19 March 2016

A journey through Lent 2016
with Samuel Johnson (39)

Saint Mary’s Church, Lichfield … the spire collapsed on Easter Day 1716, creating a crisis of faith for Samuel Johnson 300 years ago (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

During Lent this year, I am taking time each morning to reflect on words from Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield lexicographer and writer who compiled the first authoritative English-language dictionary.

At the age of seven, an accident at Saint Mary’s Church in Lichfield upset his life and had a challenging effect on his religious outlook. The Johnson family home faced Saint Mary’s and the family worshipped there on Sundays, and rented a pew in the church.

The Johnson family may have been there 300 years ago on the morning of Easter Day 1716 when parts of the stone spire fell and landed on the roof of the church and into one of the aisles.

Describing the panic that followed, the London Weekly Journal reported:

The people (being a numerous congregation) crowded so fast that they tumbled upon one another, and lay crawling in heaps … Hats, books, hoods, scarfs, cover-sluts, or long riding hoods, headdresses, spectacles, gloves, clogs, snuff-boxes, fans, etc., were left in abundance.

Johnson later recalled the consequences for his faith of witnessing this calamity:

I fell into an inattention to religion, or an indifference about it in my ninth year. The church at Lichfield, in which we had a seat, wanted reparation, and so I was to go and find a seat in other churches; and having bad eyes and being awkward about this, I used to and read in fields on Sunday. This habit continued until my fourteenth year, and I still find a great reluctance to go to church. I then became a lax talker about religion, for I did not think much against it.

His biographer Peter Martn imagines a young Johnson taking to the fields around Lichfield with The Book of Common Prayer and the Bible instead of going to neighbouring Saint Michael’s Church, which his parents had started to attend.

He was thinking critically about religion, but he returned to returned to regular church-going after reading William Law’s Serious Call to Holy Life. He is now regarded as one of the great saintly Anglican figures of the 18th century.

Continued tomorrow.

Yesterday’s reflection.

Inside Saint Michael’s Church … the Johnson family started going to church here after the tower of Saint Mary’s collapsed 300 years ago in 1716 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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