Samuel Johnson

Associated Locations:

  • Lichfield, Staffordshire, England

Associated Dates:

  • September 18, 1709 – Born

Life Sketch from The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff

Copyright © Taken from the book: The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Special thanks to Vicki Jo Anderson. Please do not copy.

English Moralist, Writer, Lexicographer 1709-1784

Samuel Johnson is one of the eminent spirits who appeared to President Wilford Woodruff in the St. George Temple on August 21, 1877. This interesting story is detailed in the Eminent Spirits Appear to Wilford Woodruff wiki.

Thomas Macaulay wrote in the 1800s that Johnson was “more intimately known to posterity than other men are known their contemporaries.” He produced the first English dictionary, using writers from the Elizabethan era as a measuring rod. His hope was to stabilize the English language, giving it order and consistency. His work was not limited to defining and describing words. He was also widely known and influential as a moralist.

“The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope.”

– Samuel Johnson

Who was he?

Louis Kronenbrerger described Johnson as “a scarred and sick and deeply melancholy man… He had a larger nature, a truer benignity, a profounder humanness than any other English writer of his age.” As a child he contracted scrofulous, a tuberculosis of the lymph system, which left him scarred. His body was large boned and ungainly. Because of his childhood disease, he had a number of nervous ticks and starts. And since the disease had left him near blind, he squinted. Throughout his life, he was in poor health, though strong and muscular. All of these elements combined often left him at the mercy of others’ startled reactions or silent stares. Notwithstanding these great handicaps, Johnson became the intellectual star of the century. Dr. William Adams told Johnson’s biographer, James Boswell, that once people were able to get past his grotesqueness that he “was caressed and loved by all about him, was a gay and frolicsome fellow.”

Early Life

Birthplace of Samuel Johnson, Lichfield, England

Samuel Johnson was born in Lichfield, England, on 18 September 1709. Lichfield produced a number of eminent individuals around this time—David Garrick and Maria Edgworth among them. A couple who married later in life, his father, Michael Johnson, was twelve years older than his mother, who was 37 when Samuel was born.

Samuel was born almost dead, after a long and arduous labor. When he finally began to breath, the male midwife said. “Here is a brave boy.”

According to custom the new baby be placed for ten weeks with a wet nurse. Sarah Ford could not stand this separation, so, everyday she walked down the street to visit him. Conscious that she was breaking the prevailing mores and that the neighbors would laugh at her if they saw her, Sarah tried to vary her walks or purposely leave something at the nurses that she would have to retrieve the next day.

Once home, Samuel contracted the scrofulous, leaving his body diseased and distorted. In spite of this shaky beginning, Johnson showed early the strength of his intellect. He remembers with fondness sleeping in his mother’s bed and listening to her teach him of heaven and hell. She was a very religious person and she was very tender and attentive. Despite her limited knowledge, she was bright and intelligent.

Amazing Memory

She began teaching him his letters when he was three. While he was still a child in “petticoats” (about three), Sarah put the common prayer-book into his hands, pointed to the prayer for the day, and said, “Sam, you must get this by heart.” She started up stairs, but in minutes he was following her, “What’s the matter?” she asked. “I can say it,” he replied. He had not had time to read the prayer more than twice, but recited the entire prayer from memory. When he was an adult, a friend recited a lengthy poem to him. Johnson, hearing the poem once, repeated it entirely from memory. “Had he not been eminent for more solid and brilliant qualities, mankind would have united to extol his extraordinary memory.”

Dr. Samuel Swinfen, one of Johnson’s godfathers, stated that he “never knew any child reared with so much difficulty.” But Sarah rose to occasion. Johnson began school at the age of four with widow Dame Oliver who had a school just down the street. Johnson loved learning and attending school. In grammar school he made several good friends, but was seldom invited to their homes because, according to an old history of Lichfield, it was thought that he had “the appearance of idiocy, and the sons of the gentleman in the town were reprimanded for bringing home that disagreeable driveller.” But at least one Lichfield parent saw through the scars and overhearing some children speaking contemptuously of the large, rawboned youth as “the great boy,” she said, “You call him the great boy, but take my word for it, he will one day prove a great man.” Johnson’s rising above the taunts of childhood bespeaks of an inner depth that few men have been able to find.

Entering Oxford and Married Life

Elizabeth “Tetty” Porter

Johnson remained in Lichfield until nineteenth year when he entered Oxford. A lack of funds prevented him from remaining the last year to obtain his degree. He returned to Lichfield and married the widow Mrs. Elizabeth Porter, who was nearly twice his age. But their marriage proved a happy one, as Elizabeth was a very great support to Johnson.

Johnson felt he needed a new environment, so and his good friend and student David Garrick left for London to seek their fortunes. He and Garrick carried a letter of introduction by Mr. Gilbert Walmesly, a neighbor and a man of culture and sophistication who had often invited the two prodigies to his home to visit.

Mrs. Johnson, or Tetty, as Johnson called her, remained behind until he could send for her. London was not without its struggles and he often had to walk the streets at night for want of a place to sleep. At times his imposing figure kept him from harm.

It took him about a year to find employment that provided a steady income, writing for the Gentleman’s Magazine. He sent for Tetty and they began their time in London. Johnson loved London and felt that when a man was tired of London, he was tired of life.

Johnson’s Writings

Samuel Johnson reading Oliver Goldsmith’s “The Vicar of Wakefield”

Johnson’s first recognition came with his Life of Richard Savage. As Johnson and his writings became known, there gathered around him a group of intellectuals. He loved to gather in the local inn or pub just for the pleasure of conversation. Intolerant of idle chatter, he loved true intellectual banter. The club provided a place for enlightenment and ideas among the still almost barbaric condition of the day. Education and freedom were greatly lacking. Sewers ran in an open ditch in the middle of the road. A man could be hung for over a hundred crimes, even the simple act of chopping down a tree. In their literary club, these men found great solace in mingling with minds that were reaching beyond the present situation.

The famous club included Samuel Johnson; David Garrick; Edmund Burke, the great statesman; Oliver Goldsmith, author; Sir Joshua Reynolds, artist and founder of the Royal Academy of Art; Bennet Langton, professor of ancient literature; Tophan Beauclerk, a descendant of Charles II; Thomas Percy, a clergyman; Sir William Jones, a lawyer and student of oriental literature; Sir Edward Gibbon, the great historian; Adam Smith, author of The Wealth of Nations, Richard Sheridan, actor and parliamentarian; and Edmund Malone, a noted Shakespearean scholar.

This impact that his club and this group of men had on the western world cannot be measured. What we think, what we study, our very freedoms and forms of government reflect their influence. the framers of the U.S. Constitution studied Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations, men both influence by Johnson. “Johnson knew more books than any man alive” said Adam Smith.

Johnson also complied, corrected, and annotated the plays of Shakespeare. His literary work in Shakespeare and David Garrick’s Shakespearean acting began a new wave of attention to Shakespeare that has not ceased.

An extremely religious, man Johnson was adamant in condemning sin, yet remaining compassionate toward the sinner. Once he picked up a sick and dying prostitute, carried her home, nursed her back to health, and “endeavored to put her in a virtuous way of living.” Johnson kept his own Prayers and Meditations filling two volumes. On 3 April 1753, he wrote: “O God, who hast hitherto supported me, enable me to proceed in this labor, and in the whole task of my present state; that when I shall render up, at the last day, an account of the talent committed to me, I may receive pardon, for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.”

Joshua Reynold‘s depiction of Samuel Johnson’s literary party, of which he was a member.

On his last visit to Lichfield, Johnson disappeared for a whole day. His friends asked where he had been and he related how fifty years before, his father had asked him o go into the market and attend his book stall. Johnson had refused his father. Now fifty years later he had gone to the market, and that his hat in his hand, stood the day long in an attempt to atone for his sin.

Johnson lived during the time literature reached its turning point. It had ceased to flourish under the patronage of the social elect, and had yet to flourish under the patronage of public. Johnson and his club were a catalyst for that change. They aroused the public and helped them begin their role of support.

While Johnson enjoyed intellectual banter, which he used to start a debate or conversation, he was very serious about moral views. Upon his death bed, he requested that his physician be honest with him. When the physician told him he was near death, he said, “O will take no more physic, nor even my opiates; for I have prayed that I may render up my soul to God unclouded.” It has been said that this unclouded soul was not different from other that of others; it was greater.

Copyright © Taken from the book: The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Special thanks to Vicki Jo Anderson. Please do not copy.  1

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Notes:

  1. Anderson, Vicki Jo. (1994). The Other Eminent Men of Wilford Woodruff. Cottonwood, AZ: Zichron Historical Research Institute.

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