Samuel Johnson died on this day, December 13th in 1784. Johnson’s Dictionary was published in 1755 and can still be found in most large libraries in one edition or another. Though not as overtly satirical as Ambrose Bierce’s The Devil’s Dictionary, Johnson nonetheless peppered his work with wit and opinion. He was also rightly accused of overcomplicating his definitions. For example, he defined “network” as
…anything reticulated or decussated at equal distances, with interstices between the intersections.
Samuel was raised in a literary home. His father was a bookseller and from childhood, Samuel was a voracious reader. His family scraped enough money to send him to Oxford for a year, but his life thereafter was hard as he earned only enough money to live hand-to-mouth supporting himself and his wife. Though his love of words was more avocational than vocational, his reputation grew by word of mouth until he met a 22-year-old Scottish lawyer named James Boswell who became his greatest advocate and sometimes patron.
A devout Christian, Johnson was apparently a constant letter writer, most of which contain a prayer for the recipient. He called himself a “lexicographer” and perhaps his most accurate legacy can be found in his own definition of the word:
A writer of dictionaries; a harmless drudge, that busies himself in tracing the original, and detailing the signification of words.
Most important to him was his personal knowledge of the Word Himself.
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IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD, AND THE WORD WAS WITH GOD, AND THE WORD WAS GOD. THE SAME WAS IN THE BEGINNING WITH GOD. ALL THINGS WERE MADE BY HIM; AND WITHOUT HIM WAS NOT ANY THING MADE THAT WAS MADE. IN HIM WAS LIFE; AND THE LIFE WAS THE LIGHT OF MEN. AND THE LIGHT SHINETH IN DARKNESS; AND THE DARKNESS COMPREHENDED IT NOT.
~JOHN 1: 1-5
England’s most famous eighteenth-century literary critic, essayist, and biographer. Best known for compiling the great Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Johnson was also a devout Christian. His diaries serve as a sporadic life record and as a repository of his prayers. His letters often included a prayer for the recipient or a request for prayer for himself. Johnson gathered many of his prayers and entrusted them to a friend, George Strahan, who gathered additional prayers of Johnson’s from other sources and published them posthumously as Prayers and Meditations.
While Johnson’s prayers are extemporaneous, touching on matters ranging from asking for blessing on a new publishing project to expressions of grief at his wife’s death, they are stylistically influenced by the Book of Common Prayer. Although he seems regularly to have failed to achieve the kind of orderly practice of the faith to which he aspired, his diaries and Annals describe his resolutions (especially on or near his birthday, at New Year’s, or during Lent) to establish a rule of life in the form of spiritual and personal disciplines, ranging from “to study the Scriptures in the original Languages” to “to rise early” and “to take good care of my health.” Lacking assurance of acceptance with God, he at one point turns to Richard Baxter’s autobiography in an attempt to resolve his doubts. Despite his long struggle for an assured faith, he repeatedly and earnestly entrusts his life and eternal salvation to Christ as Savior. His final written prayer, dated December 5, 1784, shows him at last to be at peace.
Johnson’s prayers and diaries afford a window into a rigorous Anglican devotion in the 18th century. While devoid of the consolatory affective religious experience of the revivalists of the same period, Johnson had a devotional practice that served both to center his profound intellect and to provide spiritual discipline to counter his erratic habits of life. Although his spiritual life has been ignored or downplayed by many of his biographers, Samuel Johnson can scarcely be known apart from his prayers.
A serious Anglican, Johnson ascribes his conversion as a young man to reading W. *Law’s Serious Call, and, although unlike Law he was never a *Nonjuror, he was a strong *High Churchman, regular and sincere in his religious duties, and very generous to his friends and to the poor. He sometimes caused surprise by his marked tolerance of RCism, but, though he was on friendly terms with individuals, he was at no pains to conceal his dislike of Presbyterianism and Nonconformity.
Besides his famous Dictionary of the English Language (2 vols., 1755), his works include The Vanity of Human Wishes (1749); The Prince of Abissinia [Rasselas] (1759); A Journey to the Western Islands of Scotland (1775), The Lives of the English Poets (3 vols., 1779–81), and the twice-weekly essays entitled the Rambler, which appeared from 1750 to 1752 and earned him the title of ‘the Great Moralist’. He also wrote many sermons for friends.
Sources & Resources
Above from Maxine Hancock, “Johnson, Samuel (1709–1784),” ed. Glen G. Scorgie, Dictionary of Christian Spirituality (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2011), 549.
And F. L. Cross and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds., The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005), 903–904.
For Further Reading: S. Johnson, Works, Vol. I: Diaries, Prayers, and Annals, ed. E. L. McAdam Jr. with D. and M. Hyde (1958); J. Wain, Samuel Johnson (1974).
Collected Works ed. by his friend and executor, Sir John Hawkins and others (13 vols., London, 1787–9), with Life as vol. 1. Crit. edn. of his Works by E. L. McAdam, Jun., D. and M. Hyde, p 904 and others (New Haven, Conn., and London, 1958 ff.: ‘The Yale Edition’). Letters, ed. B. Redford (6 vols., Princeton, NJ, 1992–4). His prayers and private devotions were first pub. as Prayers and Meditations ed. G. Strahan (1785); they are incl. in vol. 1 of the Yale edn. of Johnson’s Works. A collection of his Sermons was pub. under the name of John Taylor (2 vols., 1788–9). The classic biography is that of James Boswell (2 vols., London, 1791; standard edn. by G. B. Hill (6 vols., London, 1887; rev. by L. F. Powell, 6 vols., Oxford, 1934–50, with revisions to vols. 5 and 6, 1964). Biographical sources in A. L. Reade, Johnsonian Gleanings (11 vols., privately pr., 1909–52). B. Redford, Designing the Life of Johnson (Oxford, 2002). Modern Lives by W. J. Bate (London, 1978), R. DeMaria (Oxford, 1993), and L. Lipking (Cambridge, Mass., and London, 1998). J. L. Clifford, Young Samuel Johnson (1955). J. Gray, Johnson’s Sermons: A Study (Oxford, 1972). Other works on his religious or moral thought by R. Voitle (Cambridge, Mass., 1961), M. J. Quinlan (Madison, Wis., 1964), C. F. Chapin (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1968), P. K. Alkon (Evanston, Ill., 1967), R. B. Schwartz (Madison, Wis., 1975), C. E. Pierce (London, 1983), and J. C. D. Clark (Cambridge, 1994). G. M. Ditchfield, ‘Dr. Johnson and the Dissenters’, Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library of Manchester, 68 (1986), pp. 373–409. Introd. by P. Rogers, Johnson (Past Masters, Oxford, 1993). J. L. Clifford, Johnsonian Studies, 1887–1950: A Survey and Bibliography (1951). J. D. Fleeman, A Bibliography of the Works of Samuel Johnson (2 vols., Oxford, 2000).