Thursday, December 16, 2010

Doctor Johnson's Prayers


Portrait of Samuel Johnson by Joshua Reynolds (detail), 1756-57), 
National Portrait Gallery, London 

     Samuel Johnson's Prayers (SCM Press Limited, London, 1947; Elton Trueblood, ed.) are beautifully written and extremely moving and powerful.   A friend of mine, who knows a great deal more about Johnson than I do, but who is not a religious person,  recently told me that "Johnson's prayers, like so much that is good in Johnson, always remind me once again of what it means to be human".  I agree with that.

     I first encountered the Prayers  by accident while poking through the small library at Cornwall Monthly Meeting in Cornwall-on-Hudson, New York.  I assume CMM acquired the book because of the Elton Trueblood connection (Trueblood was an extremely influential 20th century Quaker writer and educator who was instrumental in the development of Earlham College after previously serving as chaplain at both Harvard and Stanford). I was so immediately impressed by what I read that I ordered a copy from a bookseller that evening.  I have since given copies of the Prayers to friends who I thought would enjoy them and possibly find other uses for them in their lives.

Samuel Johnson Reading The Vicar Of Wakefield (From the Illustrated Magazine of Art, Illustrated Magazine of Art, p. 16. "Drawn by Gilbert. Engraved by J. Linton)

     Trueblood's long introduction nicely sets the Prayers in their historical context, as well as in the framework of Doctor Johnson's life and work.  The prayers are divided into nine sections:  For Amendment of Life; Work and Study; For Health of Body and Mind; Family and Friends; Birthdays; New Years; His Wife's Death; Easter; His Last Prayer.

     Reading the Prayers and the other Johnson writings I've become familiar with is both inspiring and a wee bit dispiriting in the sense that because he writes so well, it's hard to see the point in anyone else even putting pen to paper.  One point of comparison for me (that others might disagree with) is Oscar Wilde's Letters.  In both cases the reader gains the unmistakable, unfakeable feeling that the writer, who lived long before you, is in the same room communicating directly with you about important things.  What could be better or a more important reason to read?

     Three prayers I particularly like and value follow below:

Before Any New Study

ALMIGHTY GOD, in Whose hands are all the powers of man; Who givest understanding, and takest it away; Who, as it seemeth good unto Thee, enlightenist the thoughts of the simple, and darkenest the meditations of the wise, be present with me in my studies and enquiries.

     Grant, O Lord, that I may not lavish away the life which Thou hast given me on useless trifles, nor waste it in vain searches after things which Thou has hidden from me.

     Enable me, by Thy Holy Spirit, so to shun sloth and negligence, that every day may discharge part of the task which Thou hast allotted me; and so further with Thy help that labour, which, without Thy help, must be ineffectual, that I may obtain, in all my undertakings, such success as will most promote Thy glory, and the salvation of my own soul, for the sake of Jesus Christ, Amen.

The Limits Of Knowledge

O LORD, my Maker and Protector, Who hast graciously sent me into this world, to work out my salvation, enable me to drive from me all such unquiet and perplexing thoughts as may mislead or hinder me in the practice of those duties which Thou hast required.  When I behold the works of Thy hands and consider the course of Thy providence, give me Grace always to remember that Thy thoughts are not my thoughts, nor Thy ways my ways.  And while it shall please Thee to continue me in this world where much is to be done and little to be known, teach me by Thy Holy Spirit to withdraw my mind from unprofitable and dangerous enquiries, from difficulties vainly curious, and doubts impossible to be solved.  Let me rejoice in the light which Thou hast imparted, let me serve Thee with active zeal, and humble confidence, and wait with patient expectation for the time in which the soul which Thou receivest, shall be satisfied with knowledge.  Grant this, O Lord, for Jesus Christ's sake. Amen.

The Dictionary

O GOD, Who hast hitherto supported me, enable me to proceed in this labour, and in the whole task of my present state; that when I shall render up, at the last day an account of the talent committed to me, I may receive pardon, for the sake of Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Samuel Johnson Birthplace Museum, Lichfield, Staffordshire

 Samuel Johnson's house, Gough Square, London


  1. Beautiful, Curtis, beautiful.

  2. Scott: Thanks for writing and for the nice things you said. Please visit again and write again, if you feel so inclined.