Graham Taylor (May 2, 1851 – September 26, 1938): Minister, Social Reformer, Educator and Founder of Chicago Commons Settlement House
Early Years: Graham Taylor was born in Schenectady, New York on May 2, 1851, the second son of Dutch-reformed minister William James Romeyn Taylor and Katherine (nee Cowenhoven) Taylor. Following his mother’s death in 1852, his father married her sister, Maria Cowenhoven. Taylor had no doubts as a youth about his chosen career. After graduating from Rutgers College, he entered the Theological Seminary of the Reformed Church in America in New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 1870. Three years later, he accepted the pastorate of a small church in Hopewell (Duchess County), New York, where he stayed for seven years.
Career: In 1880 Taylor left the Dutch Reformed Church and moved to Hartford, Connecticut, to be the pastor of the Fourth Congregational Church, an inner-city parish that was in debt and with a church that needed repair. It was there that Taylor experienced first hand working with the poor and immigrant communities, and where he saw the effects of alcoholism, prostitution and other vices on the individual, family and society. Through his efforts, he persuaded other Congregational ministers to support a missionary program operating out of his centrally located church. The success of the mission and his leadership earned him an appointment as professor of theology at the Hartford Theological Seminary in 1888. There he had the opportunity to train students for careers in city missions as well as churches.
In 1892, Taylor was invited to move to Chicago to teach at the Chicago Theological Seminary and also organize a department of Christian sociology, the first of its kind in any seminary in the United States. Early on in Chicago, he began to explore the idea of starting a settlement house in the model of Jane Addams’ Hull House, and in 1894 the Chicago Commons Settlement was founded. The Taylor family moved into a large but dilapidated house located at the corner of Union Street and Milwaukee Avenue, in Chicago’s 17th Ward. The neighborhood was working class, with large populations of Scandinavian, Irish, German, and Italian immigrants. Although Taylor brought in his Seminary students as residents and teachers in the Commons, he wanted the house to be non-sectarian, open to all faiths, economic levels, and ethnic groups.
Within five years, Chicago Commons had twenty-five residents and a kindergarten, a day nursery, clubs and a variety of classes. Soon it became apparent that the current building was not sufficient for the growing needs of the Commons, and between 1900-1901, a new Commons building was constructed on the corner of Grand and Morgan Streets, where the old Tabernacle Congregational Church had stood. In addition to teaching Seminary students in working with the poor and starting kindergarten classes at the Commons, Taylor also was interested in expanding coursework into a new school, and in 1908 the Commons Association sponsored the first classes in the Chicago School of Civics and Philanthropy, which in 1920 was incorporated into the University of Chicago as the Graduate School of Social Service Administration.
In 1894, Taylor, Jane Addams and Mary McDowell established the Chicago Federation of Settlements, a forerunner of the National Federation of Settlements. In 1914, Taylor was elected president of the National Conference of Charities and Corrections; and in 1917, president of National Federation of Settlements. In 1921 Taylor retired from active administration of the Commons, leaving that work to his daughter Lea Demarest Taylor, although he remained active in Commons concerns and issues such as Prohibition, public health, and the fate of the poor during the Depression for the rest of his life. Taylor died in his sleep on Sept. 26, 1938.