During the earlier half of the last century there arose a group of ministers of original motive, but more or less affected by the inspirations of the great preacher, Theodore Parker, and by Emerson and the Transcendental philosophy, whose work had much to do with the unrest of a transitional period in New England Unitarianism. They were men of prophetic temperament, intellectual, courageously independent and outspoken, somewhat ecclesiastically detached, and commonly designated as radicals.
In these respects no greater distinction rests upon any member of the group than upon Samuel Johnson. Johnson was a consecrated minister, a scholar of large attainments, and by nature a poet. He was devoted to the spiritual enlightenment of humanity. More especially he was a student and interpreter of the far Oriental religions. Whatever his work, he brought to it an open, cultivated, and philosophic mind. He lived much upon the heights of meditation, much in the seclusion of the study, but always in joyous contact with the world’s affairs, its literatures, its social quests, and its religious development.
Born at Salem, Massachusetts, October 10, 1822, of excellent parentage—his father was a physician—he resided there until his retirement, soon after the close of his ministry in Lynn, to an ancestral country house at North Andover, where he died February 18, 1882. In boyhood and youth he appears to have been the intellectual light and buoyant spirit of a cultivated and religious home. He entered Harvard College at sixteen, and was graduated in 1842, second in his class. At first he had playfully resisted the idea of entering the ministry. His religious nature, however, was imperative, and its voice directed his steps to Divinity Hall. There he acquired distinction for intellectual enthusiasm, broadening culture, and the ardor with which he embraced the moral ideals of humanity. A magnetic personality and a brilliant conversationalist, he became a favorite with his teachers and associates.
Among his most gifted classmates were Octavius Brooks Frothingham and Samuel Longfellow. Between him and these men there existed a lifelong and beautiful friendship. Johnson and Longfellow were very intimate in their earlier years. Both were poets, both mystically inclined, both idealists, both zealous of a spiritual philosophy of life and of all humanizing enterprises. Before leaving the school they traveled together in Europe. They also compiled a Book of Hymns (1846), aiming to make it more expressive of religious sentiment than those in use, even in Unitarian churches. They were contributors to it, and afterward it was enlarged, and appeared as Hymns of the Spirit (1864). Johnson’s religious aspiration is voiced in his hymn, “Father, in thy mysterious presence kneeling,” which is already classic.
In his student years Transcendentalism was the philosophy of the day, Emerson its still and quiet voice, Parker its clarion voice. The Higher Criticism was in its cradle, but had not yet received its name. Hand in hand with the new science and the new philosophy came anti-slavery, each bearing a sword. It was a kind of triple crusade, and there was little peace for the State, the theological school, the pulpit, or the pew.
Johnson, intense, sympathetic, forward-pressing, felt the thrill and promise of a dawning era of human brotherhood and justice, and of a religious faith transcending the creeds of historical Christianity and reposing in the essentials of a universal religion—a faith to which he eventually devoted the most patient and enthusiastic study.
The period was turbulent, audiences were sensitive, and it was difficult for young men of Mr. Johnson’s metal to preach without offence. His first ministry of a year at Dorchester fell upon unresponsive ground, and he manfully resigned. Subsequently he spoke to a small society of reformers in Lynn, and was invited to settle with them. It led to the organization of a free church, with meetings at first in a hall, and later in Oxford Street Chapel, built for his use. It had “equal sittings and voluntary subscriptions,” “free and equal worship without definite confession,” its motto, “Holiness and Progress, Prayer and Labor, God and Humanity.”
Lynn could contribute only a small audience appreciative of his advanced religious thought, but the few loved and admired him. His voice was eloquent, so were his sympathies. His mind was richly furnished, and his meditations uplifting. “The feeling he always gave me,” writes a friend, “in listening to his prayers, was of one in reality holding converse with God himself.” His sermons dealt with the greater matters of social and national interest, and especially with what was nearest his heart, natural and universal religion. Report of his preaching spread widely; and his brave words were often sought by conventions and associations of reformers and in hours of great national peril and sorrow. His ministry at Lynn extended from 1853 to 1870. At its close the Free Church ceased to exist.
The dominant note of Mr. Johnson’s preaching was natural religion. To him nature was a higher authority than dogma, the immediate intuition than tradition. In his farewell sermon he says,
I have taught natural religion; its intimations of God and duty and immortality;… the strength and sweetness of its life in God; its gospel of the soul’s essential relations to eternal rectitude; its hold on the everlasting through noble uses of nature and life; its root in present Deity; the inspiration that interprets and judges the past.
From first to last, also, he was a consistent Transcendentalist. The essay on “Transcendentalism,” originally printed in the Radical, now in Lectures, Essays, and Sermons, with memoir by Samuel Longfellow (1883), is a brief and inspiring plea for this philosophy, and especially for its ethical implications. His theism has the pantheistic color usually characteristic of Transcendentalism. God, however, is no unreality, no vague, uncertain object of the agnostic, no revelation of the supernaturalist, no God of Christendom, and not of the remotest East, but the “God of life, light, liberty, love, peace, whereby we live and are helpful, calm and free, known only as felt and lived,”—the most real and adorable essence of all nature and being.
Miracle and mediatorialism have, of course, no place in his theology. In a paper on “The Worship of Jesus” (1868) he describes the ascending steps of worship. With the development of the religious consciousness, worship paid to heroes, divinities, and mediators will pass, and at last be paid only to eternal principles—to truth, justice, beauty, law, and love, the very life of God.
An evolutionist, he stoutly resisted the invasion of the spiritual realm by the analytic methods of science. He says:
Analysis, never reveals the truth in its divine forms of life. However useful in its way, it slays this beautiful unity in which life and power dwell. Science becomes an autopsy.
An individualist of extreme type, he stood apart from churches, societies, clubs, even from the Free Religious Association with whose aims he was in sympathy. He justified himself in what was perhaps idiosyncratic, not on the ground of indifference to fellowship, but lest freedom, the soul’s greatest right and blessing, suffer some harm. He was distrustful of dogma in religion, the drill system in education, the machine in politics, the conventionalisms of society, as hindering the natural expansion of the faculties of the soul and its genius.
The most enduring monument to Mr. Johnson’s labor is his scholarly and philosophical study of the Oriental Religions: India (1872), China (1877), Persia (1885). This study engaged him during his whole ministry and to the end of his life. The Persia, nearly complete at his death, was edited by his friend, O. B. Frothingham, who also contributed a valuable preface. The motive to this study, as he says, was neither theological nor controversial, but to show through the ethical and spiritual import of the older civilizations the unity of human experience and to do justice to the spiritual nature common to humanity that speaks in differing faiths. He had no experience with the civilization of the peoples whose religions he sought to interpret, nor was he much acquainted with the original languages; but, in the opinion of specialists, any deficiency in these respects was more than made good by his familiarity with the best European scholarship, his thorough research, and by his critical and philosophical judgment. The idealizing tendency is apparent, and enthusiasm does not seem to be always under restraint; yet these studies are compact with the fruit of patient toil and reflection. They are neither compendiums nor comparisons, but lofty and inspiring interpretations of Oriental piety and philosophies, and will remain invaluable as original and instructive contributions to the history and philosophy of religion.
Mr. Johnson was a contributor to the Liberator, the Anti-slavery Standard, the Commonwealth, and the Radical. He gave many notable addresses—among the more important, on the “Rendition of Burns”, the “Death of Lincoln”, and on “Charles Sumner”. He owed much to Theodore Parker, and made many returns of service at Music Hall. He was a man of buoyant nature, charming, and lovable; an enthusiast over the beautiful in nature and art and literature; versed in science; deeply sympathetic with humanity in its aspiration and its struggle for right and justice. His service of God and humanity was the service of a pure soul, divinely instructed, most religiously self-consecrated. An accomplished writer and speaker, he cared only for the truth. He was indifferent to the arts that win popularity. His books brought him no remuneration, only the praise of liberal scholars and appreciative friends; but his serenity and happiness were never disturbed. His life was one of many sacrifices, prompted by an heroic spirit and a loving heart. “What he was and did in his home gave, beyond all words, demonstration of the heaven of love, without stint or alloy, which he believed in.”
— By Samuel B. Stewart