Taylor had formal schooling up to age fourteen, and then he served an apprenticeship to a cooper before becoming a woodturner and cabinetmaker. He was christened in the Church of England, but joined the Methodist church at sixteen. He was appointed a lay preacher a year later, and even then felt a calling to preach in America. His family emigrated to Canada in 1832, where he married Leonora Cannon from the Isle of Man on January 28, 1833.
He and his wife were baptized as Mormons in 1836 after meeting with Church apostle Parley P. Pratt in Toronto, and they were active in the preaching and organization of the Church in Canada. They then moved to Far West, Missouri, where Taylor was ordained an apostle on December 19, 1838. He assisted others in the Church as they fled from persecution to Commerce, Illinois. In 1839 he and some of his fellow apostles brought the words of Joseph Smith to Ireland and the Isle of Man. He returned to the Mormon-built city of Nauvoo, Illinois to serve as a city councilman, a chaplain, a colonel, a judge advocate for the Nauvoo Legion (the city's militia), and as as a newspaper editor.
In 1844, Taylor was with Joseph and Hyrum Smith in the jailhouse in Carthage, Illinois when the Smiths were killed as they awaited a hearing regarding the destruction of an anti-Mormon newspaper. He was severely wounded himself.
In 1846, the Church was led westward by Brigham Young into empty territory then controlled by Mexico, while Taylor went to England to resolve problems in Church leadership there. On his return, he and Pratt led more Church followers to the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. He was appointed an associate judge in the provisional state of Deseret in 1849 and served in the territorial legislature from 1853 to 1876. He was elected Speaker of the House for five consecutive sessions, beginning in 1857. He wrote a small book entitled The Government of God (published in 1852), in which he compared and contrasted the systems of God and man.
Following Brigham Young's death in 1877, the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles governed the Church, with John Taylor as the senior apostle. Taylor was appointed the third President of the church in 1880. He oversaw the expansion of the Salt Lake community, the organization of the Church hierarchy, the establishment of Mormon communities in other states, and the defense of polygamy against increasing opposition.
Taylor followed Smith's teachings on polygamy, and had at least seven wives. He is known to have fathered thirty-five children.
In 1882, the Congessional Edmunds Act declared polygamy a felony. Hundreds of men and women were arrested and imprisoned for continuing to practice polygamy. Taylor and his counselors withdrew from public view to live in the "underground:" frequenlty on the move to avoid officials who would arrest them. During his last public sermon Taylor remarked, "I would like to obey and place myself in subjection to every law of man. What then? Am I to disobey the law of God? Has any man a right to control my conscience, or your conscience? ...No man has a right to do it" (JD 26:152).
Many viewed LDS polygamy religiously, socially and politically threatening. The U.S. Congress passed the Edmunds-Tucker Act in 1887, which abolished women's suffrage, forced wives to testify against their husbands, disincorporated the Church, dismantled the Perpetual Emigration Fund Company, abolished the Nauvoo Legion, and provided that LDS church property in excess of $50,000 would be forfeited to the United States.
His eldest son, John W. Taylor, continued to serve in the Church and in politics, and after the Church abandoned plural marriage as an essential church doctrine in 1890, helped to shepherd Utah to statehood in 1896.