Johnson, Samuel (1649-1703) (DNB00)

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JOHNSON, SAMUEL (1649–1703), political divine, was born in Staffordshire (Birch) or Warwickshire (Some Memorials) in 1649, ‘of humble parentage’ (Dryden). He was educated at St. Paul's School, London, where he became librarian, and made progress in oriental languages. He entered at Trinity College, Cambridge, but did not graduate. Having taken orders, he was presented by Robert Biddulph on 1 March 1670 to the rectory of Corringham, Essex. The living was only worth 80l., out of which Johnson provided a curate and went to reside in London. Lord William Russell made him his domestic chaplain, and his knowledge of constitutional history (gained on the advice of Biddulph) proved serviceable to Arthur Capel, earl of Essex (1631–1683) [q. v.], and other whig leaders. On Palm Sunday, 13 April 1679, he preached before the lord mayor at the Guildhall chapel; the sermon (of which an edition was printed in 1684) was not directly political, but its argument against popery was intended to produce political effects in the direction of the ‘Exclusion Bill.’ The occasion was regarded by Johnson himself as the starting-point of a public career in which he threw away his liberty, ‘with both hands and with eyes open,’ in his country's service.

The publication which made his name was immediately suggested by a sermon before the lord mayor (1681, published 1682), by George Hickes [q. v.], on the ‘sovereign power.’ Johnson, in his ‘Julian the Apostate’ (1682, translated into Dutch 1688), made popery a modern paganism, portrayed the Duke of York in the character of Julian, and boldly argued, on constitutional grounds, against unconditional obedience. Hickes replied in his ‘Jovian’ (1683), upon which Johnson printed in the same year and entered at Stationers' Hall a tract on ‘Julian's Arts and Methods to undermine and extirpate Christianity,’ with special answers to Hickes and the writer of ‘Constantius the Apostate’ (1683). The discovery of the Rye House plot, followed by the committal of Russell to the Tower, made this tract inopportune; Johnson suppressed it, and it was not actually published till 1689, with a second edition of the original ‘Julian.’ There is little doubt that it was owing to Johnson's influence that Russell refused to save his own life by disowning the principle of resistance to unjust exercise of regal authority. Immediately after Russell's execution (21 July 1683) Johnson was brought before the privy council and examined about his unpublished tract on ‘Julian's Arts.’ After three examinations he was committed to the Gatehouse on 3 Aug., but was liberated on bail. No copy of the tract was forthcoming; accordingly a prosecution founded on ‘Julian the Apostate’ was begun in the king's bench. Johnson was tried by Jeffreys and defended by Wallop. On 20 Nov. he was convicted of a seditious libel, fined five hundred marks, and sent to prison in default. His book was burned by the hangman. His necessities were relieved by a present of 30l. from Tillotson, and 10l. sent anonymously by Edward Fowler [q. v.], afterwards bishop of Gloucester. By the help of two friends he was at length enabled to give bonds which obtained for him the liberty of the rules.

He employed his liberty in printing tracts against popery, which were widely disseminated in 1685, and brought him into a paper war with Sir Roger L'Estrange [q. v.], in reply to whose ‘Observators’ he issued as a placard ‘A Parcel of wry Reasons and wrong Inferences, but right Observators.’ In 1686, when the forces were encamped on Hounslow Heath, he printed ‘An Humble and Hearty Address to all the English Protestants in the present Army.’ The impression made by this paper was very great. Calamy observes that Johnson ‘was by many thought to have done more towards paving the way for King William's revolution than any man in England besides.’ He had distributed about one thousand copies, when the rest of the impression was seized, and he was committed a second time for trial at the king's bench. The indictment charged him with great misdemeanors, but none were specified. Neither counsel nor a copy of the charge was allowed him. On 16 Nov. he was condemned to be degraded from the priesthood, to stand four times in the pillory, to pay a fine of five hundred marks, and to be whipped from Newgate to Tyburn. The degradation should, by the canon, have been executed by his diocesan, Henry Compton (1632–1713) [q. v.]; Compton, however, had been suspended on 6 Sept. The ceremony was performed in the chapter-house of St. Paul's on 20 Nov. by the administrators of Compton's see, the Bishops of Rochester (Sprat), Durham (Crewe), and Peterborough (White). Stillingfleet, then dean of St. Paul's, refused to attend. Johnson's demeanour was moving and dignified; he expressed his grief that ‘since all he had wrote was designed to keep their gowns on their backs, they should be made the unhappy instruments to pull off his.’ It appears that, though other formalities were duly observed, they forgot to strip him of his cassock, an omission which technically invalidated the degradation. He came (22 Nov.) in his cassock to the pillory; Rouse, the under-sheriff, tore it off and threw a frieze coat upon him. Efforts were made to have the whipping remitted. A Roman catholic clergyman is said to have offered to make interest with the king in this behalf, and a fee of 200l. was to be the reward of success. But James was obdurate. ‘Since Mr. Johnson,’ he said, ‘had the spirit of martyrdom, it was fit he should suffer.’ Accordingly on 1 Dec. Johnson received 317 stripes ‘with a whip of nine cords knotted;’ his spirit was absolutely unbroken, and the moral effect of the punishment was all in his favour. The king sent another clergyman to take possession of Corringham, but the administrators would not grant him institution without a bond of indemnity by reason of the flaw in the degradation, nor would the parishioners suffer him to enter the church. Before he was out of the surgeon's hands Johnson had reprinted three thousand copies of his tract, ‘A Comparison between Popery and Paganism,’ and used James's declaration (11 April 1687) for liberty of conscience as an opportunity for distributing these and for publishing an account of his trial. He maintained his pamphlet agitation until the revolution; one of his tracts was ‘A Way to Peace among all Protestants’ (1688), an historical argument for a comprehension of nonconformists.

On 11 June 1689 his case came before parliament, when it was resolved that the judgment against him in 1686 was illegal and cruel, and by subsequent resolution that his degradation was illegal and null. The House of Commons presented two addresses to the crown, recommending him for ecclesiastical preferment. The deanery of Durham was offered to him; he refused it, as beneath the value of his services. He expected a bishopric, but neither his spirit nor his politics commended him to the court. He scouted all the whig apologies for the revolution; rejecting the flimsy pretext which placed William's right to the crown upon conquest, he maintained that the monarch ‘has but one plain title, which is the gift of the people,’ and that of this gift the act of parliament is the ‘one plain proof.’ He is said to have scandalised William's courtiers by openly declaring at Whitehall that if kings were accountable only to God, the Rump parliament did right in sending Charles I to Him. Disappointment of his anticipations of high office roughened his temper. His attacks on Burnet were savage, and to Tillotson he was splenetic, though Tillotson not only avoided a rupture, but did his utmost, in conjunction with the widowed Lady Russell, to procure him a suitable pension. William ultimately granted him a bounty of 1,000l., a pension of 300l. a year for his own life and his son's, and a post of 100l. for his son.

In 1692 he published his view of the true principles of the revolution, in ‘An Argument proving that the Abrogation of King James was according to the Constitution of the English Government.’ Shortly after this seven ruffians broke into his house in Bond Street very early on Sunday morning, 27 Nov. 1692, and made a savage assault on him; only his wife's intercession held back the assailants from executing the threat to ‘pistol him for the book he wrote.’ He continued for another decade to ply an active and sarcastic pen. But his troubles had broken a strong constitution; he died in May 1703.

Calamy speaks of Johnson as ‘that truly glorious person.’ Dryden has vilified him, under the name of ‘Ben-Jochanan,’ in the second part (1682) of ‘Absalom and Achitophel.’ Burnet ignores him, though Swift subsequently accused him of raking up such ‘factious trash’ as that by ‘Julian Johnson’ which would otherwise have been turned to pasteboard. Kettlewell, who as chaplain to the Dowager-countess of Bedford knew him well, respected his frankness and consistency, as well as his ability. The ‘Life of Kettlewell,’ drawn up by Francis Lee [q. v.], contains a favourable appreciation of him as ‘a man of true old Roman principles.’

His most memorable publications are noticed above. A complete collection of his ‘Works,’ with prefixed ‘Memorials,’ was published in 1710, fol.; 2nd edit. 1713, fol. His ‘History and Defence of Magna Charta’ was reprinted, 1772, 8vo, and at Edinburgh, with additions, 1794, 12mo.

[Some Memorials prefixed to Works, 1710; Account of the Proceedings against S. Johnson, 1686; A True and Faithful Relation of the … Attempt to Assassinate … S. Johnson, 1692; Life of Kettlewell, 1718, pp. 331 sq.; Salmon's Chronological Historian, 1733, pp. 190, 201, 213; Birch's Life of Tillotson, 1753, pp. 115, 131, 201 sq.; Macaulay's Hist. of England; Chalmers's General Biographical Dict. 1815, xix. 38 sq.; Notes and Queries, 6th ser. x. 495, xi. 72.]

A. G.