Boswell, Johnson, and the Church

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Our late, beloved Fr. James V. Schall, through all his travels and adventures, took care not to have out of reach a copy of Boswell’s Life of Johnson.  He would draw on that diary often as an inexhaustible source of telling insights and lively wit, in that circle around Samuel Johnson in the middle of the 18th century.

The circle contained Oliver Goldsmith, Sir Joshua Reynolds, Richard Sheridan, and at times Edmund Burke. They all read everything, plays and novels, classic and modern, in Latin as well as English.  They brought forth a literary banter that would be hard to match in our time, especially in academic circles.

The young James Boswell, freshly sprung from Scotland, had a remarkable power to draw to himself even the most accomplished people of the age.  He was welcomed at once in Johnson’s circle, and when abroad, was evidently free to drop in for conversations with David Hume, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Voltaire.

Fr.  Schall and I would share our favorite moments in the book; my all-time favorite involved the scene in which Johnson was invited to use the royal library.  The librarian had promised to alert the king when Johnson visited, for George III wished to visit himself with this distinguished essayist and the composer of the famous dictionary.

Johnson was touched by the king’s unannounced appearance, and he would converse with him in a style he called “manly,” without a tinge of servility.  Among other things, the king wanted to hear Johnson’s estimate of the various literary journals, in England as well as France.  In short, the king wanted to know what he should be reading.

When Johnson returned home, he was pressed by friends to hear an account of this interview.  After recalling some of the highlights, Johnson said: “I find it does a man good to be talked to by his Sovereign. . .the powers of mind are at once excited to vigorous exertion and tempered by reverential awe.” It’s advice that could hold as well for people living in republics, for it may remind them at times to pay attention to the other Sovereign in their lives.


Johnson himself was a serious Christian and Tory, firmly in the Church of England. Boswell, as a very young man, had fallen in love with an Irish actress who was Catholic, and with a newly ignited passion, allied with serious reading, he made his way into the Church in 1760.

And made his way out just as quickly as his family brought him back to the facts of life. As a Catholic in Scotland, detached from the Presbyterian Church, he could not serve in the military, hold public office or inherit property.

And yet, the Church, throughout his life, continued to draw his deepest feelings and wonders. He would drop into chapels and Catholic churches wherever he visited.  On meeting the pope, he knelt, and “with warm devotion adored my God and was grateful to the Savior of the World.”

He admitted that he was drawn to the “pomp of worship. . . .the solemnity of high mass,  the music, the wax lights. . . .the odour of the frankincense.”

All of this would come out in his conversations with Johnson, where he would taunt Johnson on the implausible aspects of the Roman Church. And to his apparent surprise, Johnson would defend the Church at every turn.

“[T]he Presbyterians,” he said, “have no church, no apostolical ordination. . . . [They] 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 would join with him.”


Was there not some idolatry in the worship of saints? “Sir,” said Johnson, “they do not worship saints; they invoke them; they only asked their prayers. . . .There is no idolatry in the Mass. They believed GOD to be there, and they adore him.”

Purgatory?  “Why, Sir it is a very harmless doctrine. They are of the 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 the 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. . . .there is nothing unreasonable in this.”

With Boswell’s prodding, the conversation entered that enduring, vexing question of free will versus “determinism.”  If an omniscient God can foresee all of our acts, why does He not intervene to protect us from the injuries and sorrows that befall us?  But if our acts are “determined” by God, or by forces outside our control, how can anyone of us bear responsibility for our acts – if indeed they are our own acts?

“If a thing be certainly foreseen,” said Boswell, “it must be fixed, and cannot happen otherwise,” and in that case, he thought, “there is no free will, nor do I see how prayer can be of any avail.”

But Johnson made his way instantly to the answer that Aquinas had offered. “Why, Sir, does not God every day see things going on without preventing them?”  Without that free will, there may be no evil; but neither would there be the love and creative imagination that has given us a record of what these creatures, between animals and angels, can bring to this world.  “Sir,” said Johnson, “we know our will is free, and there’s an end on’t.”

And finally, what is gained or lost in conversion?   “A man who is converted from Protestantism to Popery,” said Johnson, “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 sacred as anything he retains.  And with all of that, he said, “there is so much laceration of the mind.”


*Image: Samuel Johnson by Sir Joshua Reynolds, c. 1769 [National Portrait Gallery, London]

**Image: James Boswell by Sir Joshua Reynolds, 1785 [National Portrait Gallery, London]

Hadley Arkes is the Ney Professor of Jurisprudence Emeritus at Amherst College and the Founder/Director of the James Wilson Institute on Natural Rights & the American Founding. He is the author of Constitutional Illusions & Anchoring Truths: The Touchstone of the Natural Law. Volume II of his audio lectures from The Modern Scholar, First Principles and Natural Law is available for download. His new book is Mere Natural Law: Originalism and the Anchoring Truths of the Constitution.