“Milking the bull” – Samuel Johnson and David Hume on religion

What role did religion play in Johnson’s life? Boswell tried to present him as a High Anglican Tory and Christians today of a conservative inclination today see Johnson as an antidote to what they consider to be the optimistic rationalism of some enlightenment thinking.

Johnson’s contemporary, the Scottish philosopher and historian David Hume is seen as the embodiment of early Enlightenment thinking although one would have to call him an empiricist, and even, to some extent, a sceptic rather than an ‘optimistic rationalist’

Hume and Johnson had little time for each other and no desire to meet and as far as I can ascertain never did meet. According to Hume, Johnson once left a gathering when Hume entered the room.[1]

It is through a third person, James Boswell, thirty years younger than either Johnson or Hume, that these two 18th century thinkers are brought together in a literary sense.

Boswell knew Hume for at least five years before he met Johnson in 1763. He remained an acquaintance of Hume and had ideas of writing Hume’s biography. Boswell also recorded an interview he had with Hume just days before Hume’s death in August, 1776. In this interview he discussed with Hume his ideas on an afterlife.

Boswell seems to me to be playing some kind of game with Johnson. On the one hand he frequently confronts Johnson with ideas of Hume and others, as if he wants Johnson to provide a clear refuting of them, but as I will show, Johnson does not have a clear answer and actually gets quite frustrated.

On the other hand, quite early in his life of Johnson, Boswell presents Johnson as a High Church Tory.

But first a brief historical background:


The historical background

The accession of William and Mary in 1688, the so-called ‘Glorious Revolution’ marked a lull in bitter religious controversy which had gone on for two centuries from the time of Henry VIII

  • Henry VIII’s execution of Thomas More because More was not “Protestant’ enough
  • Mary’s burning of 280 Protestants, including Bishops and an Archbishop.
  • The Gunpowder plot against James I because he was not Catholic enough
  • The execution of Charles 1 as a victim of puritan politics

By the time of Johnson’s birth religious fervour had died down, although the Gordon Riots of 1780 were evidence that anti-Catholic bigotry remained. The Anglican Church, as defined during Elizabeth I’s reign by the 39 Articles and the Book of Common Prayer was clearly the Established Church.

The 1688 Revolution was followed by the removal of some restrictions on non-Anglican Christians. The Toleration Act of 1689 allowed freedom of worship to Nonconformists as long as they pledged to the oaths of Allegiance and Supremacy and rejected transubstantiation, i.e., Protestants who dissented from the Church of England such as Baptists and Congregationalists. Nonconformists were allowed their own places of worship and their own teachers. However restrictions remained for Catholics or to those like the Unitarians who denied the Trinity.

However other restrictions on involvement in public life remained for all those who were not Anglicans. Nonconformists could not be awarded degrees from Oxford or Cambridge, serve in the armed forces or hold political positions.

Within the Anglican Church, religious intolerance had, in many cases, been replaced by religious indifference. Sir John Hawkins, Johnson’s first biographer, described the mid eighteenth century as one which saw the higher clergy:

… abandoning the duties of the clerical function to the lowest of their order, themselves becoming gentlemen at large, mixing in all public recreations and amusements, neglecting their studies for cards, and affecting, in many particulars of their dress, the garb of the laity, in disobedience to the canon which enjoins decency of apparel to ministers.[2]


The Sachervell Trial and consequences

However in the first half of the 18th century a distinction developed within Anglicans between those who opposed the deposition of James 11 – the original Tories - and those who supported the accession of William 11 and Mary.  This came to head in 1709 with the trial of the priest Dr Henry Sachervell, the consequences of which Boswell tries to link the young Johnson.

 Dr Henry Sachervell preached a virulently anti-Whig Sermon in St Pauls Cathedral.  It drew a parallel between the gunpowder plotters and those responsible for the execution of Charles I and it portrayed Whig Low Church Clergy as ‘false brethren’ and stressed the doctrine of non-Resistance to rulers. Eventually thousands of printed copies of the sermon were distributed throughout England.

This was seen as an implicit criticism on the Glorious Revolution and Sachervell was put on trial by the Whig Government on a charge of high crime and misdemeanours and found guilty. This made him something of a martyr and led to riots in London and elsewhere in which Presbyterians and other Dissenter churches were attacked and some burnt down

Boswell includes a story about a time when Dr Sachervell was preaching in the Lichfield Church, Johnson’s local church. The three year old Johnson was there ‘perched upon his father’s shoulders, listening and gaping at the much celebrated speaker’

When Johnson’s father was asked how he could bring such an infant to Church among such a crowd, he is said to have replied:

... because it was impossible to keep him at home; for young as he was, he believed he had caught the public spirit and zeal for Sachervel, and would have staid for ever in the church, satisfied with beholding him.  

Boswell gave as his reason for including this most likely apocryphal story was that it was ‘a traditional story of the infant Hercules of Toryism so characteristic, that I shall not withhold it.’ [3]


Boswell and Hume

It is when we read Boswell’s accounts of his discussions with Johnson about Hume in particular and religious questions in general that a far more complex view of Johnson’s beliefs can be seen.

Boswell first confronts Johnson with Hume’s ideas in late July 1763, just a few months after his first meeting with Johnson. He spoke of the Politician and agriculturalist George Dempster whose principles had been poisoned by a ‘noted infidel writer’ that is, Hume.

Johnson’s response was that

Hume and other sceptical innovators are vain men and will gratify themselves at any expense. Truth will not afford sufficient food to their vanity; so they have betaken themselves to error. Truth is a cow which will yield such people no more milk and so they are gone to milk the bull.[4]

But what Johnson went on to say is also important:

Everything which Hume has advanced against Christianity had passed through my mind long before he wrote. Always remember this, that after a system is well settled upon positive evidence, a few partial objections ought not to shake it. The human mind is so limited that it cannot take in all the parts of a subject, so there may be objections raised against any thing [5].


Sources for Johnson’s religious beliefs

One might expect that the prayers and sermons would be a rich source for Johnson’s beliefs, but for me both had limitations. The majority of the sermons he wrote read more like Rambler or Idler essays, reflecting on the ethical life rather than religious life. Just over half were based on Old Testament texts and a quarter of the texts came from Proverbs or Ecclesiastes and therefore did not provide any opportunity to details with specifically Christian issues. The only sermon that had a text that came from the Gospels was the sermon Johnson wrote for his wife’s funeral. All the other sermons with a New Testament text had the text taken from the Epistles which again focussed on behaviour rather than belief.

The prayers seem to me to be sincere but formulaic. They consist of an invocation at the start such as “Almighty Father” followed by pleas to remove his bad habits such as indolence, and then a concluding phrase such as ‘Grant this O Lord, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen’.

A comment by Frances Reynolds, the youngest sister of Joshua Reynolds, is appropriate. She thought that his involuntary lip movements and stutterings were themselves a form of prayer:

He seemed to struggle almost incessantly with some mental evil, and often, by the expression of his countenance and the motion of his lips, appeared to be offering up some ejaculation to Heaven to remove it. [6]

Johnson’s written prayers have a similar function: he is addressing himself as much as he is addressing God.

Boswell’s life of Johnson is of particular importance as Boswell frequently raises questions which catch Johnson off guard. Another source is Johnson’s detailed review of a work by Soame Jenyns, A free inquiry into the nature and origins of evil. Here again, in responding to someone else’s views, Johnson’s views become clearer.

 Rambler 44 did deal with the contrast between Superstition and Religion, but this was not written by Johnson. Its writer was Elizabeth Carter, who occasionally contributed articles. It is written in a simple allegorical style – superstition portrayed as an old hag and religion as a young woman – that is not typical of Johnson’s style


Religion in Johnson’s early life

While Boswell presented Johnson as a High Church Tory there is plenty of evidence that his religious beliefs were broader and more tolerant than that. As a young child Johnson received from his parents the basics of Anglican belief but there is no other evidence to support Boswell’s description of Johnson’s father Michael as “a zealous High Churchman and royalist [who] retained his attachment to the unfortunate house of Stuart [7]

Johnson admitted that from about his ninth year he fell into ‘an inattention to religion, or an indifference about it’ and from about fourteen ‘became a sort of lax talker against religion’[8] However this changed when Johnson was at Oxford. He took up William Law’s devotional book ‘A serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life.’ He told Boswell that he was:

… expecting to find it a dull book (as such books generally are) and perhaps to laugh at it. But I found Law quite an overmatch for me; and this was the first occasion of my thinking in earnest of religion after I became capable of rational inquiry. [9]

(Overmatch: to be too powerful; to conquer; to oppress by a superior force)

Law’s book is an attack on those who believe that devotion only involves attending church regularly and carefully following ritual, and who maintain that once you have done that it matters little how you live your daily life.

Law implies that a faith which does not express itself in how one lives one’s daily life is not really a true faith:

Is it not … exceeding strange that people should place so much piety in the attendance upon public worship, concerning which there is not one precept of our Lord's to be found, and yet neglect these common duties of our ordinary life, which are commanded in every page of the Gospel? I call these duties the devotion of our common life, because if they are to be practised, they must be made parts of our common life; they can have no place anywhere else. [10]

Law then goes on to say what some of these duties are:

If humility be a Christian duty, then the common life of a Christian is to be a constant course of humility in all its kinds. If poverty of spirit be necessary, it must be the spirit and temper of every day of our lives. If we are to relieve the naked, the sick, and the prisoner, it must be the common charity of our lives, as far as we can render ourselves able to perform it. If we are to love our enemies, we must make our common life a visible exercise and demonstration of that love. [11]


Johnson as a pragmatist

Johnson also had a strong pragmatic streak and the question becomes how to reconcile this with a religious position.

His pragmatism can be shown in his response to Bishop Berkeley’s theory of immaterialism –that the world, as represented by our senses, depends for its existence on being perceived and therefore has no existence on its own. The classic statement of this is that if a tree falls in a forest and there is no living being to hear it, it will make no sound.

Johnson’s reply to his theory has entered folklore:

I [Boswell] observed that though we are satisfied his doctrine is not true, it is impossible to refute it. I shall never forget the alacrity with which Johnson answered, striking his foot with mighty force against a large stone, till he rebounded from it, ‘I refute it thus” [12]

In most cases particular doctrines of the Church were of little interest to Johnson, although to question them was considered dangerous if it upset overall respect for religion. If a doctrine was discussed, usually because it was raised by Boswell in the first place, it was not long before Johnson became frustrated and brought discussion to an abrupt end.

I will look at four examples:

  • The Trinity
  • Freewill versus determinism
  • Resurrection of the dead
  • Salvation


The Trinity

In May, 1773, Johnson’s friend Bennet Langton was discussing tolerance. Langton asked whether there was a difference between tolerating those ideas that led to actions and those ideas that were just speculation, and used the Trinity as an example of the latter.

Johnson was at first annoyed at the question being raised in what he called ‘mixed company’ by which I take him to mean the issue of a religious question being raised in a secular environment. However when pushed, he took a path he often followed on points of theological or philosophical debate: he actually avoided giving a view, just saying one should not question anything the Church states:

Permitting men to preach any opinion contrary to the doctrine of the established church tends, in a certain degree, to lessen the authority of the church and consequently, to lessen the influence of religion.[13]

This answer, or non-answer, (Boswell said Johnson was ‘waving the question’ ) was not good enough for Boswell and in an attempt to conceal Johnson’s agnostic position, he quoted as evidence for Johnson’s belief in the Trinity a passage from Prayers and Meditations in which Johnson ended a prayer with the fairly conventional phraseology:

O Lord, hear my prayers for Jesus Christ’s sake; to whom with thee and the Holy Ghost, three persons and one God, be all honour and glory, world without end.

I have already suggested that Johnson just repeated these phrases as part of a ritual rather than as a statement of doctrine. What Johnson was essentially saying on questions of theology one had to accept the authority of the Church and to question any part of it was a threat to the whole


Freewill versus determinism 

A second example of Johnson ‘waving the question’ – not wanting to discuss theological issues and in fact being annoyed at Boswell for raising the question - arose five years later when Boswell tried to push Johnson on the perennial debate about freewill versus determinism. Johnson, getting tired of the questions, finally came up with the pragmatic reply; ‘All theory is against the freedom of the will; all experience for it’

Boswell, realising what he had done, then made the comment:

I did not push the subject any further. I was glad to find him so mild in discussing a question of the most abstract nature, involved with theological tenets, which he generally would not suffer to be in any degree opposed. p 681


Resurrection of the dead

One further example, again initially raised by Boswell, was a discussion of the text from Matthew’s Gospel about graves being opened on Jesus’s death, and bodies coming out and entering the city. This then moved to a general discussion of the Resurrection of the dead and whether we rise with the same bodies.

Boswell said that Johnson ‘seemed reluctant to discuss it’ but finally Johnson replied to a question raised by Mrs Martha Hall (a sister of the Methodist evangelist John Wesley)

Nay, Madam, we see that it is not to be the same body; for the Scripture uses the illustration of grain sown, and we know that the grain which grows is not the same with what is sown. You cannot suppose that we shall rise with a diseased body; it is enough if there be such sameness as to distinguish identity of person. She seemed desirous of knowing more, but he left the question in obscurity. 1781 p 815



The last doctrinal matter I will look at is that of Salvation. In Article18 of the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church it is stated that one cannot be saved by how one lives but only by faith in Jesus:

They also are to be had accursed that presume to say, That every man shall be saved by the Law or Sect which he professeth, so that he be diligent to frame his life according to that Law, and the light of Nature. For holy Scripture doth set out unto us only the Name of Jesus Christ, whereby men must be saved.

As a consequence a person who believes that she is saved should not fear death. Johnson however feared death; he believed that it is at the point of your death that you will be judged, and you can never know whether you will be damned or not:

Johnson, talking of the fear of death, said ,’Some people are not afraid because they look on salvation as the effect of an absolute decree, and think they feel in themselves the marks of sanctification. Others, and they are the most rational in my opinion, look upon salvation as conditional; and as they never can be sure that they have complied with the conditions, they are afraid. P 917 Tuesday 18 May 1784

Three weeks later a similar discussion took place in a group which included Dr William Adams, who had been Master of Pembroke College and Johnson’s tutor, and Dr Adams’s wife. Johnson again surprised his company by ‘acknowledging with a look of horror, that he was much oppressed by the fear of death (928)’ He went on to say:

… as I cannot be sure that I have fulfilled the conditions on which salvation is granted, I am afraid that I may be one of those who are damned.’(Looking dismally). Dr Adams: ’What do you mean by damned?’ SJ. passionately and loudly ‘Sent to Hell Sir and punished everlastingly.’

Mrs Adams said to Johnson “You seem Sir, to forget the merits of our Redeemer” to which Johnson replied:

Madam, I do not forget the merits of my Redeemer, but my Redeemer has said that he will set some on his right hand and some on his left. He was in gloomy agitation and said ‘I’ll have no more on’t’ p 931


His attitudes to other creeds and religions

Non-Christian religions

In general terms, Johnson recognised that what particular religion you believed in was dependent on where you were born, and if you agreed that England had the right to insist that children be brought up Anglican, then the same rule must apply in countries of other religions:

You must go around to other States than your own. You do not know what a Brahmin has to say for himself. In short, I have got no further than this:  Every man has a right to utter what he thinks truth, and every other man has the right to knock him down for it. Martyrdom is the test. 769

When Boswell expressed an interest in going to Turkey where ‘religion and everything else is different’ Johnson replied ‘ …there are two objects of curiosity – the Christian world, and the Mahometan world. All the rest may be considered as barbarous’ 873

Another mention of Islam was made when there was a discussion about whether belief in the Bible was sufficient to be a Christian. Johnson argued against using belief in the Bible as a criterion to make one a Christian. When Boswell suggests it would be ‘sufficient to subscribe the Bible’  instead of to the 39 Articles of the Anglican Faith, Johnson replied:

Why no sir; for all sects will subscribe the Bible; nay the Mahometans will subscribe the Bible; for the Mahometans acknowledge Jesus Christ. As well as Moses, but maintain that God sent Mahomet as a still greater prophet than either. p 341


Other Protestant Religions – “Dissenters”

In Boswell’s ‘Life’ there are references to Methodists, who in the mid-18th Century were still a movement within the Anglican Church, only later acquiring an identity in their own right. Quakers and  the Presbyterians.

What Johnson admired about the Methodists was their extempore preaching style.  Their success in gaining followers, he maintained, ‘was owing to expressing themselves in a plain and familiar manner which is the only way to do good to the common people’ (241-2) whereas for the established clergy ‘polished periods and glittering sentences flew over the heads of the common people without any impression on their hearts’ (325).

However Methodism could not be tolerated if it was to become a threat to the established Church. In March 1768 a great deal of controversy was caused when six Methodist students were expelled from Oxford University for ‘publickly praying and exhorting’. Oxford was the training ground for Anglican priests and Johnson thought that the expulsion was ‘just and proper’

Boswell answered back:

But was it not hard, Sir, to expel them, for I am told they were good beings? JOHNSON: Sir, I believe they might be good beings, but they were not fit to be in the University of Oxford. A cow is a very good animal in the field; but we turn her out of a garden. (359-60)

Similarly Johnson was very critical when religious groups such as Methodists and Quakers spoke of being guided by an ‘inner light’. For Johnson this was a threat to civil society:

If a man (said he) pretends to a principle of action of which I can know nothing, nay, not so much as that he has it, but only he pretends to it; how can I tell what that person may be prompted to do. When a person professes to be governed by a written ascertained law, I can then know where to find him. (p 326)

Johnson had a particular objection for people changing a religion, and this was shown clearly in the case of Hannah More.

Hannah was a literary figure, a regular acquaintance of Johnson, and one of the original ‘bluestockings” She was one of those specifically mentioned when Johnson told Boswell about a dinner function he had attended in May, 1784:

I dined yesterday at Mrs Garrick’s with Mrs Carter, Miss Hannah More and Miss Fanny Burney. Three such women are not to be found; I know not where I could find a fourth, except Mrs Lennox, who is superior to them all. 915

However when Johnson’ was asked why he was so offended when Hannah More left the Anglican Church to become a Quaker, Boswell reports that Johnson was ‘frowning very angrily’ and called her an ‘odious wench’.

In Johnson’s dictionary the first meaning of wench is just a young woman ( Hannah was 35 at the time) but the other two meanings are as a strumpet or prostitute

At no stage does Johnson argue on doctrinal grounds that she has made a wrong choice. He just assumes she had no valid intellectual reason for doing so, but just acted on an impulse and out of ignorance; ‘She knew no more of the Church which she embraced, than she did of the difference between the Copernican and Ptolemaick systems.’

This was an unfortunate example for Johnson to use, because fifteen years earlier (1763) Hannah had attended lectures by the famous populariser of Newton’s work, the Scottish Astronomer James Ferguson (1710 – 1766) and had also edited Ferguson’s scientific works. She probably knew a great deal more about the differences between the two systems than Johnson did!

Johnson’s argument about changing your religion was that the religion in which you had been educated was:

… the religion in which it may be said that Providence had placed you. If you live conscientiously in that religion you may be safe. But errour is dangerous indeed, if you err when you choose a religion for yourself.

While this might seem a narrow view, denying a person the possibility of making a reasoned decision about their faith, it also had an important corollary, the need to respect those who had grown up with other religions:

… the greatest part of our knowledge is implicit faith; and as to religion, have we heard all that a disciple of Confucius, all that a Mahometan, can say for himself? (684)

Johnson is suggesting that each of these religions, if taken as a whole, could also provide their followers with a religious world view.


It is quite clear that Johnson had a great deal more sympathy for Catholicism than Boswell did. Boswell reported a conversation he had had with the Judge and politician Sir William Scott 1745-1836.

Scott reported Johnson as saying:

A man who is converted from Protestantism to Popery may be sincere: he parts with nothing; he is only superadding to what he already had. But a convert from Popery to Protestantism gives up so much of what he has held as sacred as anything that he retains; there is so much laceration of mind in such a conversion that it can hardly be sincere and lasting. (314)

When questioned by Boswell, Johnson gave a justification many of the distinctive features of Catholicism such as Purgatory, the worship of Saints and the sacrament of Confession. The one thing he could not accept was the withholding of wine in the commemoration of the Lord’s Supper:

I think their giving of the sacrament only in one kind is criminal because it is contrary to the express institution of Christ, and I wonder how the Council of Trent admitted it.


Johnson on religion

In trying to understand Johnson’s attitude to religion, an image drawn by Boswell is very relevant.  Boswell imagines Johnson standing in the middle of the arena in the Colosseum in Rome:

In the centre stood his judgement, which like a mighty gladiator, combatted those apprehensions that, like the wild beasts of the Arena, were all around in cells, ready to be let out upon him. After a conflict, he drove them back into their dens; but not killing them, they were still assailing them. (315)

It was Johnson’s religious faith that enabled him to hold his ground against the wild beasts in the arena, but the foundations of this faith were not always secure. When discussion about Catholicism mentioned above moved on to discussion about the fear of death, Johnson became very agitated:

He was so provoked, that he said, ‘Give us no more of this;’ and was thrown into such a state of agitation, that he expressed himself in a way that alarmed and distressed me; shewed an impatience thatI should leave him, and when I was going away, called to me sternly, ‘Don’t let us meet tomorrow’

Boswell realised he had gone too far and felt ‘like the man who had put his head into the lion’s mouth a great many times with perfect safety, but at last had it bit off.’

When it comes to Christian doctrine, there is in Johnson no concept of a religious development taking place between the Old and New Testament; any passage in the Bible was equivalent to any other and had equal authority. As pointed out already at least half of the texts for Johnson’s sermons came from the Old Testament and only one text came from the Gospels.

This approach does not address the radical morality presented by Jesus in, for example, the Sermon on the Mount and Johnson provides a pragmatic arguemng against it.

In 1785 a relation of Boswell, Lieutenant David Cunninghame, had killed another man in a duel. In the discussion Boswell quoted from Luke Chapter 6 where Jesus was speaking to his disciples:

Love your enemies; do good to those who hate you; bless those who curse you; pray for those who treat you spitefully. When a man hits you on the cheek, offer him the other cheek too. Luke 6: 28-9

Johnson’s reply was that the text was meant only to ‘moderate passion and should not be taken literally.’ He then referred to Matthew, where the parallel conversation is recorded and Matthew goes on to say::

If a man in authority makes you go one mile, go with him two. Give when you are asked to give; and do not turn your back on a man who wants to borrow. Matthew 5:41-2

Johnson’s reply:

Let a man whose credit is bad, come to a Quaker and say “Well, Sir, lend me a hundred pounds:” He’ll find him as unwilling as any other man. P 880

As usual, to win his argument Johnson makes it an either/or situation, whereas a Quaker would possibly first try to understand why the man was in debt, and offer ways of getting out of debt which may include a loan for part of it. This was the time, also when the Quakers, by running business honestly were also able to become quite successful. Two examples from the eighteenth century are Abraham Darby, the iron maker and James Barclay, the banker. Quakers like Hannah Moor were also strong supporters of the abolition of slavery which was something Johnson also supported.

Johnson also argued against war, but agin on pragmatic rather then religious grounds. In Johnson’s Thoughts on the Late Transactions Respecting Falkland’s Islands (1771) he was critical of England’s claim to the Falklands both on strategic and economic grounds:

This was a colony which could never become independent, for it never could be able to maintain itself. The necessary supplies were annually sent from England, at an expense which the admiralty began to think could not be quickly repaid … That of which we were almost weary ourselves, we did not expect any one to envy; and therefore supposed that we should be permitted to reside in Falkland’s Island, the undisputed lords of tempest-drive barrenness. (5/18)

He also presented a vigorous attack on “Modern warfare”:

War has means of destruction more formidable than the cannon and the sword. Of the thousands and ten thousands, that perished in our late contests with France and Spain, a very small part ever felt the stroke of an enemy; the rest languished in tents and ships, amidst damps and putrefaction; pale, torpid, spiritless and helpless; gasping and moaning … and were , at last, whelmed in pits, or heaved into the ocean, without notice and without remembrance p 11

And it is not the ones who fight who gain:

If he that shared the danger enjoyed the profit, he might show his gains without envy. But, at the conclusion of a ten years’ war, how are we recompensed for the death of multitudes, and the expense of millions, but by contemplating the sudden glories of paymasters and agents, contractors and commissaries, whose equipages shine like meteors, and whose palaces rise like exhalations.


Facing death

One aspect of religious belief is what it tells one about dying and a possible afterlife. While Johnson believed in an afterlife, even if in a spiritual rather than a physical form, he also feared a judgement in which he would be condemned.

 Here Boswell presents us with a stark contrast, that of David Hume.

On 7th July 1776 Boswell paid a visit to Hume:

… who was returned from London and Bath, just adying. I found him alone, in a reclining posture in his drawing room. He was lean, ghastly, and quite of an earthy appearance. He was dressed in a suit of grey cloth with white metal buttons, and a kind of scratch wig. He was quite different from the plump figure which he used to present.[14]

Hume was to live on for another six weeks, dying on 25th August and despite his condition at the time was quite lucid:

He seemed to be placid and even cheerful. He said he was just approaching to his end. I think these were his words. I know not how I contrived to get the subject of immortality introduced.[15]

The whole discussion seemed to have been carried out in good humour. When Boswell suggested that he hoped to triumph over Hume when they met in the afterlife, Hume replied that he would have been there so long before Boswell turned up that by then it would be nothing new. Boswell also recalled an earlier conversation with Hume, ‘on a forenoon while the sun was shining bright’ that Hume said that did not wish to be immortal because ‘he was very well in this state of being, and that the chances were very much against his being so well in another state’

Boswell raised Hume’s beliefs in discussion with Johnson:

When we were alone, I introduced the subject of death, and endeavoured to maintain that the fear of it might be got over.  I told him that David Hume said to me, he was not more uneasy to think that he should not be after this life, than that he had not been before he began to exist.

Johnson replied:

Sir, if he really thinks so, his perceptions are disturbed; he is mad; if he does not think so, he lies.[16]

Johnson made no attempt to come to grips with what Hume believed and instead resorted to an attack on Hume’s character – Hume, he claimed, was either insane or a liar. It was impossible for Johnson to contemplate that Hume had a philosophy where death was a natural part of life, something to be accepted rather than fought against.

Perhaps here Johnson should have taken more to heart the advice he gave in in Sermon 7:

How readily the antagonists deviate into personal invectives, and instead of confuting the arguments defame the lives of those, whose doctrines they disapprove.[17]

As was usual when ideas were in conflict in his mind, Johnson became very disturbed and it was here that Johnson angrily sent Boswell away, saying that he did not want to meet him again.



It is certainly true that Johnson had religious beliefs but on many occasions they seem to be in a separate compartment of his life. The positions he took on the Falkland Islands, American Independence or Slavery were argued on purely moral grounds without any special reference to Christianity.

Religion both tortured Johnson with its doctrine of a final judgement, but it also gave him some certainty – something to hold on to, just as touching and counting every railing on his way home gave him some security. It seems natural that his beliefs were at the Catholic end of the spectrum - emphasising mystery, ritual and authority — and rejecting the other end of the spectrum — the ‘enthusiasm’ of the Dissenters like Methodists and Quakers who believed that they had a personal relationship with God.

His rejection of enthusiasm is seen in his dictionary reference. Normally Johnson gives the etymology by giving the word in the language from which it was derived and its meaning, but in this case he provides the Greek ένθεος (entheos) but does not gives its translation: ‘God inside you’ or ‘filled with God’.

In fact he gives a derisory definition: ‘One who vainly imagines a private revelation; one who has a vain confidence of his intercourse with God.’ He reinforces this with a quote from the philosopher John Locke (1632-1704):

Enthusiasm is founded neither on reason nor divine revelation, but rises from the conceits of a warmed or overweening brain.

Like the majority of thinkers in the eighteenth century Johnson believed that there could be no morality outside the established religion and as Charles Pierce puts it ‘he gleaned strength and certainty from the sense of an unwavering consensus within a long tradition.’

However, if Johnson was just a religious conservative, he would be far less interesting. He was steeped in tradition but at the same time questioned it. He respected the past, but was critical of the present

Nicholas Hudson, in his book Samuel Johnson and Eighteenth Century Thought, sums this up:

Few writers were so knowledgeable or sociable to combine many sides of contemporary thought into an understanding of life distinctive for its humanity and good sense. His learning and complexity make his writings especially useful as the starting point for a broader investigation of eighteenth century thought. [18]

[1] Mossner, Life of Hume, p 586 Quoted in Miller, S Three deaths and enlightenment thought, Bucknell University Press, Lewisburg 2001 p 47

[2] Hawkins, Sir John, The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D, London, 1788

[3] Life, p 26

[4] Boswell, James The Life of Samuel Johnson (David Womersley ed) Penguin, 2008 p 234

[5] ibid

[6] Quoted by Wiltshire, John in Samuel Johnson in the Medical World: the Doctor and the patient, CUP 2005 p 27

[7] Boswell, Life, p 25

[8] Life p 43

[9] Boswell, Life, p 43

[10] Law, William A serious call to a devout and holy life, J M Dent, London 1906 p 6

[11] Law, pp 6-7

[12] Boswell, Life p 248(6 August, 1763)

[13] Life p 397

[14] Scott G and Pottle F A (Ed), The Private Papers of James Boswell Vol xii p 272

[15] ibid

[16] Boswell, Life, pp 314-5

[17] Yale, XIV p 78

[18] Hudson N Samuel Johnson and Eighteenth century thought, Clarendon Press, Oxford 1988

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