Above: Samuel Johnson
Image in the Public Domain
SAMUEL JOHNSON (SEPTEMBER 18, 1709-DECEMBER 13, 1784)
“The Great Moralist”
With this post I add a second Samuel Johnson to my Ecumenical Calendar of Saints’ Days and Holy Days. The other Samuel Johnson, his contemporary, was an American, a convert from Congregationalism to Anglicanism, the creator of a system of organizing library books, and a president of what became Columbia University, New York, New York. Both Samuel Johnsons, I write without fear of contradiction, enrich this calendar of saints’ days and holy days.
Page 16 of Common Worship: Services and Prayers for the Church of England (2000) lists December 13 as the date to recall the life of “Samuel Johnson, Moralist, 1784.”
The Great Moralist, also an essayist, literary critic, poet, translator, and influential lexicographer, came from Lichfield, England. There he entered the world on September 7, 1709 (Julian Calendar)/September 18, 1709 (Gregorian Calendar). His mother was Sarah Ford, an Anglican with Calvinist leanings. She taught her son to memorize the collect for the day. Our saint’s father was Michael Johnson, a bookseller and, at the time of Samuel’s birth, the Sheriff of Lichfield. Michael was also a High Anglican with Jacobite sympathies. The family was not prosperous. That fact created much stress in Samuel’s life, as did his persistent bad health.
Johnson became well-educated. The informal part of his education occurred at home and at his father’s bookstore. The young bookworm read many books at his father’s place of business. He also attended Lichfield grammar school (1717-1728) and Pembroke College, Oxford (1728-1729). The Great Moralist had to drop out of college for medical and financial reasons, but his informal education continued. Eventually he received two honorary doctorates–from Dublin University (1765) and Oxford (1775), hence “Doctor Johnson.”
Johnson became an educator. In 1731 he accepted the position of undermaster of the Market Bosworth Grammar School, Leicestershire. Four years later our saint married Elizabeth “Tetty” Potter, a widow 20 years his senior. They remained married until she died in 1752. In 1735 Johnson founded a boarding school at Lichfield. He led that institution and taught Greek and Latin there until the school closed after two years of operation.
Then Johnson relocated to London. He had already begun to compose and translate works. Our saint had also contributed to the Gentleman’s Magazine, founded in 1732. In London, starting in 1737 and continuing for years, Johnson picked up the pace of his literary efforts, which included poems and satirical prose. Some of the writing was political. Although our saint was no Jacobite, he was critical of governments during the Georgian Age. The Dictionary of the English Language (1755), the basis of many subsequent dictionaries, set him on the road to financial security. His education of Shakespeare (1765) also proved to be a classic.
Johnson was a High Anglican influenced by Greek stoicism. [Stoicism (frequently misunderstood by many) recognized the difference between those things we can change and those we cannot change. It is actually an optimistic philosophy, one which teaches a person to delight in the pleasure of life and to refrain from fretting about not doing what one cannot do.] The basis of our saint’s faith was an understanding of human sinfulness and the necessity of redemption by Jesus Christ. Johnson, who tolerated Roman Catholicism at a time when that attitude was frequently unpopular, did not hide his dislike of Calvinism. His Prayers and Meditations debuted in print posthumously in 1785.
Johnson was neurotic and he knew it. He was prone to melancholy and indolence. Our saint also knew how to overcome these weaknesses: surround himself with people. Johnson’s household included the following, among others:
- Robert Levett, a doctor who tended to poor people;
- Francis Barber, a former African slave, whose education he financed; and
- Anna Williams.
She was the daughter of Zechariah Williams, with whom Johnson had written Longitude at Sea (1755). Anna visited our saint at his home for years before moving in. Eventually she went blind and he took care of her until she died in 1783.
Johnson, a loyal subject, supported his government’s position during the American Revolutionary period. His Taxation No Tyranny (1775) argued that colonists should pay their taxes dutifully.
Johnson died at Lichfield on December 13, 1784. He was 75 years old. His legacy has remained impressive and instructive. For example, his reminder that “patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel” has been relevant for a long time. Johnson also elevated the tone of debates and the quality of arguments, for his intellectualism and manner forced his debating partners to improve their cases, to prepare to argue as effectively as possible against him.
The world needs more people of the caliber of Dr. Samuel Johnson.
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
OCTOBER 28, 2016 COMMON ERA
THE FEAST OF SAINTS SIMON AND JUDE, APOSTLES AND MARTYRS
O God, you have endowed us with memory, reason, and skill.
We thank you for the faithful legacy of [Samuel Johnson and all others]
who have dedicated their lives to you and to the intellectual pursuits.
May we, like them, respect your gift of intelligence fully and to your glory.
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
MARCH 6, 2013 COMMON ERA
THE FEAST OF SAINT CHRODEGANG OF METZ, ROMAN CATHOLIC BISHOP
THE FEAST OF EDMUND KING, ANGLICAN BISHOP OF LINCOLN