Samuel Johnson on Ecumenism By The Ulsterman


One of the finest authors in English, poet, pamphleteer, playwright, writer, conversationalist and all round wit, Samuel Johnson dominated English culture in the late 18th century and lived on his works, his famous biography, and created the first English dictionary. As a writer of early-modern prose he equals Shakespeare, Gibbon, Milton, and the unfairly neglected Samuel Rutherford. As a High Church Anglican he was bordering on Catholic; and in the biography of him by his friend the Presbyterian Boswell he makes some interesting observations on the deep flaw of Protestant Christianity, (perhaps saying more than he realized) that it is fundamentally alike with Roman Catholicism (all bold is added):

On the tendency among Protestants to ecclesiastical anarchy and confusion:

“I [James Boswell] had hired a Bohemian as my servant while I remained in London, and being much pleased with him, I asked Dr. Johnson whether his being a Roman Catholick should prevent my taking him with me to Scotland.
JOHNSON. ‘Why no, Sir, if he has no objection, you can have none.’

BOSWELL. ‘So, Sir, you are no great enemy to the Roman Catholick religion.’

JOHNSON. ‘No more, Sir, than to the Presbyterian religion.’

BOSWELL. ‘You are joking.’ JOHNSON. ‘No, Sir, I really think so. Nay, Sir, of the two, I prefer the Popish.’ BOSWELL. ‘How so, Sir?’

JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, the Presbyterians have no church, no apostolical ordination.’

BOSWELL. ‘And do you think that absolutely essential, Sir?’

JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, as it was an apostolical institution, I think it is dangerous to be without it. And, Sir, the Presbyterians have no public worship: they have no form of prayer in which they know they are to join. They go to hear a man pray, and are to judge whether they will join with him.’” (vol.1, p.409)

After a digression on Predestination Johnson comments on Christianity’s cruel and inhumane doctrine of Hell being a place of endless torture:

“I proceeded: ‘What do you think, Sir, of Purgatory, as believed by the Roman Catholicks?’

JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, it is a very harmless doctrine. They are of opinion that the generality of mankind are neither so obstinately wicked as to deserve everlasting punishment, nor so good as to merit being admitted into the society of blessed spirits; and therefore that God is graciously pleased to allow of a middle state, where they may be purified by certain degrees of suffering. You see, Sir, there is nothing unreasonable in this.’

BOSWELL. ‘But then, Sir, their masses for the dead?’

JOHNSON. ‘Why, Sir, if it be once established that there are souls in purgatory, it is as proper to pray for them, as for our brethren of mankind who are yet in this life.’” (Ibid. 410)

“I thus ventured to mention all the common objections against the Roman Catholick Church, that I might hear so great a man upon them. What he said is here accurately recorded. But it is not improbable that if one had taken the other side, he might have reasoned differently.

I must however mention, that he had a respect for ‘the old religion,’ as the mild Melancthon called that of the Roman Catholick Church, even while he was exerting himself for its reformation in some particulars. Sir William Scott informs me, that he heard Johnson say, ‘A man who is converted from Protestantism to Popery may be sincere: he parts with nothing: he is only superadding to what he already had. But a convert from Popery to Protestantism gives up so much of what he has held as sacred as any thing that he retains; there is so much laceration of mind in such a conversion, that it can hardly be sincere and lasting.’ The truth of this reflection may be confirmed by many and eminent instances, some of which will occur to most of my readers.”

(Ibid. 410-411)

On the fundamental mysticism and irrationalism of Christianity, its lack of precise definition, of bones and muscle and sinew, (contra Nazarene Judaism), and strangely, the fact that Islam is in many ways a Christian heresy:

“We talked of the Roman Catholick religion, and how little difference there was in essential matters between ours and it.

JOHNSON. ‘True, Sir; all denominations of Christians have really little difference in point of doctrine, though they may differ widely in external forms. There is a prodigious difference between the external form of one of your Presbyterian churches in Scotland, and a church in Italy; yet the doctrine taught is essentially the same.’

I mentioned the petition to Parliament for removing the subscription to the Thirty-nine Articles.

JOHNSON. ‘It was soon thrown out. Sir, they talk of not making boys at the University subscribe to what they do not understand; but they ought to consider, that our Universities were founded to bring up members for the Church of England, and we must not supply our enemies with arms from our arsenal. No, Sir, the meaning of subscribing is, not that they fully understand all the articles, but that they will adhere to the Church of England. Now take it in this way, and suppose that they should only subscribe their adherence to the Church of England, there would be still the same difficulty; for still the young men would be subscribing to what they do not understand. For if you should ask them, what do you mean by the Church of England? Do you know in what it differs from the Presbyterian Church? from the Romish Church? from the Greek Church? from the Coptick Church? they could not tell you. So, Sir, it comes to the same thing.’

BOSWELL. ‘But, would it not be sufficient to subscribe the Bible?’

JOHNSON. ‘Why no, Sir; for all sects will subscribe the Bible; nay, the Mahometans will subscribe the Bible; for the Mahometans acknowledge JESUS CHRIST, as well as Moses, but maintain that GOD sent Mahomet as a still greater prophet than either.’”

(Ibid. 443-444)

He perhaps foreshadows the character of most Roman Catholics in the current West, who are even sometimes upstanding citizens, not because they are Catholic but despite it.

“On the Roman Catholick religion he said, ‘If you join the Papists externally, they will not interrogate you strictly as to your belief in their tenets. No reasoning Papist believes every article of their faith. There is one side on which a good man might be persuaded to embrace it. A good man of a timorous disposition, in great doubt of his acceptance with GOD, and pretty credulous, might be glad to be of a church where there, are so many helps to get to Heaven. I would be a Papist if I could. I have fear enough; but an obstinate rationality prevents me. I shall never be a Papist, unless on the near approach of death, of which I have a very great terror. I wonder that women are not all Papists.’

BOSWELL. ‘They are not more afraid of death than men are.’

JOHNSON. ‘Because they are less wicked.’

DR. ADAMS. ‘They are more pious.’

JOHNSON. ‘No, hang ’em, they are not more pious. A wicked fellow is the most pious when he takes to it. He’ll beat you all at piety.’”

(vol.2, p.549)

Boswell. James, The Life of Samuel Johnson LL.D, 6th ed. (United Kingdom) 1811


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Judaiser, Protestant, and a proud Briton.

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