The Prayers of Dr. Samuel Johnson… A Pilgrimage from Fear to Faith

But when he was come to the River where there was no Bridge, there again he was in a heavy case; now, now be said be should be drowned for ever, and so never see that Face with Comfort, that he had come so many miles to behold. And here also I took notice of what was very remarkable, the water of that River was lower than ever I saw it in all my Life: so he went over at last, not much above wet-shod.

The Pilgrim’s Progress1

Doctor Samuel Johnson’s first recorded occasional prayer was written on the twenty-ninth anniversary of his birth, September 7, 1738; his last preserved prayer was written on December 5, 1784, eight days before his death. In his prayers of the intervening forty-six years, several distinctive petitions recur with remarkable persistence: four main concerns become evident in Johnson’s prayers: 1) indolence—the plea for diligence; 2) unchastity—the request for purity; 3) terror—the petition for peace; and 4) obduracy—the prayer for repentance.

Much has been written on the range and volume of Johnson’s literary production; his achievement is immense—the Dictionary alone is a task worthy a lifetime. However, he continued till his last years the petition in the prayer of 1738: “O Lord, enable me by thy Grace to use all diligence in redeeming the time which I have spent in Sloth.”2 On January 1, 1748, be prayed to be made “more diligent in the duties” which Providence should assign him, and on May 6, 1752, he asked that he might not be “Laid open to vain imaginations” by idleness. On January I, 1757, he prayed “Forgive me that I have misspent the time past”; and on April 21, 1764, be lamented that his indolence bad “sunk into grosser sluggishness.”

On Easter (April 11, 1776 ), Johnson confessed that his “reigning sin, to which many others are appendent, is waste of time, and general sluggishness, to which I was always inclined and in part of my life have been almost compelled by morbid melancholy and disturbance of mind.” And in September of 1779, Johnson asked pardon for “all negligences of those Duties which Thou hast required.” His prayers for the resolve to be active and dutiful continue into 1784, the year of his death.


Despite the disabilities of impaired vision—his optic nerves had been damaged by a disfiguring attack of scrofula in his boyhood—partial deafness, rheumatic attacks, indigestion, a compulsive tic, and the “vile melancholy,” which he attributed to his father, Johnson often demonstrated almost superhuman energy, even in his later years. His physical robustness erupts frequently in Boswell’s account, as he separates snarling dogs, climbs high trees. rolls down hills, swims dangerous streams, hikes formidable distances, leaps benches and fences, and hurls a usurper, with his chair, into the pit at the theater.

Because he knew his own potential for literary productiveness, Johnson felt obsessive guilt at his aversion to regular composition, especially after some anxious friend had operated as midwife at a belated—and Caesarean literary birth. Johnson could work at nothing but full speed—as Boswell says also of his eating or drinking wine, “He could refrain, but he could not use moderately.” He could be abstinent, but not temperate; therefore, Johnson also wrote as he thought and spoke, with vigor and haste. But. fortunately, as writing is slower than speaking, his impulsiveness less frequently obtrudes as rashness, his denunciations appear more just than jaundiced, and his prejudices more frequently bolstered by reason than supported by sophistry.

In his essay on “The Piety of Doctor Johnson,” Neil G. Smith says that Johnson’s prayers indicate that “He regarded even his purely literary efforts as the fulfillment of a religious obligation, the employment of his talents for the glory of God and the good of men.”3 Johnson, in heeding the Biblical injunction to work out his faith with fear and trembling, was prompted. by texts such as James 2:17–18:

Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead. being alone. Yea, a man may say, Thou hast faith. and I have works: shew me thy faith without thy works, and I will shew thee my faith by my works.

Johnson practiced the kind of active charity enjoined by Christ and re-emphasized by James: “Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world” (1:27). Johnson demonstrated his observance of these texts with the coins he always carried for the poor, with his houseful of carping dependents, and with outcasts, like the prostitute whom he rescued from illness and starvation.

Robert Burton’s Anatomy of Melancholy was the only book to rouse Johnson from his bed two hours before his custom—I think it likely that Johnson occasionally entertained melancholy with some pleasure. He was noticeably influenced by Burton’s precept: “Be not solitary, be not idle.” How important he considered conversation and his associates is reflected in several letters and prayers composed upon his separation from them. Johnson’s awful despondency was evident when one of his last living friends, Mrs. Thrale, deserted him—just five months before his death—to many Signor Piozzi, an Italian music-master. Johnson not only feared loneliness but he was also jealous of the affection of his friends. Witness his continual allusions to James Boswell of Margaret Boswell’s hostility; he recognized the wife as a threat to her husband’s friendships.

Johnson’s prayers for his departed friends and relatives are uniquely affecting because his sensibility was as strong as his memory. The past was so present to him that he forgot little of what be experienced—as he seems to have forgotten little that he read. On March 25, 1759, he prayed: “O Lord, so far as it may be lawful for me, I commend to thy fatherly goodness, my Father, my Brother, my Wife, my Mother, I beseech thee to look mercifully upon them.” It is not surprising that Johnson was momently aware of the transience of life; nor is it strange that he thought often of solitude and death: he was constantly reminded as his contemporaries passed from him.

The maxim “Be not idle” drove him to project goals for himself—to learn a language, to master a science, to read the Bible through, to attend church services regularly. Although he exerted his intellect sporadically, when he had fixed his mind on a subject. he dealt with it methodically; hence, the compulsion to make lists and schedules, which, when violated, caused him anguish.

Another problem that Johnson mentioned in prayer was his sensuality. Thirteen months after Tetty’s death. on Easter Sunday (April 22, 1753 ), he wrote a prayer in which he asked God to “Grant that the loss of my Wife may so mortify all inordinate affections in me that I may henceforth please thee by holiness of Life.” Six years later (Easter, April 15, 1759). Johnson expressed the petition: “Grant me to be chaste in thoughts, words, and actions”; and in an undated prayer. he asked for strength “to reject sensuality in thought.” He wrote in his journal on April 21. 1764: “My thoughts have been clouded with sensuality.” Similar petitions appear in later prayers.

Boswell frequently depicts Johnson’s compulsive desire for affection, but the main aspersion against Johnson’s chastity derives from an enigmatic conversation between Boswell and Sir John Hawkins, Johnson’s official, but occasionally uncharitable, biographer. Frederick A. Pottle recounts the Boswell-Hawkins’ dialogue as follows:

On 7 May 1785 Boswell met Hawkins at Bennet Langton’s.  His journal for that day has the following; ‘Sir J. Hawkins and I … talked grave and earnest. He accounted for Johnson’s fear of death: ‘I have read the diary. Johnson apparently burned two quarto volumes or his journals shortly before his death. I wish I had not read so much. He had strong amorous passions.’

B0s. ‘But he did not indulge them?’ Hawk. ‘I have said enough.’4

That Johnson will be posthumously detected as a gross violator of the seventh commandment during his nocturnal excursions with Richard Savage in his Grub Street period, or that he will be exposed as having been a chronic sexual malefactor after his wife’s death is unlikely. Johnson was exquisitely sensitive to the Biblical demand for obedience; his life proves that he felt an urgency to become “perfect, even as the Father which is in heaven is perfect.” He was aware of Christ’s interpretation of the law; he who hates is a murderer, and he who lusts is an adulterer. Sins of thought and vain imaginations made Johnson writhe in sorrow and loathing at his weakness.

Of unregulated imaginations and desires Johnson wrote as follows in Rambler, Number 8:

All action has its origin in the mind, and … therefore to suffer the thoughts to be vitiated. is to poison the fountains of morality; irregular desires will produce licentious practices…Such, therefore, is the importance of keeping reason a guard over imagination, that we have otherwise no security for our own virtue, but may corrupt our hearts in the most recluse solitude, with more pernicious appetite and wishes than the commerce of the world will generally produce.5

Johnson frequently feared declension into insanity. as his observations on melancholy and madness testify. It seems probable, too, that Boswell’s constant probing of Johnson’s psychological sores for biographical material augmented his mentor’s terror of insanity and death. Johnson’s agitated, almost frenzied, responses to these topics were predictable; and Boswell. who was fascinated by his subject under spiritual excitement, provoked the conditioned response with diabolical frequency.

A third theme in the prayers is Johnson’s agony at the thought of mental or physical dissolution. Boswell says of the former that “Insanity…was the object of his most dismal apprehension; and he fancied himself seized by it, or approaching to it, at the very time when he was giving proofs of a more than ordinary soundness and vigor of judgement.”6 Johnson’s horror of physical death seemed not to lie in his anticipation of the fatal event. but rather to have been in his uncertainty about the after life. He was fearful that his sins, because they were repeated. were unrepented, and that, consequently, Divine Justice could not forgive him; hence. he trembled at thoughts of endless solitude, of annihilation (to which, he said. misery is preferable), and of eternal damnation: “Sent to Hell, Sir. and punished everlastingly!”

On April 25. 1752, five weeks after Tettis death. Johnson prayed for relief “from fruitless grief, or tumultuous imaginations,” and on September 15, 1758, he pleaded. Let my life be useful, and my death be happy.” This request for deliverance and joy becomes a personal formulary; it recurs in an undated prayer of 1764: “Deliver and preserve me from vain terrors, and grant that…I may be received to everlasting happiness for ·the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord.”

There is a significant entry on August 17, 1767, which indicates how closely Johnson’s chronic ill-health—indigestion. flatulencies, respiratory difficulty. rheumatism, and consequent insomnia—was related to his emotional state and to his spiritual attitude. Johnson recorded the following:

By several purges taken successively and by abstinence from wine and suppers I obtained sudden and great relief, and had freedom of mind restored to me, which I have wanted for all this year without being able to find any means of obtaining it.

Seven years thereafter, Johnson petitioned, “Relieve, O Lord, as seemeth best unto thee, the infirmities of my body, and the perturbations of my mind. Fill my thoughts with the aweful love of thy Goodness, with just fear of thine Anger, and with humble confidence in thy mercy…” The diction that Johnson employs to characterize his relationship to God is noteworthy: “aweful love” and “just fear.” For Johnson “The fear of the Lord is the beginning [essence] of wisdom” required not merely formal and overt compliance with God’s commandments, but the text also meant for Johnson a crucifixion of self, a poignant revulsion at his sin, and a broken, humbled spirit before his Sovereign: “Take not from me thy Holy Spirit, but enable me to pass the days which thou shalt yet vouchsafe to grant me, in thy Fear, and to thy Glory; and accept O Lord, the remains of a misspent life.” The plea for the presence of the Spirit becomes another refrain in Johnson’s prayers.

Although his faith became stronger just before his death, even as late as August 12, 1784, he prayed:

“O Lord…who hast graciously sent me into the world to work out my salvation, enable me to drive from me all such unquiet and perplexing thoughts that may mislead or hinder me in the practice of those duties which thou hast required…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.”

Johnson abruptly terminated any discussion of the freewill divine-sovereignty paradox. If he believed the Calvinistic doctrine of predestination, it afforded him little hope; the decree of reprobation gave him more qualms than the decree of election gave comfort. He silenced Boswell on the subject twice with these incisive summations; “All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience for if’; and, ‘We know our will is free, and there’s an end on’t.” But these dicta did not give him security, for although he accepted the merits of Christ, he knew that some would be set on His right hand and others on His left. Johnson spoke despondently of his belief that “We have hopes given us; but they are conditional, and I know not how far I have fulfilled the conditions.”7

Those who said that they had found spiritual equanimity Johnson distrusted. He thought them naive, deluded by a facile optimism; for he considered the fear of death natural to man, and the whole of life “but keeping away the thoughts of it.” On the subject of death he also said: “On which side soever I turn, mortality presents its formidable frown”; “No rational man can die without uneasy apprehension”; and “The better a man is, the more afraid of death, having a clearer view of divine purity.”8

Johnson failed to understand that a reverence for divine purity and justice can be accompanied by a comforting trust in divine grace. The apostle Paul gives a scriptural basis for such happy conviction in Romans 8:38–39:

For I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Jean Hagstrom has an essay “On Dr. Johnson’s Fear of Death,” in which he speaks of Johnson’s religion as one of fear; in fact, Johnson based the argument of his third sermon on the paradoxical text from Proverbs: “Happy is the man that feareth alway.” Hagstrum contends that “It was a combination of strong faith in the Last Judgment and a wcak faith in his own qualifications that agitated and distressed so many of Johnson’s solitary hours.”9

Habitual sins which he had repented, and which in his written resolutions he had foresworn, caused Johnson to despair of his salvation. However, he was more heroic in his struggle with sloth, sensuality, and self-will than one who thinks he can eradicate the depravity of his nature and perfect himself without the regenerating power of the Holy Spirit.

Johnson’s often-lamented neglect of public worship aggravated his spiritual distress. A possible reason for his impatience with public worship—if we assume his dullness of hearing was no major impediment—could have been the lengthy, repetitious sermons of his age, whose conclusions Johnson had no doubt anticipated and ramified long before the presiding clerics had elaborated their presentations.

Entered November 8, 1766, is a sentence that stands alone, a symbol of Johnson’s hope, but also of the yearning pathos of his doubt: “Christ did not dye in vain.” To surrender himself to the peace of complete trust in God’s promise: “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life…” would have been a capitulation to complacency and self-gratulation; therefore, Johnson worried at the second part of the verse also, working its thorns of threat and terror into his heart: “And he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him” (John 3:36).

On March 31, 1771 (exact date uncertain), Johnson recorded this prayer:

“O merciful God,…make me earnestly to repent, and heartily to be sorry for all my misdoings, make the remembrance so burdensome and painful, that I may Thee to Thee with a troubled spirit, and a contrite heart…excite in me true repentance. give me in this world knowledge of thy truth, and confidence in thy mercy.”

It is curious that whenever Johnson wished to express his penitence for sin, he did not say, “Lord, forgive me. I repent of my sins.” Instead, he prayed, “Grant me repentance,” or “Awaken in me repentance,” or “Excite in me repentance.”

But in his last recorded prayer, December 5, 1784, Johnson wrote; “Forgive and accept my late conversion, enforce and accept my imperfect repentance; . . . make the Death of thy son Jesus effectual to my redemption. Have mercy upon me and pardon the multitude of my offenses. Bless my Friends, have mercy upon all men. Support me by the Grace of thy Holy Spirit in the days of my weakness, and at the hour of death, and receive me, at my death, to everlasting happiness for the Sake of Jesus Christ.”

This last prayer presents Johnson offering his repentance in gratitude for what he calls his “late conversion.” The theological definition of “conversion” in Johnson’s dictionary is “change from reprobation to grace, from a bad to a holy life.” Possibly, evangelical Methodism had helped. Johnson to the assurance inherent in his earlier profession: “I do not forget the merits of my Redeemer”; for near his death he no longer advanced the qualification which he had earlier argumentatively upheld:

“But, consider…hope of salvation must be founded on the terms on which it is promised that the mediation of our Savior will be applied to us, namely, obedience; and where obedience has failed, then, as suppletory to it, repentance….No man can be sure that his obedience and repentance will obtain salvation.”10

The hour that Johnson accepted the doctrine of justification by faith rather than by works is not recorded; however, his final expression of dependence on God when confronted by death and eternity, and the pacific benediction of his tone as he concluded his prayer and prepared to celebrate the Holy Supper manifest his belated but felicitous acceptance of the divine promise: “For by grace are ye saved. through faith; and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God” (Ephesians 2:8).


1. Selection suggested by Rev. William T. Cairn’s The Religion of Dr. Johnson and Other Essays, Oxford, 1946, 1–23.

2. Samuel Johnson: Diaries, Prayers, and Annals, Yale, 1958, 38. (All subsequent quotations from the prayers and diaries are also from this volume.)

3. Neil G. Smith, “The Piety of Doctor Johnson,” Queen’s Quarterly, XLIV, 1937, 482.

4. Frederick A. Pottle, “The Dark Hints of Sir John Hawkins and Boswell,” Modern Language Notes, LVI, May, 1941, 326–327.

5. The Works of Samuel Johnson, LLD, The Rambler, Vol II, London: Talboys, Wheeler, and W. Pickering, 1825, 36–37.

6. R.W. Chapman, ed., Boswell’s Life of Johnson, Oxford, London, 1960, 49.

7. Johnsonian Miscellanies, ed. George Birkbeck Hill, Harper, New York, 1897, Vol. II, 156.

9. Chapman, Life, 416, 1351, 949, 839.

9. Jean H. Hagstrum, “On Dr. Johnson’s Fear of Death,” ELH, XIV, 1947, 318–319.

10. Chapman, Life, 950.