Academic journal article Cithara

Religious Partisanship in Samuel Johnson's Dictionary

Academic journal article Cithara

Religious Partisanship in Samuel Johnson's Dictionary

Article excerpt

That staunch Whig Thomas Edwards remarked that Samuel Johnson had made his Dictionary of the English Language (1755) "a vehicle for Jacobite and High-flying tenets by giving many examples from the party pamphlets of [Jonathan] Swift, from South's Sermons and other authors in that way of thinking" (Sledd and KoIb 135). The extent to which Johnson may have given a polemical flavor to his Dictionary has recently centered about the many changes he made in the edition of 1 773, with Allen Reddick asserting and Howard Weinbrot denying that Johnson in this fourth edition adopted a religiously conservative "polemical strategy" (Reddick xiv) in response to attempts during the early 1770s to abolish subscription to the Church of England's Articles of Religion.1

However this may be, I assume that most students of Johnson would agree that both the 1755 and 1773 editions of Johnson's Dictionary are, in Weinbrot's words, "broadly moral, Anglican Christian, literary, and English" (54). But how does one define "Anglican Christian"? There is a sense in which the Church of England was necessarily polemical. The break with Rome involved polemics as Anglican divines argued their case not only against Rome but against Puritans and radical Reformation sects such as the Anabaptists.

The eighteenth-century Church's service book, the Book of Common Prayer, reflects the religious tensions of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It contains a Fifth of November thanksgiving prayer for deliverance from the "Popish Treachery" of the Gunpowder Plot as well as a prayer of thanksgiving "for the Deliverance of our Church and Nation from Popish Tyranny" by the bringing over of "King William Upon this Day." The Thirtieth of January prayer in remembrance of "King Charles the Martyr" and the prayer of thanksgiving for the restoration of Charles ? are not so obviously partisan since many Puritans who had opposed the policies of Charles I deplored his execution and welcomed the restoration of his son. But the Thirtieth of January service is high church Anglican; eighteenth-century Dissenters as well as seventeenth-century Puritans would have rejected the parallel drawn between Christ and Charles as we have it, for instance, in the prayer beginning "Blessed Lord, in whose sight the death of thy Saints is precious."

Although not strictly part of the prayer book, the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion were commonly bound with it during the eighteenth century and were therefore readily accessible to the many Anglicans who used the book in their family devotions. Particular Catholic doctrines (purgatory, rransubstantiation) are condemned by name, and Article 19 says that "the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith." Without naming them, Articles 8 and 16 protest against Protestants, chiefly Anabaptists, who rejected creeds and were thought guilty of antinomianism, while Article 38 condemns "certain Anabaptists" for teaching community of goods.

I will argue that Johnson deliberately chooses Dictionary quotations which give full support to the official doctrine of the Church of England as contained in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and Thirty-nine Articles of Religion. Johnson does not agree with the official doctrine in every instance, but for reasons I try to explain, feels obliged to choose quotations supporting this doctrine.

Creeds and articles of religion were often attacked by seventeenth-century Puritans and eighteenth-century Dissenters as unscriptural limitations on the Protestant right of private judgment in matters of religion. In his Dictionary Johnson defends the Thirty-nine Articles by a quotation from Francis Bacon: "The doctrine of the church of England, expressed in the thirty-nine articles, is so soundly and so orthodoxly settled, as cannot be questioned without extreme danger to the honour of our religion." The same quotation slightly truncated appears under the word soundly (3) and slightly expanded under the word confessor. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.