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Dr. Johnson

Updated on March 14, 2019
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James A. Watkins is an entrepreneur, musician, and writer with four non-fiction books and hundreds of magazine articles read by millions.

Dictionary of the English Language 1755
Dictionary of the English Language 1755

Dr. Samuel Johnson Sermon 20

Dr. Samuel Johnson was the greatest intellectual, as well as the eminent literary critic, in the history of England. His preternaturally sublime achievement—indeed unsurpassed in the history of world scholarship—was the Dictionary of the English Language, which he published in 1755.

Dr. Johnson created many aphorisms that are widely quoted today, e.g., " 'Tis better to remain silent and be thought a fool, than open one's mouth and remove all doubt."

He also wrote dozens of sermons. He was not a preacher. It was not uncommon in those days for high-profile ministers to have a professional write his sermons. I am going to present portions I have selected of Dr. Johnson's own words from his 'Sermon 20.'

Samuel Johnson—born 1709 died 1784
Samuel Johnson—born 1709 died 1784

Human Justification of Wickedness

A very little acquaintance with human nature will inform us, that there are few men who can patiently bear the imputation of being in the wrong; and that there is no action, how unreasonable or wicked soever it may be, which those, who are guilty of it, will not attempt to vindicate, though perhaps by such defence as aggravates the crime.

It is indeed common for men to conceal their faults, and gratify their passions in secret, and especially, when they are first initiated in vice, to make use rather of artifice and dissimulation, than audaciousness and effrontery. But the arts of hypocrisy are, in time, exhausted, and some unhappy circumstance defeats those measures which they had laid to prevent a discovery.

They are at length suspected, and by that curiosity which suspicion always invites, closely pursued, and openly detected. It is then too late to think of deceiving mankind by false appearances, nor does any thing remain, but to avow boldly what can no longer be denied. Impudence is called in to the assistance of immorality; and the censures, which cannot be escaped, must be openly defied.

Wickedness is in itself timorous, and naturally skulks in coverts and in darkness, but grows furious by despair, and, when it can fly no farther, turns upon the pursuer.

Such is the state of a man abandoned to the indulgence of vicious inclinations. He justifies one crime by another; invents wicked principles to support wicked practices; endeavors rather to corrupt others, than own himself corrupted, and to avoid that shame which a profession of his crimes would bring upon him, calls evil good, and good evil, puts darkness for light, and light for darkness.

He endeavors to trample upon those laws which he is known not to observe, to scoff at those truths, which, if admitted, have an evident tendency to convict his whole behavior of folly and absurdity, and from having long neglected to obey God, rises at length into rebellion against Him.

Every Man is Valuable in Proportion to His Love of Truth

But these, however given up to their desires and passions, however ignorant of their own weaknesses, and presumptuously confident of their natural powers, have not yet arrived at the summit of impiety, 'till they have learned, not only to neglect, but to insult, religion, not only to be vicious, but to scoff at virtue.

We not only do what we approve, but there is danger lest in time we come to approve what we do, though for no other reason but that we do it.

A man is always desirous of being at peace with himself; and when he cannot reconcile his passions to his conscience, he will attempt to reconcile his conscience to his passions; he will find reason for doing what he is resolved to do, and will scoff at religion.

Every man is valuable in proportion to his love of truth. Those in rebellion seldom fail to take the opportunity of throwing out keen invectives against bigotry. Such is the discourse of these men. They have found that an adversary is more easily silenced than confuted. They insult, instead of vanquishing, their antagonists; they make no scruple of violating every rule of decency, and treating with the utmost contempt whatever is accounted venerable or sacred.

BOSCH: The Last Judgment
BOSCH: The Last Judgment
An artistic representation of Heaven
An artistic representation of Heaven

Indifference to Truth

For this conduct they admire themselves; loudly boasting their superiority to the advocates of religion. As humility is a very necessary qualification for an examiner into religion, it may not be improper to depress the arrogance of these haughty champions.

Thus he soon grows indifferent to truth or falsehood, and almost incapable of discerning one from the other. He considers eternity itself a subject for mirth! What delusion is this? Men neglect to search after eternal happiness for fear of being interrupted in their mirth.

It is astonishing that any man can forbear enquiring seriously, whether there is a God; whether God is just; whether this life is the only state of existence; whether God has appointed rewards and punishments in a future state; whether He has given any laws for the regulation of our conduct here; whether He has given them by revelation; and whether the religion taught carries any mark of divine appointment.

We Cannot Create Our Own Truth

Let it be remembered, that the nature of things is not alterable by our conduct. We cannot make truth; it is our business only to find it. It is of no purpose to wish, or to suppose, that to be false, which is in itself true, and therefore to acquiesce in our own wishes and suppositions, when the matter is of eternal consequence.

But experience teaches us, that wickedness may swell beyond imagination, and that there are no limits to the madness of impiety. Yet there are men who, by walking after their own lusts, and indulging their passions, have reached this stupendous height of wickedness. Debauchery requires its confederacies.

Let those who practice this dreadful method of depraving the morals, and ensnaring the soul, consider what they are engaged in! Before they do an injury that can never be repaired, before they take away what cannot be restored; before they corrupt the heart of their companion by perverting his opinions, before they lead him into sin, and by destroying his reverence for religion, take way the motive to repentance, and all means of reformation!

No mischief bears any proportion to the crime of decoying our brother into the broad way of eternal misery, and stopping that Holy Voice that recalls him to salvation.

There are others who deride religion for the sake of following the fashions of a corrupt and licentious age or the applause of the gay.


I shall leave you with the Scripture on which Dr. Johnson based this sermon:

"Know this first, that there shall come in the last days scoffers, following after their own lusts." 2 Peter 3:3


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