(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The Supplicating Voice is a collection of Samuel Johnson’s writings and statements dealing with religion. It includes sermons, personal prayers, diary entries, poems, published essays, relevant definitions from Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language: To Which Are Prefixed, a History of the Language, and an English Grammar (1755), and comments made in conversation and recorded by his friend and biographer James Boswell in his Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. (1791).

Johnson did not deliver the sermons he wrote. They were intended for presentation by clergymen who, lacking the skill, the time, or the inclination to make up sermons of their own, bought them from Johnson for two guineas each. An exception was the sermon on immortality that Johnson wrote for presentation at the funeral of Johnson’s wife, Elizabeth “Tetty” Johnson, on March 17, 1752. It was one of only three sermons that were dated and the only one to be published. According to Boswell, the preacher decided not to use it, but the sermon, whose subject was immortality, was printed later that month. Though Johnson believed he wrote at least forty sermons, perhaps many more, he did not keep records of his sales. Therefore only the twenty-seven in this book can be ascribed to him with relative certainty.

In all of his sermons, Johnson began with biblical texts, which he then discussed in a rational, methodical manner. In them, he often contrasted God’s majesty and righteousness with the lowly, sinful state of human beings and urged the imagined congregation to avoid pride, to be compassionate, and above all, to be charitable.

Ironically, though Johnson was a loyal member of the Church of England, he seldom attended services. He was too restless, both physically and intellectually, to sit through long sermons that were so often pedestrian and uninspired. However, he valued prayer highly, and throughout his life he composed prayers in the formal style of the Anglican collects, which he...

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(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Sources for Further Study

Chapin, Chester F. The Religious Thought of Samuel Johnson. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1968. Traces the development of Johnson’s faith and contrasts his views with that of contemporary evangelicals. Notes and index.

Clark, Jonathan, and Howard Erskine-Hill, eds. Samuel Johnson in Historical Context. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Essays by literary critics and historians address the controversy between critics who see Johnson merely as a moralist and those who note his intense commitment to religious and political causes. Notes and index.

Potkay, Adam. The Passion for Happiness: Samuel Johnson and David Hume. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000. Argues persuasively that Johnson and Hume share a definition of happiness drawn from classical sources. However, the author fails to point out the Christian basis of Johnson’s beliefs.

Quinlan, Maurice J. Samuel Johnson: A Layman’s Religion. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1964. Explains gradual change in Johnson’s beliefs, including his acceptance of the doctrine of the atonement. Notes and index.

Suarez, Michael F., S.J. “Johnson’s Christian Thought.” In The Cambridge Companion to Samuel Johnson, edited by Greg Clingham. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 1997. Johnson was an outstanding theological thinker as well as a Christian moralist. A systematic, lucid analysis.