For Samuel Johnson, imperatives were dictated by literature and religion. The two were closely tied together in his mind. Indeed, in his laudable study of Johnson’s religious life, Charles Pierce Jr. concludes “that Johnson came to regard his own work as a professional writer with religious seriousness. [H]e believed that his writing was the principle professional means by which he could work toward his salvation.” Yet Johnson was far from the Romantic attitude that creative literature could replace or define religion. He accepted the Church and Scripture, not the poet, as the source of religious truth. The poet should, of course, use “every idea . . . for the enforcement or decoration of moral or religious truth.” But he must do so humbly, remembering that “the ideas of Christian Theology are too simple for eloquence, too sacred for fiction, and too majestic for ornament.”
Though raised by a devout mother, Johnson committed himself to Christianity only after a youthful period when he was “totally regardless of religion.” Made keenly aware of his mortality by severe illness, Johnson was provoked by William Law’s A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life to his first earnest thinking on religion. Thereafter John son became a powerful champion of orthodoxy, seeking always to make his own conduct conform to his public profession. Johnson’s intellectual need for rational and empirical proofs for his faith, however, together with his high standards for personal piety made his devotional life restless and often troubled. He was frequently assailed with doubts—”scruples” he called them—both about God’s beneficence and about his own worthiness for salvation. He was tormented with guilt about his sloth and his irregular church attendance, and he looked forward to death not with serene assurance but with awful horror at the prospect of Final Judgment. Pierce convincingly argues that the root cause of Johnson’s “gradual nervous breakdown” during the 1760’s was religious anxiety. At one point, his distress became so acute that he even bought a padlock and asked Mrs. Thrale to lock him up should he go mad.
But Johnson weathered the storm. Severely tested, his faith not only survived, but in the last months of his life gave him—for the first time—some confidence of his final state before God. Just two weeks before his death, he wrote:
I have had such rays of hope shot into my soul, as have almost persuaded me, that I am in a state of reconciliation with God.
For all the fame he achieved as a man of letters, he never confused it with immortality.
[The Religious Life of Samuel Johnson, by Charles E. Pierce Jr.; Hamden, CT: Archon]