Book Review: The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson

Note: This article is reprinted with permission from As I See It, a monthly electronic magazine compiled and edited by Doug Kutilek. AISI is sent free to all who request it by writing to the editor at dkutilek@juno.com.
cvr_johnson.jpgThe Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, Volume XIV: Sermons, edited by Jean Hagstrum and James Gray. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1978. 354 pp., hardback.

Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), scholar, essayist, moralist, lexicographer, conversationalist, and quintessential curmudgeon, was not a clergyman and never personally preached to a church audience, though he was a committed member of the Church of England; his attendance at religious services over the years may be characterized as erratic. Nevertheless, Johnson authored by his own admission as many as forty or so sermons over a period of more than thirty years, though almost always for others (he also authored a series of lectures on English law for Sir Robert Chambers, the Oxford professor who succeeded the famous William Blackstone, though he, Johnson, was not formally trained as a barrister nor ever practiced law; Johnson’s areas of interest and expertise were far-reaching and diffuse).

In the eighteenth century—as in centuries before and since and currently—the presentation by clergymen of sermons not of their own composition was commonplace. Because Johnson was a man of rare perception and eloquence, he was frequently asked by close friends among the clergy to compose for them sermons for special occasions. He obliged them, writing out the sermons in longhand, which they then paid him for, took possession of, and copied in their own hand. The original was then destroyed, and all claim by Johnson to them was released.

Twenty-eight of the forty or so sermons definitely by Johnson are extant, most from an eighteenth century two-volume set of sermons “left for publication” by John Taylor, LL.D., for whom Johnson wrote them. In truth, rather than “sermons” in the popular sense of the term, these are theological essays, which were to be read to an audience. The language is often florid, and the syntax highly complex, making them really unsuitable for oral delivery, especially if the ready grasp of their contents by a lay audience was the aim (though they represent the “ideal,” I suppose, of a sermon in the Anglican tradition; in bold contrast are the clear, plain, and direct discourses by George Whitefield and John Wesley, as models of effective oral communication). Johnson’s sermons are chiefly on ethical and moral subjects, rather than doctrinal and theological ones. They are products of a day in which the form and style of a sermon were more valued than its direct and immediate effect of the hearers and its effectiveness in communicating.

Though most of the sermons were not originally published under Johnson’s name, they characteristically have readily detectable similarities to Johnson’s known published essays and writings, a great aid in definitely identifying them as his. With only twenty-eight of approximately forty such sermons discovered to date, it is theoretically possible that there are additional Johnsonian sermons extant that were printed in the eighteenth century under someone else’s name or are still in manuscripts that have not yet been credited to him.

Theologically, Johnson reveals Arminian tendencies, denying that one can with certainty know his eternal destiny in this life, an expressed fear of losing salvation by defective obedience, and a confusion of repentance with subsequent personal reformation. Yet in most areas he is clearly doctrinally orthodox.

Johnson did not compose his discourses out of thin air, but was an extensive reader of sermonic literature; his favorite clerics from the seventeenth century were Robert Sanderson, John Tillotson, Richard Hooker, Jeremy Taylor, Richard Baxter, Robert South, and Henry Hammond. His sermons often reflect ideas, phraseology, and imagery from the published sermons of these men. They also often echo ideas or phraseology from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer.

The volume has a lengthy introduction and several informative appendices as well as a good index.

kutilek.jpgDoug Kutilek is editor of www.kjvonly.org, a website dedicated to exposing and refuting the many errors of KJVOism, and has been researching and writing about Bible texts and versions for more than 35 years. He has a B.A. in Bible from Baptist Bible College (Springfield, MO), an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Hebrew Union College (Cincinnati), and a Th.M. in Bible exposition from Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). A professor in several Bible institutes, college, graduate schools, and seminaries, he edits a monthly cyber-journal, As I See It. The father of four grown children and four granddaughters, he and his wife, Naomi, live near Wichita, Kansas.
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