13 December 2018

Advent devotions and prayers
by Samuel Johnson in Lichfield

Samuel Johnson in the winter darkness and with the Christmas lights in the Market Square in Lichfield last month (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2018)

Patrick Comerford

We are in the second week of Advent. Today [13 December], the Calendar in Common Worship in the Church of England today also recalls Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), the Lichfield-born lexicographer and writer.

In his Dictionary, first published in 1755, Samuel Johnson offers a definition of Advent in these words: ‘The name of one of the holy seasons, signifying the coming; that is, the coming of our Saviour: which is made the subject of our devotion during the four weeks before Christmas.’

Johnson was a devout Anglican and a compassionate man whose works are permeated with his morality. His faith did not prejudice him against others, and he respected members of other churches who demonstrated a commitment to the teachings of Christ. He admired John Milton’s poetry but could not tolerate his Puritan and Republican beliefs. He was a Tory, yet he opposed slavery and once proposed a toast to the ‘next rebellion of the negroes in the West Indies.’

He would write on moral topics with such authority and in such a trusting manner that one biographer could say: ‘No other moralist in history excels or even begins to rival him.’

Shortly before his death, Johnson composed an inscription for a floor slab in the centre of the nave in Saint Michael’s Church, Lichfield, to commemorate his father, Michael Johnson (died 1731), his mother, Sarah Johnson (died 1759), and his brother, Nathaniel Johnson (died 1737), who were all buried in the church.

The original stone was removed when Saint Michael’s was repaved in the late 1790s, but it was replaced with the same inscription in 1884 to mark the centenary of Samuel Johnson’s death.

On his last visit to church, the walk strained Johnson. However, while there he wrote a prayer for his friends, the Thrale family: ‘To thy fatherly protection, O Lord, I commend this family. Bless, guide, and defend them, that they may pass through this world, as finally to enjoy in thy presence everlasting happiness, for Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.’

In his last prayer, on 5 December 1784, before receiving Holy Communion and eight days before he died, Samuel Johnson prayed:

Almighty and most merciful Father, I am now, as to human eyes it seems, about to commemorate, for the last time, the death of thy Son Jesus Christ our Saviour and Redeemer. Grant, O Lord, that my whole hope and confidence may be in his merits, and his mercy; enforce and accept my imperfect repentance; make this commemoration available to the confirmation of my faith, the establishment of my hope, and the enlargement of my charity; and make the death of thy Son Jesus Christ effectual to my redemption. Have mercy on me, and pardon the multitude of my offences. Bless my friends; have mercy upon all men. Support me, by the grace of thy Holy Spirit, in the days of weakness, and at the hour of death; and receive me, at my death, to everlasting happiness, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.

As he lay dying, Samuel Johnson’s final words were: ‘Iam Moriturus’ (‘I who am about to die’). He fell into a coma and died at 7 p.m. on 13 December 1784. He was buried in Westminster Abbey a week later.

John Myatt’s mural on a wall in Bird Street, Lichfield, commemorating Samuel Johnson (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2017)

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