Reading the "Religious" Language of Samuel Johnson's Sermons

By Kass, Thomas G. | Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview
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Reading the "Religious" Language of Samuel Johnson's Sermons

Kass, Thomas G., Renascence: Essays on Values in Literature

THE importance and popularity that the sermon once held in the secular as well as in the religious life of England is often underestimated today. Samuel Johnson claimed that he wrote approximately forty sermons; of these, twenty-eight are extant and have been attributed to him.(1) The only book-length study of the sermons available to date is James Gray's Johnson's Sermons: A Study. In addition to providing a history of the composition and printing of the Sermons, Gray's study traces Johnson's attitudes on human vanity, the brevity of life, suffering, repentance, charity, domestic happiness, friendship, the Atonement, the Incarnation, rewards and punishments with parallel themes found in Rasselas, The Vanity of Human Wishes, The Idler, and The Rambler.

Gray accurately argues for the integrated nature of Johnson's exhortations to right thinking and living. Moreover, Gray's study establishes numerous correlations between Johnson's Sermons and the rich English homiletic tradition. However, it does not examine Johnson's stylistic modifications of important elements within that same tradition which he found so praiseworthy. Johnson's modifications suggest his belief that religious faith is forged more by the realities of secular life and less by conventional religious ideals.

In contrast with English sermon style and especially with the metaphysical conventions dating from the seventeenth century which characterized some aspects of this style, Samuel Johnson's Sermons are remarkably free from other-worldly allusions, far-fetched symbolism, and ingenious imagery. He considered these tropes inappropriate for describing matters of religion and, more significantly, a corrupting influence on the practice of religion. Indeed, no legions of devils or choirs of angels inhabit Johnson's Sermons; they do not engage in interminable speculations on the abstract nature of the soul. The style of Johnson's Sermons always accentuates his efforts to examine the abstruse principles of religion against common human experience. By acknowledging the self-delusive propensities within human nature, the Sermons present religion as a pragmatic means to ascertain and make tolerable our basic helplessness.

Johnson's deviations in style from elements within the English sermon tradition is not an indication of his lack of esteem for the sermon as a genuine division of literature. On the contrary, his numerous observations on the English sermon reveal his appreciation of the oral, written, homiletic, and literary dimensions of the genre. In a conversation concerning the posthumous sale of the Honorable Topham Beauclerk's library, Wilkes remarks on the irony that Beauclerk, a renowned rake, should have owned so many volumes of sermons:

   Mr. Beauclerk's great library was this season sold in London by auction.
   Mr. Wilkes said, he wondered to find in it such a numerous collection of
   sermons; seeming to think it strange that a gentleman of Mr. Beauclerk's
   character in the gay world, should have chosen to have many compositions of
   that kind. JOHNSON: Why, Sir, you are to consider that sermons make a
   considerable branch of English literature; so that a library must be very
   imperfect if it has not a numerous collection of sermons. (Boswell

IN the Dictionary, Johnson's first definition for a sermon is: "A discourse of instruction pronounced by a divine for the edification of the people." The illustrative quotation, taken from Hooker, suggests both the artistic and the didactic traditions of the sermon:

   As for our sermons, be they never so sound and perfect, God's words they
   are not, as the sermons of the prophets were; no, they are but ambiguously
   termed his word, because his word is commonly the subject whereof they
   treat, and must be the rule whereby they are framed.

However, it is not Richard Hooker but Thomas Secker, the influential Archbishop of Canterbury (1758-1768), for whom Johnson "expressed a great opinion" (Boswell 4:524).

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