Roger Williams Institute


Samuel Johnson


Educated at Yale, Samuel Johnson became a tutor there and worked his way through the new learning represented by the Dummer gift of books to its library. Having been ordained as a Congregational minister, he moved to the Church of England through his reading of the Book of Common Prayer and Archbishop William King’s discourse on The Inventions of Men in the Worship of God. In 1722 Johnson left for England in order to be ordained as an Episcopal clergyman; on his return, he was to be the only one in Connecticut. A firmly orthodox cleric, he became friendly with George Berkeley during the latter’s residence in Newport, Rhode Island between 1729 and 1731. In his philosophical correspondence with Berkeley, Johnson shows himself in the process of conversion to idealism, although there are hints of this in his own early writings. In common with most clergymen of the Church of England, he was critical of George Whitefield’s itinerant preaching in America; his loyalty to the Church led to his being awarded an Oxford DD by dip-loma in 1743. He became involved in con- troversies with non-Episcopal ministers of religion over the question of predestinarianism in the 1740s, although publication of his philosophical works in the late 1740s and 1750s quickly established his learned reputation over and above such embroilments. He accepted the presidency of King’s College, New York (later Columbia University), to which office he devoted considerable energy, both in teaching and administration.

Johnson has been described as representing the ‘puritan mind in transition’, and examination of his writings bears this out. His Latin treatise of 1714, the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, was written on the Ramist principles previously associated with Puritan learning and most influentially advocated by William Ames, perhaps the ablest of such philosophers. The work is laid out in sections, with a cumulative argument leading from ‘technology or technometry’, that is, the elucidation of ideas, to theology. Ideas are placed in two, semi-Platonic groups: archetypes are the fullness of ideas, and are to be found only in God; whereas types or entypes are but shadows of these archetypes in the minds of men. All ideas properly followed lead to the ‘good’ and to correct rules of living. From such ideas, philosophers generate the ‘ectypal art’, defined as ‘a type methodically constructed by universal rules’. Such rules lead to discussions of the art of grammar – ‘the ectypal art of speaking well’ – and of the art of rhetoric – ‘the ectypal art of properly embellishing speech … of speaking with embellishment’. Beyond grammar and rhetoric lies mathematics, further divided into arithmetic and geometry, whence Johnson moves to physics, the art of analysing the nature and purpose of things. At the summit of all learning is the realm of theology, defined as ‘the ectypal art or doctrine of living for God’, whose object is the good life led for God, that is, following His will according to the precepts of Scripture. This too has an internal division, that between faith and observance. The Encyclopedia is in many ways a late Puritan tract, with its methodical listing of definitions and its resolution in a prescription for holy living.

In his movement towards Anglicanism, whose liturgy he memorably praised in a sermon on The Beauty of Holiness in the Worship of the Church of England (1761), Johnson absorbed much from his friendship with Berkeley. In their philosophical correspondence they debated the principles of Newtonian physics, particularly as these were concerned with ideas of space and time, perception and the attributes of God; Johnson’s scepticism on these matters led him to sympathize with Hutchinsonian doctrines in later decades. Berkeleyanism is all-pervasive in his major work, the Elementa philosophica (1752), printed by Benjamin Franklin and recognized as the first American philosophy textbook. Again, in defining ideas, he placed external archetypes in the mind of God, claiming that man’s knowledge of ideas came via his ‘intellectual Light or intuitive Evidence’, which he assumed to be common to all men, and ‘by which they all at once see the same thing to be true or right in all places at the same time, and alike invariably in all times, past, present, and to come’.

From this principle, Johnson laid out a method for educating children to reason well, emphasizing the centrality of morality and religion to such an education. Attached to this work was an earlier piece dating from 1746, A Short System of Morals, in which he claimed that all ethical principles could be reduced to ‘that grand ancient principle of true wisdom, Know thyself; which must imply, not merely the knowledge of ourselves, highly considered, but also in all the relations where we stand; for this is the knowledge of ourselves in the whole’. The religious orientation of this system is apparent in the importance Johnson attached to the doctrine of a future life in the development of a theocentric moral system. A critic of deism, he accepted the existence of a law of nature, but stressed that it was necessary that a revelation from God should affirm and strengthen the natural law. This latter argument had been earlier developed in a sermon of 1727, The Necessity of Revealed Religion, where he had argued that, left to himself, man without a ‘vision’ of God and His truth would perish. In ‘Raphael, or The Genius of the English America’ (an unpublished dialogue dating from 1763), Johnson had rhapsodized on this theme in relation to the political well-being of America.

Perhaps the most controversial of Johnson’s works are the Letters Concerning the Sovereignty of God. In the most important of these, A Letter Concerning the Sovereignty of God, from Aristocles to Anthades (1745), he systematically attacked the traditional predestinarian system of American Puritanism. Facing the accusation of Arminianism, he insisted that Christianity was not concerned with what either Arminius or Calvin thought, but with what Christ and the Apostles taught. In essence, he believed that man, assisted by Christ’s ransom on the Cross, could find his salvation through the further assistance of the Holy Spirit in doing good, and by being penitent. He rejected God’s arbitrary judgement as to who would be saved as being contrary to the nature and attributes of God as moral governor, as contradicting Scripture and as being ‘repugnant to the general drift of the whole word of God’. He refused to adhere to God’s foreknowledge as the basis of otherwise apparently arbitrary judgements, arguing that such language, which predicated time of a timeless agent, was only figurative, and hence not properly descriptive. He firmly and fully repudiated Calvinist readings of Romans 9, and repudiated Calvinists’ desire to force their own system on the pure simplicity of the Gospel. This argument was defended in an engagement with Jonathan Dickinson in 1747. However controversial his teaching may have seemed, Johnson was a popular preacher, and his sermons reveal a decidedly orthodox An-glican mind at work in eighteenth-century America.


An Encyclopedia of Philosophy (1714).

Letters Concerning the Sovereignty of God (1745–7).

Elementa philosophica (1752).


Promoting the Principles of Religious Liberty