Honoring God in Everyday Life
First published a year after the death of Samuel Johnson, the eminent English essayist best known for his groundbreaking English dictionary, Prayers and Meditations is a devotional classic that will delight anyone who has the good fortune to discover it. Three types of material are mingled together, and the back-and-forth flow among them gives the book a refreshing variety. One hundred fifty-seven pages in length, the book is so winsome that it is easy to read in a single sitting.
The prayers receive the most space and are the inspirational part of the book. They confirm the Greek playwright Aristophanes' claim that "high thoughts must have high language." The hallmarks of Johnson's neoclassical style are elevated diction, long sentences, balance and parallelism of clauses and phrases, and beautiful cadence (the rise and fall of language). In style, Johnson's prayers are just like the prayer that Solomon uttered at the dedication of the Temple.
The second genre is the diary-type entry. Numerous brief passages chronicle the religious activities in the life of an English Anglican of a bygone era. The most poignant thread in the story is Johnson's recollections of his deceased wife on the annual anniversary of her death.
The third ingredient consists of lists of resolutions that Johnson incessantly made. These resolutions, too, provide glimpses into the spiritual life of a man who often disappointed himself but who aspired to be a godly man.
The whole book grows out of Johnson's practice of observing certain days on an annual basis. Most of the prayers were composed on New Year's Day, the day Johnson's wife died, Good Friday, Easter, and the author's own birthday.
The excerpts that follow include an example of all three types of entries.
Easter Day Prayer (April 16, 1775)
Almighty God, heavenly Father, whose mercy is over all Thy works, look with pity on my miseries and sins. Suffer me to commemorate, in Thy presence, my redemption by Thy Son Jesus Christ. Enable me so to repent of my misspent time, that I may pass the residue of my life in Thy fear, and to Thy glory. Relieve, O Lord, as seemeth best unto Thee, the infirmities of my body, and the perturbation of my mind. Fill my thoughts with awful love of Thy goodness, with just fear of Thine anger, and with humble confidence in Thy mercy. Let me study Thy laws, and labour in the duties which Thou shalt set before me. Take not from me Thy Holy Spirit, but incite in me such good desires as may produce diligent endeavours after Thy glory and my own salvation; and when, after hopes and fears, and joys and sorrows, Thou shalt call me hence, received me to eternal happiness, for the sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Diary Entry for April 6, 1777
On Easter Day, I was at church early, and there prayed over my Prayer, and commended [my deceased wife] Tetty and my other friends. I was for some time much distressed, but at last obtained, I hope from the God of Peace, more quiet than I have enjoyed for a long time. I had made no resolution, but as my heart grew lighter, my hopes revived, and my courage increased; and I wrote with my pencil in my Common Prayer Book [five lines in Latin].
I then went to the altar, having, I believe, again read my Prayer. I then went to the table and communicated, praying for some time afterwards ….
I dined by appointment, with Mrs. Gardiner, and passed the afternoon with such calm gladness of mind as it is very long since I felt before. I came home, and began to read the Bible. I passed the night in such sweet uninterrupted sleep, as I have not known since I slept at Fort Augustus.
Resolutions, July 13, 1755
Having lived not without habitual reverence for the Sabbath, yet without that attention to its religious duties which Christianity requires, [I resolve]
- To rise early and in order to it, to go to sleep early on Saturday.
- To use some extraordinary devotions in the morning.
- To examine the tenor of my life, and particularly the last week; and to mark my
advances in religion, or recession from it.
- To read the Scripture methodically with such helps as are at hand.
- To go to church twice.
- To read books of divinity, either speculative or practical.
- To instruct my family.
- To wear off by meditation any worldly soil contracted in the week.
The Last Prayer in the Volume
O merciful God, full of compassion, long-suffering, and of great pity, who sparest when we deserve punishment, and in Thy wrath thinkest upon mercy; make me earnestly to repent, and heartily to be sorry for all my misdoings; make the remembrance so burdensome and painful, that I may flee to Thee with a troubled spirit and a contrite heart; and, O merciful Lord, visit, comfort, and relieve me; … give me in this world knowledge of Thy truth, and confidence in Thy mercy, and in the world to come life everlasting, for the sake of our Lord and Saviour, Thy Son Jesus Christ. Amen.
Leland Ryken is Professor of English at Wheaton College
Samuel Johnson's Prayers and Meditations is available from BiblioLife on Amazon.com. Since this is a facsimile edition, one can read it with the thrill of holding "the real thing" in one's hands. An online version of the text can be accessed at the following site: http://www.archive.org/details/prayersmeditatio00johnrich
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