Samuel Johnson is well-known by devotees of English history and literature. He is famous for compiling, in 1755, the first great English dictionary. He was a poet, essayist, and biographer, and was also the subject of a celebrated biography written by James Boswell in 1791.
Johnson died in 1784. One year later, a book was published by his friend Rev. George Strahan entitled Prayers and Meditations. This book contained Johnson’s private personal prayers and journal entries, confirming that he was both inwardly and outwardly a man of great Christian faith.
An example of one of Johnson’s prayers indicates both his humility and his hope for eternity through Christ:
Almighty and most merciful Father, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, nor desirest the death of a sinner, look down with mercy upon me, and grant that I may turn from my wickedness and live. Forgive the days and years which I have passed in folly, idleness, and sin. Fill me with much sorrow for the time misspent, that I may amend my life according to Thy holy word; strengthen me against habitual idleness, and enable me to direct my thoughts to the performance of every duty; that while I live I may serve Thee in the state to which Thou shalt call me, and at last by a holy and happy death be delivered from the struggles and sorrows of this life, and obtain eternal happiness by Thy mercy, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Samuel Johnson, Prayers and Meditations, 3rd edition. (London: H.R. Allenson, Limited, 1785): 45. Reprinted by BiblioLife, LLC. n.d.
This reminds us of Jesus telling the story of the tax collector’s prayer:
But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted. Luke: 18: 13-14. (ESV).
It is ironic that a man who completed the monumental task of compiling the first English dictionary should be praying to be strengthened against “habitual idleness.” It is also unexpected that anyone should pray for a “holy and happy death,” but in the context of the prayer, we see that Johnson wanted to serve the Lord in this life as well as be aware and hopeful of eternal joy through Christ.
We can perceive even more of Johnson the man through his resolutions:
At church I purpose, Before I leave the pew, to pray the occasional prayer, and read my resolutions. To pray for Tetty and the rest. The like after communion….and to meditate. (Page 46).
Johnson’s wife Tetty died in 1752. He continued to pray for her regularly up to the time of his own death, over thirty years later. Here is the prayer he wrote shortly after her death:
O Lord, our heavenly Father, almighty and most merciful God, in whose hands are life and death, who givest and takest away, castest down and raisest up, look with mercy on the affliction of Thy unworthy servant, turn away Thine anger from me, and speak peace to my troubled soul. Grant me the assistance and comfort of Thy Holy Spirit, that I may remember with thankfulness the blessings so long enjoyed by me in the society of my departed wife; make me so to think on her precepts and example, that I may imitate whatever was in her life acceptable in Thy sight, and avoid all by which she offended Thee. Forgive me, O merciful Lord, all my sins, and enable me to begin and perfect that reformation which I promised her, and to persevere in that resolution, which she implored Thee to continue, in the purposes which I recorded in Thy sight, when she lay dead before me, in obedience to Thy laws, and faith in Thy word. And now, O Lord, release me from my sorrow, fill me with just hopes, true faith, and holy consolations, and enable me to do my duty in that state of life to which Thou hast been pleased to call me, without disturbance from fruitless grief, or tumultuous imaginations; that in all my thoughts, words, and actions, I may glorify Thy Holy Name, and finally obtain, what I hope Thou hast granted to Thy departed servant, everlasting joy and felicity, through our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen. (Page 9).
There is great strength in this prayer. It is the humble but resolute prayer of a man in mourning. It is the prayer of a man who is relying and depending on God even as he feels great pain at the loss of his wife. How much better it is to mourn in hope and faith than to mourn without any hope or faith at all.
There is much to be learned from Christians who have gone before us. Praise God!
In faith and fellowship,
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