Richard Taylor was born at Letwell, Yorkshire, England, on 21 March 1805, one of four children of Richard Taylor and his wife, Catherine Spencer. He was baptised two days later, in the neighbouring parish of Throapham. For several generations the Taylors had farmed and acted as stewards of great estates in Yorkshire. Despite this comfortable background Richard's early life was marred by the death of both parents by the time he was 13 years old. He was educated for eight years at Dr Inchbald's school at Doncaster, and then, having decided to enter the church, he boarded with Anglican clergymen.
In January 1825 Richard went to Queens' College, Cambridge. After graduating BA in 1828, he was ordained priest on 8 November 1829 and in June the following year went to the Isle of Ely as curate of Coveney and Manea. On 15 July 1829 at the joint parish of St Mary and St Benedict's, Huntingdon, he had married Mary Caroline Fox, who was usually known as Caroline. There were to be three sons and three daughters of the marriage.
In 1835 Richard Taylor took his MA. After he was appointed a missionary in New Zealand for the Church Missionary Society, the family sailed on the Prince Regent, disembarking at Sydney on 13 June 1836, in company with a fellow missionary, the Reverend William Yate. Because of a shortage of clergy and because Richard Taylor was required to give evidence concerning Yate's alleged homosexual behaviour on board ship, the family remained in New South Wales for three years.
In September 1839, after a preliminary visit in March, when he had accompanied the Reverend William Williams on a missionary tour of the East Coast, Taylor and his family arrived at the Bay of Islands. He took over the mission school at Waimate North from the Reverend Octavius Hadfield. It was not a task he enjoyed.
On 20 January 1840 Taylor purchased a large tract of land at North Cape from the Kaitāia chief Nōpera Pana-kareao of Te Rarawa. Taylor recorded in his journal that his purpose was to enable Te Aupōuri, the original owners, to return to their ancestral lands. The land was remote and generally infertile, but because the acreage was considerable, Taylor was criticised in England and strove without success in later years to get rid of it. It was eventually sold after Taylor's death.
Taylor was present at the discussions on the Treaty of Waitangi on 5 February 1840, and that evening was given the rough version of the treaty to make the final copy on parchment. He noted in his journal that he 'kept the original draft for my pains', but this draft does not seem to have survived. He also attended and carefully recorded subsequent treaty discussions at HokiaNgā and Kaitāia.
Preparations had been made for Taylor to be stationed at Mangonui, but when the Reverend John Mason was drowned in the Turakina River, Bishop G. A. Selwyn, concerned about 'the state of feeling then existing between the natives and the English settlers', hastened to send Taylor as replacement missionary in the Whanganui area. On 1 May 1843 the Taylor family landed at Pūtiki Wharanui, on the southern side of the infant settlement of Whanganui. Taylor was to become both evangelist and keeper of the peace among Māori tribes and between settler and Māori, maintaining his influence by 'constantly marching round the limits of my district'. This district encompassed the Whanganui River inland to Taupō, the coastal strip, across country between the Rangitīkei and Whanganui river basins, and between the headwaters of the Waitara and Whanganui rivers. Some of his journeys were further afield.
Taylor was never a good linguist but this does not seem to have limited his influence among the Māori. It has been said that at the height of his influence he was baptising more converts than any other missionary in New Zealand, and in the early 1850s 'perhaps two thirds of the population in the Wanganui district were baptised'. Many large churches were built by the Māori of the Whanganui area. Taylor also encouraged the holding of hui, where thousands of Māori gathered for religious purposes but at which other social or political business could also be transacted. He encouraged and assisted the Māori of the area when they set up their own magistrates to punish transgressors, or when they traded, grew crops or built flour mills.
After the early 1850s Taylor's religious influence among the Māori waned. His role as an evangelist was always complicated by his role as a 'civiliser' and as a keeper of the peace. His main problem was keeping the peace between coastal Māori, Ngāti Ruanui and Ngā Rauru, and those of the upper Whanganui, notably Ngāti Tūwharetoa. In company with Wesleyan missionaries and Bishop Selwyn he helped to make the peace in January 1845 when Ngāti Tūwharetoa threatened the Ngāti Ruanui pā at Waitotara. In May 1846 the Tūwharetoa chief Mananui Te Heuheu Tūkino II was killed by a landslide. Taylor read the burial service, and on the same visit attempted to persuade Mananui's successor, Iwikau Te Heuheu Tūkino III, to make peace with the Whanganui people. At a prayer meeting at Pūtiki on Boxing Day 1846 it was agreed that two Ngāti Ruanui Christians, Kereopa and Te Mānihera, should go as emissaries of peace to the interior tribes. They left in February 1847 but were shot dead near Tokaanu as utu for Ngāti Tūwharetoa slain earlier. Taylor conducted a service over their graves. In March 1849 Taylor again visited the Taupō tribes and helped make peace between them and the Whanganui people. On Christmas Day of that year some 4,000 Māori gathered for celebrations at Pūtiki. However, the development of the Pai Mārire movement in the 1860s increased intertribal conflict once more.
Taylor's relations with the Whanganui settlers were ambiguous. There was little enthusiasm among them for his religious message. In the 1840s, when the Māori attended the Christmas Day services at Pūtiki in their thousands, on the other side of the river the Whanganui Europeans went to the races. Yet Taylor had considerable prestige, mediated between Māori and Europeans, and acted as spokesman for the region in dealings with the government. In April 1845 he earned the frosty displeasure of Governor Robert FitzRoy by pointing out that the Māori of the Whanganui had waited in vain for an official visit and could not wait much longer for the governor's 'convenience'. By contrast, he enjoyed a close friendship with Governor George Grey, who frequently consulted him and usually stayed in his house when he visited Whanganui. They shared common intellectual interests and Grey clearly enjoyed the company of the Taylor family. The same was true of other officials such as Edward Eyre and Donald McLean.
Taylor was usually involved in any major decision concerning the area. He had a part in the decision to send a military force to Whanganui in 1845, and was deeply involved in negotiations over land purchase. Although unpopular with the Whanganui settlers, as Donald McLean wrote in 1845 they 'have reason to be thankful that Providence has given you such an influence over the natives'. Taylor was also involved in the origins of schools and the hospital in Whanganui. In 1847 he used his influence to calm the situation after a group of young Māori had murdered the family of the artist-settler J. A. Gilfillan, and the following year helped in the final land settlement when 80,000 acres were ceded to the government.
Later conflict between the Māori and the government left Taylor in a difficult position. He was unsuccessful in peacemaking attempts in Taranaki in the 1860s. When the Pūtiki Māori, led by Te Keepa Te Rangihiwinui, fought on the government side, Taylor could not condemn them, but was unhappy about the disruptive consequences. By then Taylor had handed over the running of the mission to his son, the Reverend Basil Taylor, who had joined him in 1860.
In view of his success as a missionary, it is surprising that Taylor was never given higher office in the Anglican church. At one stage there was some talk of making him a bishop, but he cannot have endeared himself to the higher clergy when in April 1859 at the General Synod in Wellington he questioned whether in New Zealand it was appropriate for bishops to be addressed as 'Lord'. His relations with Bishop Selwyn, moreover, were never cordial.
Throughout his career Taylor maintained his interests in ethnography, botany, zoology and geology. He was a fellow of the Royal Geological Society, and in 1865 attended the New Zealand Exhibition at Dunedin, where he was awarded a silver medal; he was also a founding member of the New Zealand Institute. Along with other roving naturalists he provided Richard Owen with evidence and samples of moa bones, and supplied specimens of New Zealand flora to Joseph Dalton Hooker, the director of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. Dactylanthus taylori, a parasitic growth found at the root of certain native trees, was first found by Taylor, near the headwaters of the Whangaehu River on 18 March 1845. He was an enlightened collector of Māori artefacts, including a number of rare Māori godsticks.
Taylor was an indefatigable writer of books and articles on scientific subjects, as well as of sermons, many of which he had published. His main published work, Te ika a Māui, or New Zealand and its inhabitants (1855), reflects his interests in Māori life, the influence of Christianity, and the geology, natural history, productions and climate of the country. It also shows his abilities as an illustrator. Another book, The past and present of New Zealand (1868), deals mainly with Taylor's own experiences. Although convinced that 'colonization, properly conducted, is the natural adjunct to Christianity, in civilizing aboriginal races', he criticised much of settler behaviour and official policy.
During 1855–56 and 1867–71 Taylor visited England. On the first visit he took one of his earliest converts, Hoani Wiremu Hīpango, a leading Whanganui chief; on the second, Hīpango's son Hori Kīngi (George King). Taylor had hoped that Kīngi would, after an English education, become a minister of religion, but he died in England. Taylor returned to Whanganui in November 1871 and died there 23 months later, on 10 October 1873.
Although Taylor left his mark in many ways, his major achievement was that he and Octavius Hadfield took much of the heat out of race relations in the lower North Island. Taylor's influence was not only that of a missionary but also that of a man of wide interests, who could relate to those who did not share his religious convictions. That he had a warm, human personality is shown by the jokes and puns recorded in his papers. He would, however, have achieved little if Caroline Taylor had not seen to the needs of their large family, the mission station and the constant flow of visitors, leaving him free for extensive travelling and immersion in the affairs of the day. Caroline Taylor died in June 1884.