Saturday, July 25, 2009

Sermon IV by Samuel Johnson

Is it not to deal thy bread to the hungry, and that thou bring the poor that are cast out to thy house: when thou seest the naked that thou cover him, and that thou hide not thyself from thine own flesh? Then shall thy light break forth as the morning, and thine health shall spring forth speedily; and thy righteousness shall go before thee, the glory of the Lord shall be thy reward.

Isaiah 58:7-8

If the necessity of every duty is to be estimated by the frequency with which it is inculcated, and the sanctions by which it is enforced; if the great Lawgiver of the universe, whose will is immutable, and whose decrees are established for ever, may be supposed to regard, in a particular manner, the observation of those commands, which seem to be repeated only that they may be strongly impressed, and secured, by an habitual submission, from violation and neglect, there is scarcely any virtue, that we ought more diligently to exercise than that of compassion to the needy and distressed.

If we look into the state of mankind, and endeavor to deduce the will of God from the visible disposition of things, we find no duty, more necessary to the support of order, and the happiness of society, nor any, of which we are more often reminded, by opportunities of practicing it, or which is more strongly urged upon us, by importunate solicitations and affecting objects.
If we inquire into the opinions of those men, on whom God conferred superior wisdom, in the heathen world, all their sufferages will be found united in this great point. Amidst all their wild opinions, and chimerical systems, the sallies of unguided imagination, and the errors of bewildered reason; they have all endeavored to evince the necessity of beneficence, and agreed to assign the first rank of excellence to him, who most contributes to improve the happiness, and to soften the miseries of life.

But we, who are blessed with clearer light, and taught to know the will of our Maker, not from long deductions from variable appearances, or intricate disquisitions of fallible reason, but by messengers inspired by himself, and enabled to prove their mission, by works above the power of created beings, may spare ourselves the labour of tedious inquiries. The holy scriptures are in our hands; the scriptures which are able to make us wise unto salvation, and by them we may be sufficiently informed of the extent and importance of this great duty; a duty enjoined, explained, and enforced, by Moses and the prophets, by the evangelists and apostles, by the precepts of Solomon, and the example of Christ.

From those, to whom large possessions have been transmitted by their ancestors, or whose industry has been blessed with success, God always requires the tribute of charity: he commands that what he has given be enjoyed in imitating his bounty, in dispensing happiness, and cheering poverty, in easing the pains of disease, and lightening the burden of oppression; he commands that the superfluity of bread be dealt to the hungry; and the raiment, which the possessor cannot use, be bestowed upon the naked, and that no man turn away from his own flesh.

This is a tribute, which it is difficult to imagine that any man can be unwilling to pay, as an acknowledgment of his dependence upon the universal Benefactor, and an humble testimony of his confidence in that protection, without which, the strongest foundations of human power must fail at the first shock of adversity, and the highest fabrics of earthly greatness sink into ruin; without which wealth is only a floating vapour, and policy an empty sound.

But such is the prevalence of temptations, not early resisted; such the depravity of minds, by which unlawful desires have been long indulged, and false appearances of happiness pursued with ardour and pertinaciousness; so much are we influenced by example, and so diligently do we labour to deceive ourselves, that it is not uncommon to find the sentiments of benevolence almost extinguished, and all regard to the welfare of others overborne by a perpetual attention to immediate advantage and contracted views of present interest.

When any man has sunk into a state of insensibility like this, when he has learned to act only by the impulse of apparent profit, when he can look upon distress, without partaking it, and hear the cries of poverty and sickness, without a wish to relieve them; when he has so far disordered his ideas as to value wealth without regard to its end, and to amass with eagerness what is of no use in his hands; he is indeed not easily to be reclaimed; his reason, as well as his passions, is in combination against his soul, and there is little hope, that either persuasion will soften, or arguments convince him. A man, once hardened in cruelty by inveterate avarice, is scarcely to be considered as any longer human; nor is it to be hoped, that any impression can be made upon him, by methods applicable only to reasonable beings. Beneficence and compassion can be awakened in such hearts only by the operation of divine grace, and must be the effect of a miracle, like that which turned the dry rock into a springing well.

Let every one, that considers this state of obdurate wickedness, that is struck with horror at the mention of a man void of pity, that feels resentment at the name of oppression, and melts with sorrow at the voice of misery, remember that those who have now lost all these sentiments, were originally formed with passions, and instincts, and reason, like his own: let him reflect, that he, who now stands most firmly, may fall by negligence, and that negligence arises from security. Let him therefore observe, by what gradations men sink into perdition, by what insensible deviations they wander from the ways of virtue, till they are scarce able to return; and let him be warned by their example, to avoid the original causes of depravity, and repel the first attacks of unreasonable self-love; let him meditate on the excellence of charity, and improve those seeds of benevolence, which are implanted in every mind, but which will not produce fruit without care and cultivation.

Such meditations are always necessary for the promotion of virtue; for a careless and inattentive mind easily forgets its importance, and it will be practiced only with a degree of ardour, proportioned to the sense of our obligations to it.

To assist such reflections, to confirm the benevolence of the liberal, and to show those who have lived without regard to the necessities of others, the absurdity of their conduct, I shall inquire...


  1. In regards to charity, Johnson burdened himself considerably in the exercise of it through-out his life, as th following passage indicates. Frank (Barber) was the freed West Indian slave whom Johnson took into his household at the age of 10, nurturing and educating him.

    "In 1777 Johnson took another lodger, Tetty's* old friend Mrs. Desmoulins, who for many years had been living in Chelsea in poverty. Although he did not much like her, he felt a lingering obligation to her not only on account of Tetty but also because she was the daughter of his godfather, after who he had been named and who helped him to get to Oxford with some small financial assistance. He gave her an allowance of half a guinea per week and allowed her (with her daughter) to move into the same room with a "Scotch wench", Poll Carmichael, whom Johnson may have taken in as early as 1773, if she was one and the same as the prostitute he found nearly lifeless in the street one day and carried home on his back. He took care of Poll for years and had long been assisting her to recover a small patrimony she said she had been unjustly denied. She did not work out in the house as well as he had hoped:' we could spare her very well from us; Poll is a stupid slut', he remarked to Mrs. Thrale in 1778.

    Desmoulins and her daughter brought to seven the total number of dependants living in Bolt Court in the summer of 1777. She completed the recipe for domestic chaos in the house, for she and Mrs. Williams ( J's. blind housekeeper) despised each other and the normal bickering in the house increased exponentially. Mrs. Thrale was both amused and horrified that Johnson's house was 'overun with all sorts of strange creatures, whom he admits for mere charity', but as they both be occasionally of service to each other, and neither of them have any other place to go to, their animosity does not force them to seperate'. None of the inhabitants, in fact, liked Mrs. Desmoulins. 'Mr. Levet who thinks his ancient rights are violated, stands at bay, fierce as ten furies', Johnson grumbled to Mrs. Thrale;'Mrs. Williams growls and scolds, but Poll does not much flinch." After a year with all of them, Johnson summed up the turmoil in the house: "We have tolerable concord at home, but no love. Williams hates everyone. Levet hates Desmoulins and does not love Williams. Desmoulin hates them both. Poll loves none of them. Levet, in spite of feeling besieged by all those women, and Frank were the only stable ones. The seventy-two-year old was good company for Johnson, breakfasting with him and costing little because of his medical attentions to the poor and indigent living in the neighborhoods of Marylebone for which they were able to pay him one way or another. Johnson's deep affection for Lever and his charitable work never wavered. However, lengthy visits to Staffordshire became more than ever a way to escape the cacaphony of argument at home. This pattern of existance would last to the end of his life.

    *His Wife, died in 1751


  2. Johnson wrote more than forty sermons in his lifetime. Their bulk comprises one of his most impressive achievements- especially impressive, in personal terms, because he wrote them secretly for 'sundry beneficed clergymen' at their request- twenty-five were for John Taylor alone- with the demand that they must never reveal his authorship.

    That it was not an uncommon practice for clergymen to have sermons written for them, and that he charged two guineas each for them and, felt, therefore, he had no further right to be identified as the author, does not diminish the selflessness and charity of the act in a lifetime of writing anonymously for others in a multitude of ways.

    "Manly sense, deep penetration, and ardent love of virtue': such words have often been used to decribe Johnson's sermons. Steeped in the English homelitic tradition of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially the sermons of Richard Hooker, John Tillotson and Jeremy Taylor, the sermons are much more than standard variations on Anglican theological themes of communion, vanity, repentance and charity, among others. With their strong moral reflections, they make one think immediately of the Rambler essays and their insight into the recesses of the human mind. They are all about making one's way as best one can in this mortal existence with realism, dignity and spiritual sensitivity and devoutness. The themes Johnson wrote about include marriage, the vanity of human wishes and self-deception, arrogance and intellectual pride, envy, war, death, law and morals, capital punishment, idleness, charity and the 'compassionate heart', friendship and God.'