhetoric. Studies of the concept of reason in the seventeenth century have generally neglected the impact of rhetoric. Robert Hoopes's study of right reason in seventeenth-century England pays no attention to rhetoric. Hoopes's discussion of TLP focuses instead upon science, Platonism, and philosophical skepticism as formative influences.2 Barbara Shapiro shows how, in later seventeenth-century England, probability and certainty came to be defined against rhetoric: these terms came to have meanings derived [End Page 454] from science and were contrasted with the meanings they had in the rhetorical tradition.3 Taylor, however, stays firmly within the rhetorical tradition and develops his idea of reason in a series of rhetorical tropes that reveal his identification of religious dissent with prophecy. The tropes exploit the orality implicit in prophecy to counterbalance the visualism implied in a narrower concept of reason. Examining these tropes will show how Taylor articulates a more flexible, rhetorically-based idea of reason.4

Walter J. Ong has provided a theoretical framework for the study of orality in Renaissance prose. Ong has identified what he calls an "oral noetic," that is, kinds of knowledge that are particularly suited to, and derived from, a predominantly oral, as opposed to textual, experience of language. Ong describes this oral noetic as subjective rather than objective, communal rather than isolated, and situational rather than abstract.5 Ong derived this idea not only from his reading of ancient and Renaissance rhetoric, but also from his acquaintance with the thought of Martin Buber.6 Buber analyzed Hebrew prophecy in the context of orality, and his book, I and Thou, formulated an epistemology of orality whose main features Ong adopted. Thus, Ong's concept of an oral noetic was derived in part from Buber's reflections on Hebrew prophecy. The characteristics of such an oral noetic play a major role in Taylor's identification of religious dissent with prophecy and in his rhetorical concept of reason; these characteristics inform the interlocking tropes that express both this rhetorical concept and the tolerance it permits. Unraveling those tropes will reveal just how rhetorical Taylor's latitudinarianism is.

The tolerance for which Taylor argues in TLP was not part of his theology when he was the king's chaplain and Laud's protégé, nor was [End Page 455] it part of his own ecclesiastical practice when he was a bishop in Ireland after the Restoration. As Frank L. Huntley points out, both before the Long Parliament and after the Restoration, Taylor was a fierce defender of Anglican prerogatives.7 However,Taylor published TLP when Parliament was enforcing Presbyterianism, and Hugh Ross Williamson notes that Taylor was presenting a formula that would allow for the "Reunion of Churches" under King Charles or Oliver Cromwell.8 Williamson adds that Taylor was writing as "a casuistical Erastian (not in the least as a prophet of liberty)."9 Despite this caveat,Taylor's work has enjoyed the reputation of being a persuasive defense of religious liberty. James Roberts said TLP "is among the most remarkable works of the century," and Herschel Baker called it "a noble testament of Protestant individualism," sentiments shared by many scholars and Anglican clergy.10 Just as Milton's Areopagitica has become a locus classicus for defenders of freedom of the press in spite of its many...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1543-0383
Print ISSN
0039-3738
Pages
pp. 454-470
Launched on MUSE
2004-09-17
Open Access
No
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