Johnson, Samuel (3), Lld
Johnson, Samuel (3), LL.D., one of the most distinguished literary men of the eighteenth century, was born at Lichfield September 18, 1709. His early education was acquired in his native town. In 1728 he was entered at Pembroke College, Oxford, but, in consequence of the want of means, did not remain long enough to obtain his degree. In 1731 his father died insolvent. In the same year he went to Bosworth as usher of a school. He soon became disgusted with the drudgery of teaching, and preferred to support himself by working for booksellers in Birmingham. In 1736 he married Mrs. Porter, the widow of a mercer, who brought him £800. Failing in an effort to establish an academy, he repaired in 1737 to London, accompanied by his celebrated pupil David Garrick. He now devoted himself entirely to literary labor. His first production which attracted notice was his London, a poem in imitation of the third satire of Juvenal. Having entered into an engagement, with the Gentleman's Magazine, he published the parliamentary debates, which, being then a breach of privilege, came out under the fiction of Debates in the Senate of Lilliput. These obtained great celebrity on account of their extraordinary eloquence, and were almost exclusively the product of his own invention. The works which were now produced were celebrated beyond measure, and will ever be regarded as extraordinary monuments both of vigor and originality in thinking, and of great though ponderous power of expression.
But Dr. Johnson had excellencies far superior to mere literary accomplishments. He was truly a devout man, and he possessed a vigor and independence of mind which enabled him to scorn the ridicule and silence the opposition of wits and worldlings to serious religion. He often recurred in after life to the impression made upon his tender imagination by his mother's example and instruction. While a student at Oxford these impressions were revived and intensified, according to his own account, by the careful study of Law's Serious Call, in consequence of which he was incited to a devout and holy life. Serious and pious meditations and resolutions had been early familiar to his mind. The pious gratitude with which he acknowledged mercies upon every occasion, the humble submission which he breathes when it is the will of his heavenly Father to try him with affliction, show how seriously the mind of Johnson had been impressed with a sense of religion.
Dr. Johnson is generally charged with extreme bigotry, and want of charity towards religionists who differed from him. This charge, however, is very unfair in the face of his repeated declaration to the contrary. "All denominations of Christians," he is reported to have said, "have really little difference in point of doctrine, though they may differ widely in external forms." "For my part, I think all Christians, whether papist or Protestant, agree in the essential articles, and that their differences are trivial, and rather political than religious." He spoke in the highest terms of Wesley from intimate knowledge of his character, having been at the same college with him, and said that "he thought of religion only." "Whatever might be thought of some Methodist teachers," he said, "he could scarcely doubt the sincerity of that man, who travelled 900 miles in a month, and preached twelve times in a week; for no adequate reward, merely temporal, could be given for such indefatigable labor. The established clergy in general did not preach plain enough; polished period and glittering sentences flew over the heads of the common people without impression on their hearts. Something might be necessary to excite the affections of the common people, who were sunk in languor and lethargy, and therefore he supposed that the new concomitant of Methodism might probably produce so desirable an effect. The mind, like the body, delighted in change and novelty, and even in religion itself courted new appearances and modifications." His views on the great subjects of original sin, in consequence of the fall of man, and of the atonement made by our Savior, as reported by his celebrated biographer, were decided and evangelical. His sentiments on natural and revealed religion were equally explicit. In short, it appears that few men have ever lived in whose thoughts religion had a larger or more practical share. "His habitual piety," says lord Brougham, "his sense of his own imperfections, his generally blameless conduct in the various relations of life, have already been sufficiently described. He was a good man, as he was a great man; and he had so firm a regard for virtue that he wisely set much greater store by his worth than by his fame." "Though consciousness of superiority might sometimes induce him to carry it high with man (and even this was much abated in the latter part of his life), his devotions have shown to the whole world how humbly he walked at all times with his God." "If then, it be asked," says lord Mahon, "who first in England, at that period, breasted the waves and stemmed the tide of infidelity — who enlisted wit and eloquence, together with argument and learning, on the side of revealed religion, first turned the literary current in its favor, mainly prepared the reaction which succeeded that praise seems most justly to belong to Dr. Samuel Johnson. Religion was with him no mere lip service nor cold formality; he was mindful of it in his social hours as much as in his graver lucubrations; and he brought to it not merely erudition such as few indeed possessed, but the weight of the highest character, and the respect which even his enemies could not deny him. It may be said of him that, though not in orders, he did the Church of England better service than most of those who at that listless sera ate her bread." The death of this great man was a beautiful commentary on his life. "When at length," says lord Macaulay, "the moment dreaded through so many years came close, the dark cloud passed away from Johnson's mind. His temper became unusually patient and gentle; he ceased to think of death and of that which lies beyond death, and he spoke much of the mercy of God and the propitiation of Christ. Though the tender care which had mitigated his sufferings during months of sickness at Streatham was withdrawn he was not left desolate. In this serene frame of mind he died Dec. 13, 1784; a week later he was laid in Westminster Abbey, among the eminent men of whom he had been the historian — Cowley and Denham, Dryden and Congreve, Gay, Prior, and Addison." (E.deP.)
It remains for us to append a brief outline of all the literary labors of his life. In addition to his contributions to the Gentleman's Magazine and his poem London, Johnson wrote in 1744 an interesting Life of Richard Savage; in 1749 his best poem, The Vanity of Human Wishes, an imitation of the tenth satire of Juvenal; and in 1750 commenced The Rambler, a periodical which he conducted for two years, and the contents of which were almost wholly his own composition. But perhaps one of his greatest accomplishments is his Dictionary, a noble piece of work, entitling its author to be considered the founder of English lexicography; it appeared in 1755, after eight years of solid labor. The Idler, another periodical, was begun by him in 1758, and carried on for two years also; and in 1759 occurred one of the most touching episodes of his life the writing of Rasselas to pay the expenses of his mother's funeral. It was written, he tells us, "in the evenings of a week." But, with all these publications before the public, he did not really emerge from obscurity until 1762, when a pension of £300 a year was conferred on him by lord Bute; and in the following year occurred an event, apparently of little moment, but which had a lasting influence upon his fame this was his introduction to James Boswell, whose Life of Dr. Johnson is probably more imperishable than any of the doctor's own writings. In 1764 the famous Literary Club was instituted, and in the following year began his intimacy with the Thrales. In the same year appeared his edition of Shakspeare. In 1773 he visited the Highlands with Boswell, and in 1781 appeared his Lives of the Poets, his last literary work of any importance. See Boswell, Life of Johnson; Wilkes, Christian Essays; Murphy, Life, in preface to Works; Memoir by Walter Scott; Essays by Macaulay and Carlyle; a brief but elaborate character of Dr. Johnson, written by Sir James Mackintosh, in his Life, 2, 166-9; Dr. Johston, his Religious Life and Death (N.Y. 1,850, 8vo); Chambers, Cyclop. s.v.; English Cyclop. s.v.; and the excellent and elaborate article in Allibone, Dict. Engl. and Amer. Authors, s.v.