The Religion of Samuel Johnson

I recently came across an address delivered at Lichfield, Johnson’s birthplace, by Malcolm Muggeridge (Vintage Muggeridge: Religion and Society, 1985). Despite the passage of the centuries, some things had not greatly changed. Like our age, Johnson’s epoch was fashionably skeptical. It was assumed that no intelligent person could embrace the idea of revealed truth. Yet Johnson’s life was a challenge to such agnostic complacency, and it was his quietly heroic piety that Muggeridge found particularly admirable.

In a materialist society prayers tend to be a kind of celestial shopping-list; they ask on high for favours, and glory in reminiscences of special responses, sometimes pecuniary, that may have been received. Dr Johnson’s prayers are more in the vein of waiting on God; they offer penitence rather than asking for this or that, and earnestly seek help in extricating themselves from any worldly or carnal pursuits in which they may have been involved.

We can find examples of this devotional outlook in Johnson’s early essay on the celebrated Dutch physician Herman Boerhaave (published in 1739). The English writer admired the fact that Boerhaave spent an hour in prayer and meditation every morning. Nothing else “could support the soul, in all distresses, but a confidence in the supreme being; nor can a steady and rational magnanimity flow from any other source than a consciousness of the divine favour.” What is said of Boerhaave could apply to the biographer himself:

So far was this man from being made impious by philosophy, or vain by knowledge, or by virtue, that he ascribed all his abilities to the bounty, and all his goodness to the grace of God. May his example extend its influence to his admirers and followers!

For more on the religious dimension of Johnson’s life, I recommend C. F. Chapin’s The Religious Thought of Samuel Johnson, and Christopher Hollis’ Dr. Johnson.

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