Project Canterbury

Life and Correspondence of Samuel Johnson, D.D.
Missionary of the Church of England in Connecticut and First President of King's College, New York.

By E. Edwards Beardsley, D.D.

New York: Hurd and Houghton, 1874.

Chapter X.


A. D. 1759-1761.

THE disease which had been the great horror of his life, drove him once more from his post. "Never" he wrote to his son, on the 15th of October, "was anything known like the present breaking out of the small-pox in New York. It seems as though it arose out of the ground. They are surprised at it and cannot account for it." He undertook to keep himself from exposure, and for a time heard the recitations of the classes in his own dwelling, but soon the disease appeared almost at his door, and fortifying himself as best he could, he hurried from the city to a farm-house in the suburbs, where he remained until all danger of having taken it was past, and then with a servant he proceeded to Stratford. Shut up in this rural retreat, he spent the winter with his son, more anxious than ever for the College, since one of the tutors--Mr. Treadwell--was in a decline, and could render very little assistance to his colleague. He died of consumption before the spring had much advanced; and thus the entire management of the Institution, in the absence of the President, devolved upon Mr. Cutting.

Dr. Johnson did not return to New York until the middle of May, and it was with some fear that he ventured at this time, for there were a few scattered cases of small-pox about the town, and he could not know when he might expose himself and become a victim of the distemper. A desolate feeling possessed him as he resumed his college duties. The city appeared to him as it never had before, almost a wilderness, for besides the loss of Mr. Treadwell, a place among the Governors had been vacated which he could not hope to see again filled by one of equal energy and influence. Benjamin Nicoll, the younger son of his deceased wife, whose education from childhood he had superintended, who had risen to the highest eminence as a lawyer in the city, and whose house had been his home as much as that of his own son in Stratford, sickened and died at the age of forty-two, in April, 1760, before he could return. It was said that "never in the memory of man at New York was any one so much lamented." His death was the severest misfortune which had befallen the College. It filled its friends with consternation, and to Johnson in particular it was a most painful bereavement, for of all the members of the governing board, none was more able, wise, and zealous than he, and upon none had he relied, more confidently to carry him through his perplexities and trials, and enable him to place the College upon a broad and firm foundation.

His long absence and the sickness and death of his "best tutor" had been a serious detriment to the Institution. Several of the students withdrew, and the prospect for the future was surrounded with gloom. These things made it the more necessary for him to apply all his energy and ingenuity to recover from the losses which had been suffered, and get back the confidence of those who had grown lukewarm or doubtful. The college building, one hundred and eighty feet in length by thirty, three stories high, erected in a delightful situation near the Hudson River, and "opening to the harbor," was so far completed that he moved into it and "set up housekeeping and tuition there, a little more than forty years after he had done the same at Yale College in New Haven." He wrote very earnestly to the Archbishop of Canterbury and begged him to send two good tutors--one that might be qualified in time to succeed him, and the other to take the department of mathematics and experimental philosophy, made vacant by the death of Mr. Treadwell. His Grace replied: "It grieves me that you should be without help so long. If any other person can procure it for you, I should be heartily glad. But I think you had better wait than have a wrong person sent you from hence. Could you not get some temporary assistance in your neighborhood?"

The selection was a difficult one in view of the requirements of Johnson. Among other names recommended to Secker was that of Myles Cooper,--Fellow of Queen's College, Oxford. He had the reputation of being a grave and good man, and was "very well affected to the government; well qualified for the inferior tutor's place, but not inclined to accept it; not unskilled in Hebrew, and willing to take the Vice-President's office, but not of age for Priest's Orders" till the lapse of several months. This gentleman, as it will be seen, was afterwards appointed and made a useful and accomplished head of the Institution.

The third Commencement and the first from the college building, was now held, and the President delivered a brief speech in Latin to the governing body, congratulating them on the privilege of assembling in their new hall, and marking the event as the beginning of a fresh epoch in the history of the college. The degree of Bachelor of Arts was conferred upon six young gentlemen, and the eclat given to the occasion helped to bring the officers of instruction favorably before the public. The next term opened well, but as no assistance had been obtained, the President and Mr. Cutting were obliged to do double duty; and the whole year, as he himself said, "was remarkable only on account of hard services, which made him more and more weary of his station."

A preparatory school was projected about this time, and Johnson applied to the Rev. East Apthorp, the scholarly Missionary at Cambridge, referred to in the previous chapter, for his idea of what might be cc executed at school and at college by a person of middling genius, persevering in a regular course of moderate study and assisted by good instructors." The very full answer which was returned, embraced what he was pleased to call an "excellent plan of education," and he would have been contented without seeking tutors from abroad, if he could have had the assistance of Mr. Apthorp in carrying it into execution throughout the whole course. "But since Providence," he wrote him, "seems to be ordering otherwise, I hope you are reserved for yet higher and better things. It may yet be a considerable time first, but as there is the greatest need of it, and the utmost propriety in it, that bishops should be sent into America,--for the accomplishing which I hope you will be continually using your influence in the manner the Archbishop advises, that the Church may enjoy in full her government and discipline here at least as well as the Dissenters theirs,--I hope the time is not a great way off before that most primitive and apostolical order may be established here, and I pray God you may be the first that may serve your country in that capacity."

His correspondence with the Archbishop of Canterbury turned upon matters which directly concerned the welfare of the Church. Sometimes, but rarely, he touched upon delicate questions of State policy, and during his retirement at Stratford in the winter of 1759-60, having little to do, and taking the advice of "several gentlemen of good understanding and public spirit," he drew up a paper with a view at first of publishing it in the "London Magazine," but upon reflection concluded to send it to his Grace and inclose copies to him for Lord Halifax and Mr. Pitt, with instructions to suppress or communicate his thoughts as he should see fit. Relying on his great candor he added in reference to the paper: "I humbly hope you will impute it to the feeble struggles of a well-meaning mind, that would be useful to the world if it could, but desires to be retired and concealed. I can only assure your Grace that it is the wish of many gentlemen in these two colonies, though but few know in confidence of my having taken this step."

It does not appear what the particular subjects were which he thus presented, but they related to America, and were written under the name of Philcanglus Americanus. They met with no favor, for the Archbishop in his reply, November 4th, 1760, said: "I shall always be pleased with your notifying and proposing to me whatever you apprehend to be material; because I know it will always be done with good intention, and almost always furnish me with useful notices; and indeed will be of no small use, even when you may happen to judge amiss, as it will give me an opportunity of setting you right. In my opinion, the paper intended for the I London Magazine,' and the letters for Lord Halifax and Mr. Pitt, are of the latter sort. The' things said in them are in the main right, so far as they may be practicable; but publishing them to the world beforehand, instead of waiting till the time comes, and then applying privately to the persons whose advice the king will take about them, is likely to raise opposition and prevent success. Publishing them, indeed, in a magazine, may raise no great alarm; but then it will be apt to produce contempt, for those monthly collections are far from being in high esteem. And as soon as either of those great men should see that the queries offered to him were designed to be inserted in any of them, he would be strongly tempted to throw them aside, without looking further into them, even were he otherwise disposed to read them over; which men of business seldom are, when they receive papers from unknown hands, few of them in proportion deserving it. You will pardon the frankness with which I tell you my thoughts. Whatever good use I can make of your notions, I will. But the use which you propose is not agreeable to my judgment."

Johnson had mentioned in the same letter which accompanied his paper the sudden death of Mr. De Lancey, the Lieutenant-governor of New York, and suggested the importance of appointing in his place not only a good statesman, but a friend to religion and the Church, and exemplary in attendance on her public offices, for want of which, religion had suffered extremely in that province." The suggestion was felt to be worthy of consideration. "I have spoken," said the Archbishop, "concerning a Lieutenant-governor, in the manner which you desired, to the Duke of Newcastle and Mr. Pitt, and also to Lord Halifax, in whom the choice is. They all admit the request to be a very reasonable and important one; and promise that care shall be taken about it. The last of them is very earnest for Bishops in America. I hope we may have a chance to succeed in that great point, when it shall please God to bless us with a peace."

Every letter written at this period was but a repetition of the wants of the Church in the American Colonies, and of his own desire for aid in carrying on the College. It was as difficult to find tutors as suitable persons to supply the vacant missions. After many diligent inquiries, the Archbishop had thus far been unsuccessful in meeting his wishes, and as a means of providing for the Church, he expressed the hope that good young men might be sent over from this country to receive ordination and be returned to fulfill the office of missionaries in the old parishes. The eye of Johnson was especially fixed upon the Church in Connecticut and New York, though he was depended upon in London for information to some extent, in regard to all the colonies. The Society looked to him for facts which it cost him much labor to procure, and frequently it was a long time before he could reply intelligently to all the inquiries received. He sent off by every packet something which was designed to put his English friends and patrons in possession of the state of American feeling, and transmitted, as they were issued, the pamphlets and publications that bore upon the concerns of the Church. The idea of the geography and extent of this continent was less understood in England then than now,--and it is not very well comprehended at the present time,--so that when the Archbishop of Canterbury in the same letter addressed questions to him for information concerning Missionaries from Newfoundland to North Carolina, he could not answer to his own satisfaction till he had obtained the data on which to proceed.

Quietly fixed at housekeeping in the College building, he passed the winter of 1760-61, and took great pains to preserve his health and avoid exposure to the dreaded contagious disease. He wrote his son at Stratford about the middle of November: "It would be an unspeakable satisfaction to see you here, but I would rather be denied it than you should be too much incommoded. I believe the small-pox will die away again, though perhaps never be quite gone. It would be one of the greatest satisfactions in life to me to have you well through it by inoculation, from which there are so good hopes that I should not care to oppose it, if you think it best to undertake it, and yet I dare not urge you to it, but would leave it to Providence and the dispositions of your own mind. It is indeed a wretched embarrassment to me in my present situation; so that if your case was as mine is, I should be almost ready to even advise you to it, and did I not think of retiring for good and all when it becomes general again, if I should live to it, I should be almost resolved to run the risk of it yet."

A few days before Christmas, when he was expecting a visit from his son, which the illness of his wife prevented, he wrote him again, a brief note in which were the words: "I hope by your account you are in no danger of the small-pox, as perhaps you would have been had you been here and gone much about, for there is a good deal of it about town. On which account I have been out only at Church and Mr. Barclay's these three or four weeks. Thank God, I continue in perfect health, and hope with this care I am in no danger."

The friends of the Institution were anxious to continue him at its head, and saw the importance of keeping him on the spot now that an effort was about to be made to renew the application for contributions from abroad. The times appeared more auspicious. The King of Great Britain had died suddenly on the 25th of October, 1760, and his grandson, George III., ascended the throne in the twenty-third year of his age, a sovereign of religious impulses and unspotted reputation. "The young king begins his reign, you see," wrote Johnson to his son, referring him to the public prints, "with a glorious proclamation in favor of religion and virtue:--the like to which I believe has not been before, unless in Queen Anne's reign."

The Episcopal clergy in this country transmitted addresses to him upon his accession, but that of the clergy in and near Boston was not presented to him, because it was thought to mention Bishops prematurely. "This is a matter," wrote Secker to Johnson, "of which you in America cannot judge; and therefore I beg you will attempt nothing without the advice of the Society or of the Bishops." He had written to his Grace, and with the advice of some of his clerical brethren, humbly suggested to him, whether there would not be good reason to hope from the declarations of the young king that upon the commencement of a peace he might be prevailed upon to settle Episcopacy in America, and whether the draught of an address to his Majesty something like the one which he inclosed, would not be expedient and contribute to this end.

The Governors of the College took occasion to add their congratulations in a formal way, and to manifest their loyalty as dutiful subjects of the youthful sovereign. Johnson was the author of this address, as he was of that which went from the clergy of New York, and the two neighboring provinces, but it does not seem to have awakened any new interest in behalf of his plans, and probably it was too soon after the coronation, to hope for benefits or changes. The most that it could do may have been to lead the King to inquire concerning the signers, and, as Seeker suggested, "express himself in relation to them."

In the autumn of 1760 he published a discourse entitled: "A demonstration of the Reasonableness, Usefulness, and great Duty of Prayer," which he dedicated to Jeffery Amherst, Major-general and Commander-in-chief of all his Majesty's forces in North America. The dedication was a graceful compliment to him for the "glorious success" which had attended his conduct in the reduction of Canada, "an event," he added, "of immortal renown, and a signal reward of your piety and virtue." The discourse was written at the earnest request of a person of note, who put into his hands a manuscript, undertaking to prove by reason, that Prayer, since it implies a petition to God to supply any wants of ours, is in effect, "an utterly impertinent and insignificant thing, and but a mere useless ceremony." Appended to it, was a letter to a friend in West Chester, relating to the same subject, with whom he had expostulated for not frequenting the public worship as usual, and whose absences sprung not so much from indifference, as from doubts and infidel speculations. He closed it in words as applicable to men of the present day, as to skeptics who lived a century ago.

I am grieved to hear you complain of endless doubts and perplexities in matters of religion, for it is indeed a miserable state to be worried with a spirit of skepticism, and dark suspicions and surmises about this, and that, and the other. Nubila mens est haec ubi regnant. "It, is a cloudy, doleful state of mind where these prevail." Pray sit down then and carefully distinguish and separate things certain from things doubtful, and abide by them, and give the doubts to the winds; but never doubt whether you ought diligently to attend on the public service of God. Attend, I say, in the first place, and above all things, to plain, evident, practical matters, and especially live in the constant regular practice of true devotion towards God in Christ, who is our only Supreme Good; and trouble not your head with curious disputes and speculations, and perplexing doubts and intricacies, many of which are only strifes about words, and others about things we have no concern with, and things quite beyond our faculties.

I will only add, that I am fully persuaded when you come to leave this world, it will be the greatest satisfaction to you, to be able to say with the royal Psalmist, "Lord, I have loved the habitation of thy house, and the place where thine honor dwelleth." I hope, therefore, you will this once excuse this long letter from a faithful friend, who is solicitously concerned for your best good, and I commend you to God's protection, conduct, and blessing.

To confirm the truth of his words, and give force to his reasoning, he subjoined a sententious extract from a sermon of his venerated friend Dr. Seeker, the archbishop of Canterbury. "There must be public virtue, or government cannot stand; there must be private virtue, or there cannot be public; there must be religion, or there can be neither; there must be true religion, or there will be false. There must be attendance on God's worship, or there will be no religion at all."

This publication was followed by happy effects, and several months after he printed as a sequel to it a sermon, "On the Beauty of Holiness in the Worship of the Church of England," which he recommended to the attention of the good people of New England, and particularly of his former parishioners at Stratford and West Chester. It was a temperate defense of the Liturgy, and aimed to'" show that in the Church of England we do most truly worship Almighty God, that our worship is a most holy worship, and tends to promote holiness in the best manner, and that it is a most beautiful worship, and is truly worshipping God in the beauty of holiness."

A passage under the last head, though somewhat quaint in its phraseology, may be cited as an example of the spirit of the whole discourse:--

Our worship is truly beautiful in its language, which is very weighty and expressive. It may, perhaps, be granted that in a few passages, it may be capable of some improvements, but in general this must be allowed to be the character of its language, that it carrieth a great force and weight with it, without either deficiency or redundancy, and is in the happy medium between an affectation of verbosity, and high flown figures, on the one hand, and obscurity and dullness, and a low vulgar meanness of expression on the other. It hath a grandeur and majesty in it, and, at the same time, a most easy, natural, intelligible simplicity; always fitted to the weight and importance of the matter, and the capacities of the whole body of worshippers. If it savors of antiquity, and on that account be thought not so polite to modern ears, yet this very thing giveth it an air of the greater gravity and importance, and there are but very few expressions that are at all the less intelligible, though it is nigh two hundred years old; and it adds much to its beauty, that it is expressed as far as it could well be, in the very language of Scripture, being an excellent collection from the very Word of God, which is ever full of majesty and grandeur. And as there cannot be a more decent and beautiful sight than to behold a great number of intelligent beings, the creatures and children of God, jointly conspiring to do all the honor they can to Him their common parent, in their united adoration of Him, so there is the greatest propriety and fitness in it, and consequently the greatest beauty that they should worship their heavenly Father in his own language, in the words which He hath put into their mouths. If, therefore, we love the Scriptures, we cannot fail to love the worship of the Church of England, which is for the most part taken from them, and entirely conformed to them.

But it adds to the beauty of our excellent Liturgy, that there is an admirable proportion in all its parts; insomuch that no one part is so swelled or enlarged beyond its measure, as to jostle out or starve another. There is a just proportion of Devotions and Lessons, of Prayers and Praises, of Confessions and Deprecations, of Supplications and Intercessions, of Petitions and Thanksgivings for ourselves and for all men, for kings, and all that are in authority, and for all orders and conditions of men. And as all these parts of worship, without deficiency or redundancy, are thus so exquisitely fitted and proportioned one to the other, so they all aim at one end, to which they are no less aptly fitted and proportioned, namely, to advance the honor of God and the general benefit of mankind, and to promote universal holiness and righteousness among them, all which considerations abundantly speak their harmony and beauty.

And this beauty is further mightily improved by that grateful variety that appears among them, which renders our Liturgy like a beautiful garden, wherein there is a delightful variety of luxuriant nature intermixed with curious art, of other various plants with trees; of fruits with flowers of divers sorts, all ranged in a various and beautiful order. In like manner, in our Liturgy, devotions are gratefully intermixed with lessons, and prayers with praises. The people's part is generally intermixed with the minister's, and short responses, in the form of ejaculations, with set and continued prayers, in which there is an agreeable variety, and the prayers are each of them short, in imitation of the Lord's Prayer; and there is a correspondent variety of actions of the body, suited to this variety of the exercises of the mind; all wisely contrived to keep the congregations wakeful, lively, and attentive. This method is therefore vastly preferable to one tedious, long-continued prayer, without any variety, as is the case with our neighbors, in which the people's attention flags, and they grow dull and heavy, and the force of their devotion is extremely weakened. On which account nothing should tempt me to exchange our beautiful variety of short devotions, for their long, dull, and unvaried performances. For such is our frailty at best, that we need all the wise precautions imaginable to be used to keep our minds vigorous, wakeful, and attentive, both by a variety of devotions and of bodily worship, which is the true intent of all that beautiful variety wherewith our worship is attended, and which, in proportion as it attains those ends, may be truly styled the beauty of holiness.

An experience of nearly forty years had strengthened his love for these forms and given him an opportunity to test their value. From time to time he had seen in them fresh beauties, and the testimony which he bore to their excellence, in the evening of his days, was a proof that no trials, and hatreds, and adversities, had made him regret the step which he took when he broke away from the popular faith of New England. He felt that he was one in sympathy and fellowship with a great branch of the Church universal. cc In the use of the Liturgy," said he, "I am offering up not the devotions of this or that assembly only, much less of this or that particular person or minister, but the prayers and praises of the whole English Church and nation, enjoined by lawful authority, and which every assembly is jointly offering up at the same time. And moreover, that I find I am worshipping God according to the ancient Scripture method, wherein it was the manner for all the people to lift up their voice with one accord, not only in singing, but in saying their devotions."

The sermon from which these portions are taken is closed with an earnest appeal to churchmen to adorn the religion they professed, by the "exemplary holiness" of their behavior. " We have lately had," are his words, "an adversary [Mr. Noah Hobart] who pretends to show as an argument against us, that where the Church prevails, all manner of wickedness prevails." It was a groundless and abusive reproach, and he would have them confute it by living lives answerable to the mighty obligations their worship laid them under. A wicked churchman, in his judgment, was the most inexcusable of all creatures. Much as he loved the Liturgy, he was far more desirous that they who adopted it should be true to its teachings, and firmly resolved to bring forth those fruits of holiness whereby our Heavenly Father may be glorified.

Since the death of his wife and daughter, he had lived very much alone, and been little concerned about his domestic affairs. But they appeared to be suffering at this time " for want of a careful and disinterested housekeeper," and he began to turn over in his mind what he had thought of before, but dismissed without coming to a final decision. The following letter to his son will explain his views and feelings in regard to a second marriage:--

K. C., N. Y., February 16, 1761.

DEAREST SON,--We cannot be sufficiently thankful that our health is so graciously continued, both yours and mine. Mine, I think, was never better, notwithstanding my confinement. For exercise I run frequently up garret, besides walking a great deal the length of my two rooms, by which I tire myself at least once a day; which with five recitations (lectures we call them), two of which are equal to two sermons, seem exercise enough to answer the end. Indeed, I am obliged to live very laboriously.

I thank you for explaining yourself so fully on the subject I mentioned, and with so much tenderness and filial affection, and I may add with much propriety and accuracy, considering your hurry and interruption. I was always with you, against second matches, especially in advanced years, for the reason you mention, on which account I bless myself a thousand times that I came off so well from my former views, which gave me great uneasiness on your account; and be sure I should never have thought of such a thing again, but in the present case, which can scarce possibly be attended with those ill consequences. Indeed, it seems very ridiculous, and I am really ashamed of the thoughts of matrimony at this time of day; but in truth it seems so doleful in old age to be destitute of a contemporary companion, that I am almost apt to think a man never wants one more, and that if he has a good one in his younger years, there is nothing in life he needs more earnestly to pray for than her continuance to the last. On these accounts, I don't know (since you approve of it, and I cannot for two or three years at least if I live, leave this station) but that I had best think of it in earnest. I should hardly come this spring, if it were not on this account, but if my life and health continue, I believe I shall go about the. middle of May, if there is like to be an opportunity, or perhaps not till June, according as Commencement is. I doubt the difficulty will be to have a vessel ready immediately after Commencement.

I have got "Smollett," and with you do not quite like him. I fear he has no religion. Methinks he writes sometimes with a fleer. I am told he has written so freely about Lord Anson that he has prosecuted him and put him in jail. I believe there is but one volume of the continuation of it published. I shall send it when there is opportunity. I had another volume of sermons for a vehicle to this letter. With my love to Mrs. Beach and to you all, I remain,

Your most affectionate father and friend,


The practice of interchanging thoughts on the subject of their readings had been observed for a long time, and must have been as pleasant as it was profitable. Scarcely any new and important work upon theology, history, philosophy, or literature, made its appearance in England, which the father did not speedily procure, and possess himself of its contents before sending it to his son. In this way they benefited each other, and sharpened their moral and critical judgments. It was a period when the books published, especially those commanding attention, were not so numerous but that a diligent reader could easily find time to peruse them and weigh well their merits and tendencies. Johnson had a great dislike for any author who seemed to sneer at the Christian religion. He had no patience with infidels and scoffers, and believed Christianity to be not only the anchor of the soul and the safeguard of society, but the sublimest philosophy.

This feeling will account for his distrust of Smollett. "Infidelity" said Bishop Watson, in his reply to Thomas Paine, "is a rank weed, it threatens to overspread the land; its root is principally fixed amongst the great and opulent,--but you are endeavoring to extend the malignity of its poison through all the classes of the community." [Apology for the Bible, p. 176, American Ed.] It was a fear of this kind which made Johnson so careful to watch against the contaminating influence of irreligion. He would have the rising generation,--the merchants, manufacturers, and tradesmen of the British realm, preserved from the delusions of unbelief, and continued in that faith which is the foundation of happiness in this world, and of the hope of glory in another.

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