Chapel Talk

January 8, 2007

In the early days of 2007 I have been re-reading the New Year’s Day prayers of my favorite writer, Samuel Johnson, the eighteenth-century British lexicographer, poet, critic, and moralist. Johnson, who lived from 1709 to 1784, composed prayers during most of his adult life. Some of them have come down to us, but many-probably most-have not. Johnson tended to write and preserve prayers for particular occasions-his birthday, New Year’s, Easter Eve, the anniversaries of the deaths of family and friends-and a substantial number of his New Year’s prayers have come down to us. The advent of the New Year in 2007 presented an occasion for me to go back and read Johnson’s New Year prayers.

At one level, Johnson’s New Year’s prayers make uncomfortable reading, replete as they are with disappointment and self-recrimination. Johnson used the occasion of New Year’s to inventory and to assess the preceding year of his life. These prayers give voice to feelings of inadequacy about his own behavior, spiritual practices, and merit. Johnson believed implicitly in the existence of Divine mercy and grace and yet never felt that he merited it. He was an anguished believer, and that anguish is reflected in his New Year’s Day prayers. It is not the only thing that appears, however, and I will return to that thought at the end of this talk.

Johnson’s first extant New Year’s prayer, written New Year’s Day, 1745, reads as follows. (As you listen to Johnson’s prayers this morning you will hear echoes of scripture and of the Book of Common Prayer. Johnson knew both intimately.)

Almighty and Everlasting God, in whose hands are life and death, by whose
will all things were created, and by whose providence they are sustained, I
return to thee thanks that Thou hast given me life, and that thou hast hitherto
forborn to snatch me away in the midst of Sin and Folly, and hast permitted
me still to enjoy the means of Grace, and vouchsafed to call me yet again to
repentance. Grant, O merciful Lord, that thy call may not be vain, that
my Life may not be continued to encrease my Guilt, and that thy gracious
forbearance may not harden my heart in wickedness. Let me remember, O
my God that as Days and Years pass over me, I approach nearer to the Grave
where there is no repentance, and grant that by the assistance of the
Holy Spirit, I may so pass through this Life, that I may obtain Life everlasting for
the sake of our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

The key themes that resonate throughout Johnson’s New Year’s prayers appear in this first one. Johnson gives thanks for the continuance of his life. He gives thanks for God’s grace. He petitions for strength to live a godly life. He measures his time by the prospect of the grave, and he asks the assistance of the Holy Spirit in guiding him to eternal life. The fundamental dynamic is Johnson struggling, not with God but with himself, and his prayer seeks Divine forbearance so that he can have the time, and the strength and support so that he has the means, to win that struggle.

Johnson’s next extant New Year’s prayer was written three years later, in 1748:

Almighty and most merciful Father, who has not yet suffered me to fall into
the Grave, grant that I may so remember my past Life as to repent of the days
and years which I have spent in forgetfulness of thy mercy and neglect of
my own Salvation, and so use the time which thou shalt yet allow me, as that
I may become every day more diligent in the duties which in thy Providence
shall be assigned me, and that when at last I shall be called to Judgement I
may be received as a good and faithful servant into everlasting happiness, for the
sake of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

The eschatological element is a little stronger here. This prayer begins by expressing relief that Johnson is not dead yet! That’s a good thing, because the last year has been spent in forgetfulness rather than the good use of God’s mercies. Johnson prays for the strength to use his analysis of the past year to inform his practices in the coming year, so that when death does come, he will be seen as a faithful servant in God’s eyes. His keen awareness of his sins occasions not crippling mortification but rather incentive rise above them in the future.

Johnson’s New Year prayer two years later, in 1750, sounds familiar themes:

Almighty God, by whose will I was created and by whose Providence I have
been sustained, by whose mercy I have been called to the knowledge of my
Redeemer, and by whose Grace whatever I have thought or acted acceptable
to thee has been inspired and directed, grant, O Lord, that in reviewing my
past life, I may recollect thy mercies to my preservation in whatever state
thou preparest for me, that in affliction I may remember how often I have
been succored, and in Prosperity may know and confess from whose hand
the blessing is received. Let me O Lord so remember my sins, that I may
abolish them by true repentance, and so improve the Year to which thou has
graciously extended my life and all the Years which thou shalt yet allow me,
that I may hourly become purer in thy sight, so that I may live in thy fear,
and dye in thy favour, and find mercy at the last day for the sake of Jesus Christ.

Between this prayer, and his New Year’s prayer in 1753, Johnson’s wife died. You will hear an allusion to that loss in his prayer as well as something new: New Year’s resolutions added in a postscript after the “Amen”:

Almighty God who has continued my life to this day grant that by the
Assistance of thy holy spirit I may improve the time which thou shalt
Grant me to my eternal salvation. Make me to remember to thy glory,
thy judgements & thy mercies. Make [me] so to consider the loss of my
wife whom thou hast taken from me that it may dispose me by thy grace to
lead the residue of my life in thy fear. Grant this O Lord for Jesus Christ’s Sake.

Our Father
I hope from this day to keep the resolutions made at my wife’s death
To rise early
To lose no time
To keep a Journal

These resolutions were not kept. His prayer for New Year’s Day, 1757, was written at two in the morning, so it seems unlikely that he rose early that morning. And it expresses the same concern with time:

Almighty God, who has brought me to the beginning of another year,
and by prolonging my life invitest to repentance, forgive me that I have
misspent the time past, enable me from this instant to amend my life
according to thy holy Word, grant me thy Holy Spirit that I may so pass
through things temporal as not finally to lose the things eternal.
O God, hear my prayer for the sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Johnson’s New Year’s prayers express increasing anguish over his inability, in his opinion, profitably to spend the time God had given him. Thus, nine years after the last New Year’s prayer I read you, in 1766, we find this one:

Almighty and most merciful Father, I again appear in thy presence the
wretched mispender of another year which thy mercy has allowed me. O Lord
let me not sink into total depravity, look down upon me, and rescue me from
the captivity of Sin. Impart to me good resolutions, and give me strength and perseverance to perform them. Take not from me thy Holy Spirit but grant that I may redeem the time lost, and that by temperance and diligence, by sincere
Repentance and faithful Obedience, I may finally obtain everlasting happiness for the sake of Jesus Christ, our Lord. Amen.

Resolutions. God help me.
To read the Bible through in some language this year.
To combat Scruples.
To rise early.
To drink little wine.

In his New Year’s prayer for 1769, which I will quote only in part, Johnson had taken to including his resolutions not as a postscript after the “Amen,” but rather in the body of the prayer:

I am not yet in a state to form many resolutions. I purpose and hope to rise early in the morning, at eight, and by degrees at six; Eight being the latest hour to which Bedtime can be properly extended, and Six the earliest that the present system of life requires.

Almighty and most merciful Father who hast continued my life from year to year, grant that by longer life I may become less desirous of sinful pleasures, and more careful of eternal happiness. As age comes upon me let my mind be more withdrawn from vanity and folly, more enlightened with the knowledge of thy will, and more invigorated with resolution to obey it. O Lord, calm my thoughts, direct my desires, and fortify my purposes.

Now, my purpose in sharing this selection of Johnson’s New Year’s prayers with you today is not to darken this lovely Monday morning in Interim by sending you back to your residence hall room or office to draw up your spiritual accounts for 2006, measure them against your aspirations, find yourself wanting-should that be the result-and thereby to precipitate the campus into gloom and despair. It’s an easy thing–and many scholars have done this, including me early in my study of Johnson’s writing, to focus on his rigorous self-analysis and his forceful and eloquent expression of his sense of his own shortcomings to the exclusion of what sustains his prayers over half a century: namely, his faith in a God who stays with him on his faith journey, who listens to his petitions, who allows him time to grow and change, who holds forth the promise of eternal life.

Johnson was so good in his prayers at articulating what he shouldn’t do, or regretting what he had and hadn’t done, that we tend to forget the underlying positive element of his prayers. This is true in his other writing as well. During the mid century he wrote a short essay every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday that was published under the title The Rambler, and these deep and humane essays offer a broad range of advice for dealing with life’s greatest challenges. His most famous poem has a pretty gloomy title—The Vanity of Human Wishes—and most of the poem is, indeed, devoted to showing the futility of placing your eternal hope in riches, power, learning, beauty, long life, and so forth. You reach a point along about line 350 where you are about ready to give up in despair. But the poem doesn’t leave you there. “Where then shall Hope and Fear their Objects find?” It asks.

Must dull Suspence corrupt the stagnant Mind?
Must helpless Man, in Ignorance sedate,
Roll darkling down the torrent of his Fate?
Must no Dislike alarm, no Wishes rise,
No Cries attempt the Mercies of the Skies? (ll. 344-48)

The poem answers this question. Yes, there are things we can and should pray for, and here they are:

Pour forth thy Fervours for a healthful Mind,
Obedient Passions, and a Will resign’d.
For Love, which scare collective Man can fill;
For Patience, sov’reign o’er transmuted Ill;
For Faith, that panting for a happier Seat,
Counts Death kind Nature’s Signal of Retreat:
These Goods for Man the Laws of Heav’n ordain,
These Goods he grants, who grants the Pow’r to gain;
With these celestial Wisdom calms the Mind,
And makes the Happiness she does not find. (ll. 359-68)

So it is with Johnson’s prayers. Johnson died on December 13, 1784, just a few weeks before he would have composed another New Year’s prayer. Instead, he wrote his last prayer on December 5 of the old year before taking his last communion. Here it is in its entirety:

Almighty and merciful Father, I am now, as to human eyes it seems,
about to commemorate for the last time the death of thy son
Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Redeemer. Grant, O Lord, that
my whole hope and confidence may be in his merits and in thy mercy:
forgive and accept my late conversion, enforce and accept
my imperfect repentance; make this commemoration [of] him
available to the confirmation of my Faith, the establishment
of my hope, and the enlargement of my Charity, and make the
Death of thy son Jesus effectual to my redemption.
Have mercy upon me and pardon the multitude of my offences.
Bless my Friends, have mercy upon all men. Support me by
the Grace of thy Holy Spirit in the days of weakness, and
at the hour of death, and receive me, at my death, to everlasting
happiness, for the Sake of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Johnson died at peace. He wasn’t filling in the last columns in his moral accounts for the year on his deathbed, or agonizing over missed opportunities. He sought God’s mercy, threw himself upon the Grace of the Holy Spirit, and prayed in Jesus’ name for eternal life.

Samuel Johnson led an authentic religious life. He worshiped regularly. He studied Scripture. He engaged in the discipline of self-examination. He prayed. Underlying all of his religious practices was a deep belief in the human ability to reach out to God and in the Divine Grace that would reach out to God’s creation. In a thoughtful and moving sermon at Sunday morning worship yesterday, Pastor Koenig reflected on how baptism opens the doors to an authentic religious life for each of us. Its paths are uncharted and its dynamics uncertain, but it is ours to live. I commend Johnson’s prayers to you as you think about your own faith journey in 2007.


David R. Anderson ’74

All quotations from Samuel Johnson, Diaries, Prayers, and Annals (ed. E. L. McAdam, Jr with Donald and Mary Hyde),The Yale Edition of the Works of Samuel Johnson, Vol 1, 1958.