BIRTH AND PARENTAGE; EARLY EDUCATION AND STATE OF LEARNING IN THE COUNTRY; BACHELOR'S DEGREE FROM THE COLLEGE AT SAYBROOK; THE COLLEGE REMOVED TO NEW HAVEN, AND JOHNSON APPOINTED ONE OF THE TUTORS. HIS SETTLEMENT AT WEST HAVEN AND THE INFLUENCE OF A PRAYER-BOOK AND WORKS IN ENGLISH THEOLOGY. A. D. 1696-1722.
IT would not have been worth while to write the life of Samuel Johnson, had it been as barren of incident and historic interest as the lives of most clergymen. But he lived in eventful times, and the part which he bore in the literary, ecclesiastical, and educational affairs of the country will warrant the publication of fuller memorials than those hitherto given to the public.
He was born in Guilford, Connecticut, on the 14th of October, 1696, O. S., and was the great grandson of Robert Johnson, who with his wife Adaline and four sons, Robert, Thomas, John, and William, came from Kingston upon Hull, Yorkshire, and first appeared at New Haven in 1641. Robert, the eldest of these sons, finished his academic education at Harvard College, and graduated in the class of 1645. He went to Rowley, in Massachusetts, where a brother of his father had settled, and was pursuing his studies with a view to the sacred ministry, when he sickened and died. In his will, dated "13th of the 7th mo. 1649," and probated at Ipswich "the 26th of tile 1st mo. 1650," he directed his executors to distribute a portion of his goods to the poor of Rowley, and to return the remainder to his father, Robert Johnson, at New Haven. Thomas, the second son, died a bachelor. John married, and his descendants settled in Wallingford and Middletown.
William, the grandfather of Samuel Johnson, and who was twelve years old when the family emigrated from England, removed to Guilford, and became one of the leading men in that town and a deacon in the Congregational Church. He married July 2, 1651, Elizabeth Bushnell, daughter of Francis Bushnell of Saybrook, and had eight daughters and two sons--the youngest, Nathaniel, dying not long after his birth, and surviving his mother but a few weeks. Samuel, the father of the subject of this volume, was born in 1670, and at twenty-six married Mary, daughter of David Sage of Middletown, by whom he had eleven children, six sons and five daughters. He was a successor to his father in the office of a Congregational deacon at Guilford, and the distinguished son, late in life, speaking of them both, and giving some account of their character to one of his own children, said, they were "well esteemed for men of good sense and piety, but neither of them had much more of a turn for worldly wisdom than I have."
Samuel, though not the first-born of his parents, was the eldest child that lived beyond infancy, and he appears to have been a pet of his grandfather, William, who taught him to read and commit to memory not only passages of Scripture, but the Lord's Prayer and the Creed. He was very proud of his progress, and occasionally took the boy with him in visiting his neighbors, and made him repeat for their entertainment specimens of the knowledge which he had acquired. Among his earliest recollections, Samuel mentions finding in a book of his grandfather's several Hebrew words which excited his curiosity, but no one could tell him their meaning, or explain them further than to say they belonged to the original language in which the Old Testament was written. This but increased his desire for learning, and as the project of establishing a college in the colony at Saybrook, in the neighborhood of Guilford, had just then taken shape, he was marked out in the mind of the household as a future candidate for its course of instruction. Upon the death of his grandfather, however, which happened when he was six years old, the design was relinquished, and it might not have been renewed had not his fondness for books continued and the prospect of bringing him up to other business become discouraging.
In the eleventh year of his age, he was sent to a school, in his native place, kept at that time by Jared Eliot, a young man who had graduated at the new college, a son of the then recently deceased minister of Guilford, and whose affection for his pupil ripened into friendly relations in after life. But he was not long to enjoy the happiness of such an instructor. Before the year expired, Mr. Eliot relinquished the school to prepare for his settlement in the ministry at Killingworth, now Clinton, and the lad, impatient to learn, was finally sent from home and placed under the care of Joseph Smith, pastor of a newly organized church in Upper Middletown, now Cromwell. Though a graduate of Harvard College, Mr. Smith was not a scholar who inspired his pupil with much respect for his attainments, and after trying in vain for six months to make progress in his studies, he left his poorly qualified master and returned to Guilford.
Here he fell first into the hands of Daniel Chapman, another graduate of the new college, who was an improvement upon his last instructor, and with whom he continued for nearly two years. At length he found in the person of Mr. James, who had been educated in England, a respectable classical scholar, and notwithstanding some eccentricities of character, a very good teacher. Under his tuition he made rapid advancement in Latin and Greek, and by the time he had attained the age of fourteen years, he was pronounced fit to join the College at Saybrook.
There was not much to be proud of at this period in the state of learning throughout the country. The old scholars and Puritan divines of the Connecticut and Massachusetts colonies, who came with the early emigrants, had descended to their graves, and the generation that succeeded them, not having had the advantages of the Universities in England, fell behind the fathers, and was greatly deficient, if tested by a high standard of education. The course of studies prescribed in the new college was brief, for "the utmost as to classical learning that was now generally aimed at," says Johnson in his Autobiography, "and indeed for twenty or thirty years after, was no more than to construe five or six of Tully's Orations, and as many books of Virgil poorly, and most of the Greek Testament," with a portion of the Hebrew Psalter. His first tutor at college was Joseph Noyes, one of the nine graduates of the institution in 1709, and afterwards for forty-five years pastor of the First Ecclesiastical Society in New Haven. His "tutorial renown" according to President Stiles, "was then great and excellent," and having some knowledge of Hebrew, he encouraged his pupil to devote the little leisure he might have, to the study of a language which he was chiefly desirous to understand, and which soon became his favorite branch of philology.
The tutor in the department of mathematics and mental and moral philosophy, was Phineas Fisk, and his instructions, like those of his colleague in the classics, had a limited range, and were confined to the imperfect systems not yet brushed away by the scientific discoveries of Descartes, Boyle, Locke, and Newton. When Johnson graduated in 1714, something had been heard of these great names, as well as of a new philosophy that was attracting attention in England, but the young men were cautioned against receiving it, and told that it would corrupt the pure religion of the country and bring in another system of divinity. Ames's "Medulla Theologiæ" and "Cases of Conscience" and "Wollebius," had been established as the standard of orthodoxy, and no variation from these was admissible. The trustees of the institution, at the outset, made a fundamental rule that special care should be taken to "ground the students well in theoretical divinity," and the Rector was forbidden to teach or allow others to teach any system contrary to their order.
It was less difficult to confine attention to the old scholastic systems, for the reason that books of learning in the land were rare, and opportunities for improvement small. The few works brought over from England by the first settlers were treatises published a century before; and Johnson early acquired a reputation for skill by making a synopsis of them, and reducing to some method all parts of learning then known, "a curious cobweb of distributions and definitions" as he himself termed it,--which only served to blow him up with a great conceit that he was now an adept." But his pride of opinion was afterwards thoroughly humbled. He accidentally fell in with a copy of Lord Bacon's "Instauratio Magna," or "Advancement of Learning,"--possibly the only one then in the country--and purchasing it immediately, he lost no time in devouring its contents. It opened to him a new world of thought. With an unprejudiced mind he read its pages, and considered and reconsidered the whole circle of sciences as they had been investigated and arranged by this remarkable man. He was thus led to see his own littleness in comparison with Lord Bacon's greatness, and to use his own words, he "found himself like one at once emerging out of the glimmer of twilight into the full sunshine of open day."
After completing his collegiate course and receiving the degree of Bachelor of Arts, he followed the example of Eliot, and entered upon the labor of teaching a school of the higher order in Guilford. His classmate and intimate friend, Daniel Brown, acted in the like capacity at New Haven, and the correspondence carried on between them at this period was full of affection, and bore upon theology, and questions that related to "philosophy in general and logic in particular." The concerns of the College, too, were much in their thoughts. Brown, in one of his letters dated August 3, 1716, wrote: "As to domestic affairs, please to be informed, that July 18, Mr. Moss, Hemingway, and Noyes, went to consecrate your chapel at the North Village.... This town hath given eight acres of land hard joining to the town plot, for the use of the College, if it comes here. Considerable of money is subscribed also."
The beginning of the institution was a contribution of about forty folio volumes, almost all theological, and given by different ministers of the colony "for founding a college in Connecticut." The next year, 1701, this library was increased by another private donation, and in 1714, Jeremiah Dummer, the agent of the colony in England, sent over a valuable collection of eight hundred volumes, some of which were his own gift, and the remainder had been obtained at his solicitation from various English gentlemen and authors. The whole number of books, was now about one thousand, and among them were works of eminent writers of the Church of England, both clergymen and laymen. Johnson and his literary friends eagerly embraced opportunities of becoming acquainted with the new collection, and read for the first time the works of some of the best English divines and philosophers. The library was placed at Saybrook, where the instruction was carried on by two tutors, and where the private commencements were held. But no college building had been erected there; and as the original charter gave to the trustees the right of selecting the town in which the institution should be permanently fixed, a diversity of opinion arose on the subject, and sharp controversies sprung up which led to disorder and dissatisfaction among the students. They complained of the want of proper accommodations at Saybrook, and entertained so little respect for their tutors as to break out into open rebellion towards the end of the year 1715. Those from towns on the Connecticut River, acting under the guidance of Timothy Woodbridge and Thomas Buckingham, ministers at Hartford and trustees of the College, collected together at Wethersfield, where instruction was set up in a collegiate way by two tutors, and in which place or in Hartford these trustees wished the institution to be finally located. Other students from the sea-side towns put themselves under the care and tuition of Mr. Johnson at Guilford, while Mr. Andrew, the rector pro tem., who resided at Milford, appears to have taken upon himself the instruction and oversight of the senior class.
The breach thus made in the colony could not be readily healed, and the Collegiate School, for so it was denominated at that time, continued in a disordered state till September, 1716, when a majority of the trustees, of which number was Governor Saltonstall, voted to remove it to New Haven. The sanction of the General Assembly, which met the following month, was asked and obtained for the removal, and then the trustees proceeded to elect Mr. Johnson one of the tutors; and with a view of conciliating the opposition, they chose Samuel Smith, who was of the Wethersfield party, to be the other. But the dissatisfaction was not appeased, and at Saybrook forcible resistance was made to the removal of the library, so that the Governor and Council deemed it expedient to convene there, and aid the sheriff in the performance of his duty. Besides other lawless acts, the carts provided for transporting the books were destroyed in the night time, the bridges between Saybrook and New Haven were rendered impassable, and during the week in which the library was upon the road, many valuable books and papers were lost. An attempt to supersede Governor Saltonstall at the next election, for his activity in the matter, was well-nigh successful, [Prof. Kingsley's Sketch of Yale College, p. 7.] and the feud in the government was not diminished when a subscription was set on foot in New Haven, "and in all the neighboring towns, for building a college; and one Mr. Caner of Boston was procured to undertake the work, who directly applied himself to the business." [Johnson MSS.] Mr. Johnson, under a commission from the trustees, waited on Mr. Smith to induce him to accept the office of tutor and bring his scholars with him to New Haven, but he and his party were inexorable, and resolved to maintain their ground and carry on their design. Johnson, therefore, was obliged to enter upon the tutorship alone, and with about fifteen students from the sea-side began his course of instruction at New Haven, being assisted by Mr. Noyes, the minister of the town.
In 1718 the trustees appointed Daniel Brown to be his colleague,--the classmate whose turn of mind and thirst for knowledge not only made him an agreeable companion, but a hearty supporter of new studies in the line of philosophy and mathematics. By the autumn of that year several apartments were finished in the college building, and Johnson first lodged and set up housekeeping therein, and shortly his colleague followed his example. The institution was now gaining friends and a good reputation. The General Assembly had hitherto, for the sake of peace, connived at the faction in Wethersfield, hoping it would die out of itself; but at the October session in 1718, an act was passed requiring all the students to repair to the established college. "They made an appearance of submission, and came all at once in a caravan; but it soon appeared that they had no good intention; they found fault with everything, and made all the mischief they could, as they were doubtless instructed to do;" and after six weeks they withdrew and rejoined the old faction. At the next session of the General Assembly measures were concerted to reconcile the conflicting interests, and finally the difference was compromised in this way: the scholars should return to their duty and abide at New Haven; and in case they did, the degrees which had been given at Wethersfield should be allowed good, "I and a State House should be built at the public expense at Hartford." Thus the unhappy controversy--a manuscript history of which by Johnson has been preserved--was terminated, and liberal donations of money and of books by Governor Yale gave to the college a new impulse, and the name which it now bears was then conferred on it in honor of him for his timely benefactions.
The state of the institution demanded a resident rector, and as Mr. Andrew was advanced in life and disinclined to remove from Milford, the trustees chose Timothy Cutler, who had been for ten years the pastor in Stratford and a popular preacher in the colony, to be his successor. He was a native of Charlestown in Massachusetts, and graduated at Harvard College in 1701. His learning and superior talents qualified him for the station; but the thought of his separation from them grieved his parishioners, and they resisted it for some time with much firmness. At length, however, it was accomplished, and Mr. Cutler established himself with his family at New Haven in the autumn of 1719, after which Johnson retired from the office of tutor, though not from association with his literary friends--the Rector and Mr. Brown. Theology was the study to which he had always intended to devote himself; and as the people of West Haven--a village only four miles from the college, and at that time a part of New Haven--earnestly desired him to settle among them, he yielded to their solicitations, and was ordained there in the Congregational way on the 20th of March, 1720, "having been," according to his own account, "a preacher occasionally ever since he was eighteen." He might have found other fields of pastoral labor in many respects more inviting, but his desire to be near the college and the library, as well as near those for whose society he had the keenest relish, led him to forego the acceptance of better offers, and give the preference to a situation of comparatively little promise.
The books most frequently in his hands at this period were not calculated to strengthen his faith in Independency, and some time before his ordination, for the purpose of "methodizing his thoughts," and assisting his memory, he drew up a scheme of religion, embracing its doctrines and duties, and following the plan of John Scott in his "Christian Life," a work which he greatly admired and pronounced to be the best and most compendious that had yet fallen in his way. His inquisitive mind would not allow him to rest contented in hasty conclusions, and so early as 1715 he met with the discourse of Archbishop King on "the Inventions of Men in the Worship of God,"--the reading of which helped to increase his dislike of extempore prayers, and to confirm him in the opinion that the use of pre-composed forms of public worship was more devotional, and showed much greater reverence for the Divine Majesty. He had been bred up in prejudice against the Church of England, but a good, religious man in Guilford placed in his hands a copy of the Book of Common Prayer, and this, with the treatise of Archbishop King, perused the year before, caused all his prejudices to vanish, and inspired him with a love of the Liturgy, which, contrary to his former belief, he found to be collected for the most part out of the Holy Scriptures.
The direction of his thoughts may be learned from the books which he read after retiring from his tutorship in the college. About the time of his settlement at West Haven he began a catalogue of those, which he perused with evident care, and curiously enough, at the head of this list stands the Liturgy of the Church of England, followed immediately by Potter on "Church Government," and Patrick's "Devotions;" and a little later, by "The Whole Duty of Man," Wall on "Infant Baptism," Echard's "Church History," and Hooker's "Ecclesiastical Polity." The shelves of the well-selected library contained other books in English theology--among them the works of such eminent divines as Barrow, Beveridge, Bull, Burnet, Hoadly, Pearson, Sharp, Sherlock, South, Taylor, Tillotson, Wake, and Whitby, and all were included in the list of those which passed under his review and consideration during the brief period of his residence at West Haven. So much was he opposed to extempore prayers in public that he provided himself with forms drawn chiefly from the Liturgy of the Church of England, and repeated them with a fervor which won the admiration not only of his own flock but of persons connected with the adjoining parishes. It was his ordinary practice to compose carefully one discourse a month; but he read attentively the sermons of Barrow and other celebrated preachers, and so charged his mind with their thoughts that, by the help of a few notes, he delivered the substance of them in language of his own, and thus acquired a facility of expression which became of service to him in after life.
It is easy to foresee the influence which such a course of reading would have upon a candid and inquiring mind like that of Johnson. It threw new light over subjects that had long embarrassed him, and he was unable to find any sufficient support for the Congregational form of church government or for the rigid Calvinistic tenets in which he had been educated. He spoke his doubts to his literary friends, and they shared them with him; so that from first meeting in a fraternal way at the residences of each other or in the college library, and examining the doctrines and practices of the Primitive Church, they had begun to be uneasy and anxious about the form and authority of their own discipline and worship. How to conduct themselves under the circumstances was a delicate question. There were six of these earnest inquirers besides Johnson, and they occupied responsible positions in and around New Haven. Cutler and Brown carried on the college; John Hart was the minister at East Guilford, now Madison; Jared Eliot was the minister at Killingworth; Samuel Whittelsey at Wallingford; and James Wetmore at North Haven. With the exception of Cutler, all were graduates of the college, and three of them were classmates, who had been brought into very intimate association with each other. Their conferences and readings led them to the conclusion that the Church of England was the nearest to the apostolic model, and if conformity to it had been an easy thing, they would most likely have relinquished at once their positions and made the change. Johnson wrote in his private journal, on the 3d of January, 1722, these honest and touching words:--
I hoped when I was ordained that I had sufficiently satisfied myself of the validity of Presbyterian ordination under my circumstances. [A manuscript of Johnson "written at Westhaven, Dec. 20, A. D. 1719," entitled, "My present Thoughts of Episcopacy with what I conceive may justifie me in accepting Presbyterial Ordination," gives the state of his mind three months before he was formally set apart to the work of the ministry. In this paper he first sets down his apprehensions formed from the best light he could obtain, which were entirely favorable to Episcopacy, and then considers the circumstances under which he was called to proceed. Among the reasons that led him to accept Presbyterial ordination--were "the passionate entreaties of a tender mother," the effect upon the College, if he publicly declared for Episcopacy, his "want of that politeness and those qualifications which would be requisite in making such an appearance," and the not understanding sufficiently what was needed to take Episcopal orders. "Although I seem," he adds in conclusion, "tolerably well satisfied in these my thoughts of the right of Episcopacy, yet, considering the meanness of my advantages and the scantiness of my time hitherto, I have reason to be very jealous whether I have not too much precipitated into those opinions, and then finally perhaps I may in the mean time be doing some service to promote the main interest of religion, though it be not as a method so desirable."] But alas! I have ever since had growing suspicions that it is not right, and that I am an usurper in the house of God, which sometimes I must confess fills my mind with a great deal of perplexity, and I know not what to do; my case is very unhappy. Oh that I could either gain satisfaction that I may lawfully proceed in the execution of the ministerial function, or that Providence would make my way plain for the obtaining of Episcopal orders. O may God, direct my steps; lead and guide me and my friends in thy way everlasting.
The Church of England scarcely had a foothold in Connecticut at this time. The Rev. George Pigot, a Missionary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, arrived at Stratford in the spring of 1722, and was as much surprised as gratified to receive from Johnson an early visit, and learn from him the direction in which some of the leading minds in the colony were drifting. He was pleased to accept an invitation to hold a private conference with the inquirers at New Haven, and the result was too good to be kept from his parishioners and from the knowledge of the Society at home. Writing to the Secretary in August, he said: "The leading people of this colony are generally prejudiced against their mother church, but yet I have great expectations of a glorious revolution of the ecclesiastics of this country, because the most distinguished gentlemen among them are resolvedly bent to promote her welfare and embrace her baptism and discipline, and if the leaders fall in, there is no doubt to be made of the people. Those gentlemen who are ordained pastors among the Independents, namely, Mr. Cutler, the president of Yale College, and five more, have held a conference with me, and are determined to declare themselves professors of the Church of England, as soon as they shall understand they will be supported at home; they complain much, both of the necessity of going home for orders, and of their inability for such an undertaking; they also surmise it to be entirely disserviceable to our church, because, if they should come to England, they must leave their flocks, and thereby give the vigilant enemy an opportunity to seize their cures and supply them with inveterate schismatics; but if a bishop could be sent us, they could secure their parishes now and hereafter, because the people here are legally qualified to choose their own ministers as often as a vacancy happens, and this would lighten the Honorable Society's expenses to a wonderful degree."
Pigot read with too much hope what he regarded as the signs of the times. He had only been in the colony a few months, and his interview with these gentlemen had made him sanguine that their declaration for Episcopacy would be followed by the conversion of other ministers of less note, as well as by the conversion of large portions of their respective flocks. He had not seen how the spirit of the old Puritan opponents of the Church of England would rise up against the movement, and the "glorious revolution of the ecclesiastics," if not a picture of his imagination, was at least still in embryo. Johnson, who was the leader of the van, and the most active among them, appears to have kept his mind open to conviction, for after making an entry in the catalogue of books before referred to of the works of Cyprian, he added immediately under it these words: "' Which, with other ancient and modern authors read for these three last years, have proved so convincing of the necessity of Episcopal Ordination to me and my friends, that this Commencement, September 13, 1722, we found it necessary to express our doubts to the ministers, from whom, if we receive not satisfaction, we shall be obliged to desist."