Johnson’s Spirituality

Some time ago I read Chester F. Chapin’s The Religious Thought of Samuel Johnson (University of Michigan Press, 1968) and at the moment I have checked out a copy of Samuel Johnson: A Layman’s Religion (University of Wisconsin Press, 1964) by Maurice J. Quinlin.

It is interesting that two works on the famous eighteenth century English author’s spiritual life could be published within just a few years of each other. Another promising volume, which I perused briefly, is Passionate Intelligence: Imagination and Reason in the Work of Samuel Johnson (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967) by the Israeli scholar Arieh Sachs. It is indicative of the culture then, as contrasted with today, that all three works by mainstream academics could present Johnson’s Christian worldview in a way that is both intelligent and respectful.

There are a couple of passages from Quinlin’s introduction which show it to be a perceptive study.  In response to the captious opinions of Jeremy Bentham, the utilitarian philosopher who knew Johnson but did not share his spiritual outlook:

The eighteenth century produced its share of fanatics and persons with strange religious delusions, Johnson was neither a crank nor a madman. In religion, as in other matters, he constantly exercised his remarkable reasoning powers, and his spiritual concern was that of a devout and learned Christian.

On the subject of the English writer’s well known examinations of conscience, which are sometimes represented as morose and overly scrupulous, Quinlan sensibly comments that

Under the circumstances, no one but the traditional Pharisee would be likely to record his virtues or his moral conquests. Yet, because Johnson commonly expressed dissatisfaction with his spiritual progress, it is sometimes said he found no joy in religion… But to reason on the record of his penitential exercises that religion brought him no comfort seems misguided. One might better argue that the very act of a writing down his shortcomings had a therapeutic value.

What I enjoy about works like those of Quinlan and Chapin is not only are they scholarly intellectual inquiries but, in a very warm and human way, they shed light on some of the key challenges and rewards of religious belief.

Related posts: The Religion of Samuel Johnson and Johnson’s Sermons

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