"AS I SEE IT"
Volume 5, Number 10, October 2002
“I too will have my say; I too will tell what I know.
For I am full of words, and the spirit within me compels me;
Inside I am like bottled-up wine, like new wineskins ready to burst.
I must speak and find relief; I must open my lips and reply.
I will show partiality to no one. Nor will I flatter any man.”
["As I See It" is a monthly electronic magazine compiled and edited by Doug Kutilek. Its purpose is to address important issues of the day and to draw attention to worthwhile Christian and other literature in order to aid believers in Jesus Christ, especially pastors, missionaries and Bible college and seminary students to more effectively study and teach the Word of God. The editor's perspective is that of an independent Baptist of fundamentalist theological persuasion.
AISI is sent free to all who request it by writing to the editor at: DKUTILEK@juno.com. You can be removed from the mailing list at the same address. Back issues sent on request. Some may also be downloaded at http://www.tegart.com/brian/bible/kjvonly. Articles on the King James Bible controversy and recent issues may be accessed at www.KJVOnly.org
All articles are by the editor (unless otherwise noted) and are copyrighted but may be reproduced for distribution, provided the following conditions are met: 1. articles must be reproduced in unedited, unabridged form; 2. the writer must be properly credited; and, 3. such reproduction must be for free distribution only. Permission to distribute in any other form must be secured in writing beforehand. Permission for reproduction in Christian print periodicals will generally be given.]
SAMUEL JOHNSON (1709-1784) ON DISAPPOINTED DESIGNS OF LIFE
“But I go on as I formerly did, designing to be some time or other both rich and wise, and yet cultivate neither mind nor fortune. Do you take notice of my example, and learn the danger of delay. When I was as you are now, towering in the confidence of twenty-one, little did I suspect that I should be at forty-nine what I now am.”
Quoted in The Personal History of Samuel Johnson, by Christopher Hibbert (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), p. 107.
[Being for yet a few days more able to lay claim to a mere “forty-nine,” I find the quote remarkably and directly expressive of my own sentiments just now--editor]
WHEN A CHILD DIES: A SEARCH FOR ANSWERS
One of the great tragic occurrences that is repeated with heart-rending frequency is the early death of a child, whether by miscarriage--and yes, the unborn child yet in the womb is a person, fully human, who should be afforded all the protections of the law--, still-birth, major birth defects, disease, accident, and, most tragically, abortion. (This latter is of course in a different category than the former, since it is a deliberate conspiratorial act involving several persons to exterminate a nameless, faceless, defenseless human being, but it is still monstrously tragic--tragic that the human heart is so corrupt and depraved, so callous and vile to commit such acts, and even vehemently defend the right to commit such acts). We commonly hear of cases of still-birth or early infant death, often through obituaries in the newspaper, sometimes by word of mouth, sometimes by personal experience within the circle of our own family and friends.
Often, even usually, such an event is an immense crisis of faith, and a cause of extreme bewilderment, confusion, doubt, and questioning God, or even accusing and cursing God. Why did God allow this to happen? Why didn’t God do something to prevent this tragedy? Does He hate me? How can He be good, and God, and love, and let this happen?
Even the most learned and devote of Bible scholars is not immune from doubts at such an event. The great Baptist Greek and New Testament scholar, A. T. Robertson, in his mid-50s and after nearly 40 years as a preacher of the Gospel, was in unspeakable spiritual agony when his beloved young daughter Charlotte died. His biographer tells us that he paced about the house with an open Greek New Testament in his hand, asking why, if God raised Jairus’ daughter, didn’t He raise his? (Everett Gill, A. T. Robertson: A Biography, pp. 119-120, 222)
While we do not pretend to have complete understanding about such tragedies--and frankly have never personally faced this specific crisis--, yet it is imperative that we seek a sound historical and Biblical perspective on the issue.
First, there is that great and solemn truth that we all live in and are part of a fallen, corrupted world. By the sin of Adam, death entered the world (Romans 5:12), and we all as sons of Adam are universally under sentence of death (I Corinthians 15:22). Whether soon or late, we shall all die. This is an appointment which none can escape (Hebrews 9:27). Physical death is the destiny for all living, whether our lives measure but a few hours or a century and more. In Adam, all die.
And here we see another matter. In our day, to live to 70 or 80 years is deemed a full life; to reach 90 is remarkable, and to attain to a full century, while increasingly frequent, is still a rarity and therefore noteworthy. But by contrast, even the most long-lived of humanity today dies a mere youth by comparison with the patriarchs in Genesis. Genesis 5 reports the lives on men, generation after generation, who lived 700, 800, 900 years and more. If we reach a mere tenth of that span, we are counted long-lived. Today, when a child dies at 2 or 5 or 10, we are struck by the comparative shortness of that life, yet fail to consider that we ourselves, at our best and longest, die highly abbreviated lives by comparison with our earliest ancestors.
From an examination of history, we discover that infant mortality in the civilized West is currently much reduced over the rate that prevailed all but universally in the past--and still does prevail in under-developed, backward nations where nutrition, sanitation and medical care falls far below Western standards. Commonly, even regularly, from the 19th and earlier centuries, there are accounts of families with 6, 8, 10 and more children, in which only 1 or 2 reached adulthood, and not infrequently none at all. Historically, half of all infants have failed to reach their first birthday. This rate has been reduced in modern society to but a fraction of what it once was.
But the fact of dramatically reduced infant mortality is no comfort to those who are among that small fraction who have lost a child today. Indeed, it insures that with fewer people sharing this experience there will be fewer truly sympathetic and understanding shoulders to cry on. A sense of isolation from most of mankind develops, since this is of a certainty one of those things you cannot fully understand if you have not personally experienced it.
Several questions well up in the mind of the grieving parent. First, where is my child now? Is it in heaven? Will I see it again? And secondly, why did my child die, indeed, why did my child die?
Let us deal with the first of these briefly. Everything that the Bible teaches on the subject points to one conclusion: those who die in infancy are with certainty destined for eternal life in the presence of God. Christ’s death atoned for the inherited guilt of all of Adam’s children--“He by the grace of God tasted death for all mankind,” (Hebrews 2:9)--and none go to hell except those who have knowingly and willfully sinned. Because infants and young children are incapable of making such a deliberate moral choice to sin, they are not accountable (the idea of an “age of accountability” is a Biblical one, the principle being referred to in Deuteronomy 1:39, though precisely what that age is is not stated, and indeed would vary from child to child). David with absolute assurance spoke of his deceased infant son--the one conceived through David’s adultery--: “He will not come back to me, but I will go to him,” (2 Samuel 12:23). David did not doubt for a moment that departed child’s blessed destiny. Jesus welcomed the small children to Himself, rebuking the disciples, “Permit the children to come to me and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these,” (Matthew 19:14). [See below for some suggested reading on this matter]
When a child is lost to death, there is intense sorrow, a sorrow that never fully passes away. But we need not, we should not grieve for the departed child, for the loss is all ours, not the child’s. Yes, we think of the joys of life that will be missed by him in a life cut short: laughter, friends, school, marriage, family, but we forget the potential sorrows that will also be escaped--pain, disease, accidents, injuries, sorrows at the loss of loved ones--indeed, the very pain and sorrow under consideration here. The departed child has been spared the grief that now grips our hearts. Is this not a great mercy from God?
But what of the other issue--why did the child die? There are to this question potentially many answers, one or more of which may apply in a particular case, but certainly not all would apply at once, and perhaps involve some reason other than those suggested here.
First, it must be recognized, that in at least a few cases, the death of a child is a divine judgement on the parents for sin, though this is apparently not usually the case. Of this, there is but one specific Biblical example, out of numerous reports of the death of children; I speak of course of the death of David’s infant son mentioned above. I have heard reports of some modern cases that seem to require this explanation, though we must never assume such to be the case unless we have definite and specific information, and even in such a case, we must recognize that God’s purpose in such instances is regularly to lead those involved to repentance and restoration, as was the case with King David.
To take a modern instance: I have repeatedly heard accounts (I have nothing in writing) of a particular Christian couple called by God to take the Gospel to others as foreign missionaries. They steadfastly refused to obey God, pleading the danger to the health, safety, and education of their two small children that the high-risk foreign field would pose as the excuse for their blatant disobedience to God. Remaining in the States, the family lost both children in one day, the first to snake bite, the other as the parents, rushing to take the bitten child to the hospital, accidentally ran over the other child with the car. The physical death of two precious children is a very high price to pay for disobedience, but in comparison to the eternal spiritual death facing those to whom God had called them, it was decidedly the lesser price. They repented and obeyed.
Because of the widespread plague of abortion, even among Christians, I can imagine (though I know of no specific cases) where a Christian who destroyed a child by abortion would later lose a child as an act of divine retribution. It is as if God were saying, “You destroyed a healthy child you did not want or find convenient as though you had the right and power over another’s life and death; now I will take from you a child you do want, so that you will learn that the issues of life and death are entirely mine.”
On another track, and although it seems incomprehensible to us at first consideration, the death of a child could be for the glory of God. The daughter, the only child, of Jairus and his wife was suddenly taken from them, and the crowds mocked Jesus as incapable of doing anything. Yet, He restored the girl to life, to the amazement of all (Mark 5). And we could mention the death of Lazarus (though he was an adult), which gave Jesus an opportunity to demonstrate in close proximity to Jerusalem His power over life and death, and confirm His claim to be the Messiah. Jesus expressly said that Lazarus’ sickness and death was for the glory of God (John 11:4).
Now, in our day when public sign miracles are not God’s method of working (as indeed they usually are not His method), and physical resurrections do not occur, yet it remains that a child’s death may be for the glory of God and the good of those directly involved--as indeed may be true of any of life’s tragedies.
For unsaved parents indifferent to the things of God, the death of a child may stir their hearts to consider their own relationship to God: ‘if my child is in heaven, how can I guarantee that I will go to heaven when I die, and see my child again?’ I know personally a professor at Wichita State University, then a wholly secular psychologist, who was drawn to Christ and repentance by the tragic death of a five-year-old son in an auto accident. He is now a strong Christian and leader of the local creation-science association.
For Christian parents careless in their obedience to God, such a loss may draw them back to Christ, and insure that other children in the family will be raised in a truly Christian environment and lead to their eventual salvation. Far better to lose one child early on to God’s care, than to lose several or even all to unbelief and eternal condemnation because of spiritual carelessness on the parents’ part.
For faithful Christian parents, such a sorrow may be God’s chosen method to equip them for greater service to God. “Every branch in Me that bears fruit, He prunes, so that it will bear more fruit,” (John 15:2). It is a common yet apparently sound truism: “God rarely uses a man greatly until he has first wounded him deeply.” I have heard countless testimonies from pastors, missionaries and other committed and faithful believers who suffered some deep personal tragedy, in not a few cases the death of a child. That deep personal tragedy had a transforming effect on their service to God. Often it prepared them to later empathize with others--frequently unbelievers who had endured the same circumstances--and bring them to Christ. Their sorrows abounded to the eternal spiritual benefit of others.
For us to be vessels fit for the Master’s use, we must be pliable in God’s hands, molded by Him into an instrument suitable for His use. This requires that He destroy our self-dependence, subdue our wills to His, and compel us to yield our judgment to His wisdom. The best means to these ends--known only to God and varying in each case--are often difficult, exceedingly painful, and littered with unspeakable sorrow. Yet, they are essential if we are to be good for anything in Christ’s service. The Scriptures mysteriously tell us that even Jesus “learned obedience through the things which he suffered,” (Hebrews 5:8). If suffering was necessary for the sinless Jesus to prepare Him perfectly for God’s service, how much more is it true and necessary for us? God’s design for our lives is most emphatically not to make us happy or prosperous, as so many false prophets claim today, but to make us holy, to conform us to the image of His Son (Hebrews 12:10; Romans 8:28).
As with Job, when we cannot comprehend God’s dealing in our lives, when He multiplies our sorrows, we must yield to His wisdom and power, perhaps not understanding what He is doing or why, but with assurance that He is too wise to make a mistake and too good to do wrong. We must implicitly trust Him in all the circumstances of life, both pleasant and most terrible. And, yes, I know that that is much easier to assert than to do.
When an infant dies, or when any tragedy or great personal loss occurs, when deep shadows shroud our path, let us look for God’s hand at work, and draw closer to His side.
[In preparing this article, I sought to supplement my prior reading, seeking first for a satisfactory practical treatment of the issue--something suitable to give to grieving parents--, and then something theological, regarding the question of infant salvation. For the first purpose, I examined I’ll Hold You in Heaven by Jack Hayford (Regal Books, 1989. 124 pp., pprbk, $6.99), a popular book in at least its 29th printing. I was a bit wary of what I might find theologically, but on the whole, that part of the volume was satisfactory. The author does an adequate job of assuring bereaved parents on a Biblical basis that their child was indeed a person and still is, that it still exists, that its spirit is in heaven and at peace with God, that it is possible for them to see the child again if they are spiritually prepared for eternity. And he rightly offers these assurances even to those whose child died by abortion. He holds out the hope of forgiveness from God to those who made the tragic error and committed the sin of abortion, if they truly repent of this and their other sins. Jesus is still in the business of healing the broken-hearted. I would say that this book is at times flawed by the use of obtuse insider Christian jargon; this “preacherese” can only puzzle the uninitiated, thereby reducing the book’s capacity to achieve its intended purpose of consoling the aggrieved. It also contains an addendum about how to start a crisis pregnancy center--certainly a noble enterprise, but the chapter seemed out of place here. I could recommend this book for those who have lost a child, though I suspect that there must be something better available.
For a theological perspective, I picked up When a Baby Dies by Ronald H. Nash (Zondervan, 1999. 126 pp., $9.99). Nash begins well, showing that those dying in infancy are assured of heaven, though not for the reasons commonly appealed to: not their innocence (which is only relative; they still are born--indeed, conceived--with a sin nature, that given time and opportunity, would rebel against God); not because all men will be saved (they won’t; universalism is a growing and serious theological error in our day, and a plain denial of the clear Biblical teaching that multitudes will be forever lost, excluded by sin from God’s kingdom and His presence); nor baptism (which does not wash away sin for either infants or adults; Nash, now a professor at Southern Baptist Seminary, does a surprisingly poor job of refuting the error of baptismal regeneration. Were I to play the devil’s advocate, I could have easily refuted his weak presentation). He does present an adequate case for infant salvation, though his treatment of the issue of the age of accountability was brief and unsatisfactory. Unfortunately, after treating of such matters, Nash uses the issue of infant salvation as a club to beat “Arminianism,” claiming that Reformed theology must be right because its only alternative, Arminianism, has no satisfactory accounting for the salvation of infants. What he wrote was really poor caricaturing of the worst sort and the creation of a platoon of straw men, whom he prides himself in having toppled (at least in his mind). I don’t know who Nash has read on the Arminian side, but as much as twenty years ago I read an explanation from Wesley that accounted for infant salvation within the theological parameters of his Arminianism that was entirely satisfactory and Biblical, and nothing like what Nash presented.
Had Nash limited himself to the first part of his treatment, he would have done his reputation a great service, or at least no major harm (some 7 years ago, I read his book Is Jesus the Only Way? and found it a much better book).
A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Judson Press, 1907), pp. 660-664, yet remains the best theological treatment of the issue of infant salvation that I am aware of is. If any reader knows of something better, I am open for recommendations.)
Being an Excerpt from My Yet Unpublished
“A Sedgwick County Almanac”
I begin my almanac in the Fall of the year, because that is my favorite season, and because I began in the Fall of the year. I was born in October in 1952. Fall is my favorite season, and October is my favorite month, and has always been since I was a small boy. Perhaps it is the cool crispness in the air which makes football in the backyard a perfect Saturday activity: playing on the grass instead of having to mow it. Perhaps it is the certainty that the oppressive heat of summer will not be back, at least not this year (Septembers can sometimes betray you). Perhaps it is the transformation of the landscape: trees that before were just "trees," but now have become an artist's palate of yellows, oranges, reds, and browns. And with the change in color there comes even a change in smell. October outdoors has a fragrance all its own.
By October, children have settled into a new school year and have resigned themselves to the fact that it is not going to be over soon, so they might as well endure it. But October also carries the promise of good things to come. October begins a rising crescendo of days long-anticipated: for me, it was a birthday, with its pumpkin pie (a tradition I began when I was about 10; mom asked what kind of cake I wanted, and I answered, "I want pumpkin pie." It's been that way ever since, with my wife carrying on the custom. My youngest son, born in August, also requests--and gets--pumpkin pie). Two weeks later--Halloween! And free candy of all sorts--though you also got some really nasty stuff along with the good kinds. And then less than a month later: Thanksgiving. And that means two days off school, and lots of the best stuff to eat, and cousins to play with, and a hike to take after the meal. And if Thanksgiving has managed to arrive on time, surely Christmas has got to be close at hand. And this whole series of delights begins in October. Yes, October has always been my favorite month of the year.
We couldn't have pronounced the Latin name Maclura pomifera even if we had wanted to or known what it was. And we never heard of "Bois D'arc" (or “Bodark,” as it is sometimes spelled) when we were growing up, though we might have, if we'd been Ozark-raised. Yes, we knew what "Osage orange" was, but we didn't call it that, unless we were trying to be uppity. No, it was just plain old "hedge apple trees." Our house, on a half-acre suburban lot, was bordered on the back by an old farm hedge row, consisting of perhaps 40 hedge apple trees spaced 3 or 4 feet apart, and climbing to thirty or forty feet (I'm not quite sure, since the youthful mind sees almost everything bigger than the adult mind does). Some were as much as a foot in diameter or more. We spent a lot of time in, under, and around those trees.
This was one tree that it paid to know. A close encounter of the personal kind with a hedge tree and its thorny talons would snag and shred any kind of clothing, from the new jeans your mother told you not to get dirty, to your favorite old sweatshirt. And it would pierce, scratch or cut your skin in a dozen spots before you realized what had happened. No one ran barefoot under untended hedge trees twice. The inch-long thorns embedded in your foot were a very effective teacher.
On the other hand, there was no better weapon for a neighborhood game of "war" than hedge balls. These were the really heavy artillery. They could be thrown like a baseball or rolled like a bowling ball, depending on how serious the game got. Anyone who wasn't quick enough to get out of their path was a certain casualty, and even if they hedge ball only brushed the clothes or skin, it often left a gooey, sticky white mess that was difficult to wash off. A mock softball game using hedge balls was also great fun (though picking up the shattered remnants afterward was not).
If you dared to prune a hedge tree, it made the best location for a tree house. It was absolutely guaranteed not to break under your weight, it almost always had a good scaffolding of branches for nailing boards into, and with its dense canopy of leaves, it provided great relief from the summer sun. And, as noted, it came with its own supply of ammunition for backyard war games.
One year when we were not yet teen-agers, my brother and I somehow heard of "soil depletion." Knowing nothing about the process of photosynthesis (whereby more than 95% of every tree is manufactured out of water and carbon dioxide from the air) we got deeply concerned about the damage being done to our backyard soil by throwing away the hundred or so hedge apples that fell from our trees each year. Our contribution to "saving the soil" consisted of digging a big hole and burying all the hedge apples in it. Consider it a learning experience. Come next spring, we saw that the soil over the apples was being pushed up 4, 6, even 8 inches by the thousands of sprouting seedling hedge trees! We stomped them down, because we certainly did not need more hedge trees! And, I must add, in the several times I have since deliberately buried hedge apples in hopes of getting seedling trees to grow, absolutely not one has sprouted. I have no explanation.
My adult appreciation for hedge is greater than in my youth. I no longer play hedge ball war or softball, and I last built a tree house more than a dozen years ago (for my sons--in a mulberry tree). But I have come to value hedge trees for other qualities. They are amazingly tolerant of the extremes of Kansas weather. When the state is in the brutal grip of a long summer drought characterized by days on end of 100-plus temperatures and gusty, hot southwest winds, the hedge takes no notice. It does not cast off excessive leaves as do sycamore, elm and walnut. It doesn’t “brown out” like many plants. Its leaves retain their deep glossy green color, and the tree retains its full canopy of leaves. Intense storm winds rarely topple a hedge tree, and I‘ve never seen any storm short of a tornado rip branches from hedge.
Hedge is relatively fast-growing, more so than many more popular trees, so it can quickly fill the space set aside for it, casting welcome shade. And in spite of the rapid growth, the wood is among the densest growing natively on the North American continent. Nothing exceeds it in heating value as fuel wood, not oak, not even hickory (rumors of iron stoves being burned out by the intense heat of a hedge fire are common). A stick of hedge is worth triple in heating value to cottonwood, and nearly so to Chinese elm, and at least double the value of pine or spruce. In addition, hedge is remarkably rot-resistant. Hedge wood fence posts 50 and 60 years old are not rare, though as they age they become mighty difficult to nail into. The heartwood--and the tree is mostly heartwood, with only a thin rind of white sapwood--is a rich dark yellow color, sometimes tending toward orange. No other American wood has this color, though that of mulberry is somewhat akin in appearance. The papery covering of hedge roots is bright orange.
The sap of living trees is a thick white latex. Cut through the bark of a living tree, and the sticky goo will quickly begin to exude. It dries to a dark, hard brown. I suspect that the drought and insect-resistance of hedge is due to this sap.
Even the objectionable features of hedge have been tamed. I speak of the thorns and the hedge balls. Some trees are naturally thornless. Of these, some have been chosen for propagation. But even the thorns found on most hedge trees are not entirely a curse: on the tree-less plains, when farmers needed a plant suitable for growing a “living fence” hedge was ideal. Hedge seedlings were planted a few feet apart, and when a few feet high, were cut back to ground level, insuring that they would grow back as a cluster of shoots, forming a dense hedge, a hedge armed with sharp, pain-inducing thorns, which spared the trees being eaten by livestock, and guaranteed that no domestic animals would try to escape by pushing through this barrier. This whacking back of seedlings, incidentally, is the cause of most hedge trees having a bushy, scrubby look to them. Left to their natural growth patterns, most hedge trees growing in the open develop a single trunk for at least the first 8 to 10 feet, grow to more than 40 feet high, live a long life of up to a couple hundred years or more, and with a modest amount of intelligent pruning have a very attractive shape and appearance, when in leaf in summer, and when bare in winter.
As for the hedge apples, the species is what botanists call “dioecious,” a fancy term meaning that the male and the female flowers are found on separate trees; of course only the female trees bear the apples (just as only female cottonwoods shed cotton, and only female ginko trees bear their foul-smelling fruit). By choosing and propagating by grafting or other means only trees that are know to be fruitless (that is, males), the autumn chore of retrieving and discarding hedge apples can fade into an unpleasant memory. At least one nurseryman has found a hedge specimen that is both male and thornless and has begun to sell this doubly-desirable tree. Of course, without hedge apples, you will be robbed of the delight of seeing a squirrel tear one to shreds in search of the seeds deep inside, seeds the squirrel apparently finds irresistible.
Hedge also has virtually no insect or disease problems (I would have said “no” absolutely, but I’m not omniscient, and there just may be some I don’t know about, but I have never witnessed any insect or disease problems of any sort in 40 years’ acquaintance with the species). Unlike elm, chestnut, maple, box-elder, pine, spruce, and almost everything else.
With all of its good and useful qualities, you would expect such a species of tree to be highly valued, abundantly planted and carefully tended. But, no. I have never seen anyone plant hedge trees (though in the past it was obviously widely down, often promoted by government agencies and subsidized by government grants); many times I have seen a good, still-thriving hedgerow bulldozed to give the farmer another acre or two of farm-able land, to raise low-priced crops that will only add to the grain surplus and help further suppress farm prices. The land would much more than likely have been better left in hedge, to control erosion by wind and water, provide a home and shelter for various mammals and birds, and add to the farm’s usable energy reserves.
As for myself, of the many thousands of trees I have personally planted, I don’t recall a single hedge tree among that number. I have pruned up and thinned out hundreds of them, and have cut dozens of ricks of hedge firewood in the process. I haven’t much needed to plant hedge, since they are common in Kansas, and do sprout naturally (from squirrel-planted seeds?). A hedge tree planted today and given a helping hand at the start has the strong potential of out-living its human planter several times over. Maybe no one else ever wonders about who planted the hedge row I am admiring or working in today, but I wonder such things. I wonder precisely when and why they took the trouble. Whatever their motives, I am thankful that they undertook the project, as I decades later benefit from their labors.
And I wonder about their destiny in the future. Will they be loved and tended as in the past and prosper, or be badly neglected and fall into decline, or will some over-zealous farmer, or worse, a land-developer, hire a bulldozer to annihilate in an afternoon what has taken half a century and more to create, and which had potential for another hundred productive years?
Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson by Hesther Lynch Piozzi. Edited, with an introduction by S. C. Roberts. New York: Arno Press, 1980 reprint. 196 pp., hardback.
Samuel Johnson (1709-1784), famous 18th century British essayist, lexicographer and conversationalist has been the subject of numerous biographies, some by contemporaries, many more by later scholars. Far and away, the most famous biography of Johnson written by one of his contemporaries is that authored by James Boswell. Indeed, Boswell’s Life of Johnson is often lauded as the first real biography--and still the best--ever written, about anyone’s life at any time. It is truly a great production about a great subject, and remains in print to this very day, existing in dozens of different editions and formats. Indeed, so extraordinary was the reception of Boswell’s account that it soon cast into almost complete obscurity two other meritorious though inferior works by two personal acquaintances of Johnson--two who in fact knew Johnson personally either longer or more fully than Boswell. I speak of Sir John Hawkins (1719-1789) who wrote The Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D., and the present work under review by Hester Thrale Piozzi. Hawkins had known Johnson more than 35 years, had been associated with him in London literary circles, was an executor of Johnson’s estate, and published Johnson’s works in 10 volumes. Mrs. Piozzi, like Boswell, knew Johnson for the last 21years of Johnson’s life, but for 18 of those years had Johnson as an almost continuous house-guest, thereby seeing much more of the private Johnson than Boswell. Piozzi is much more frank in her critiques of Johnson’s conduct and manner, not boundlessly idolizing him as Boswell did. There was very much rivalry, jealousy, even hatred among Johnson’s contemporary biographers, with Boswell displaying the most unmingled scorn for his competitors.
Though immensely inferior to Boswell’s account and very often covering the same ground, Hawkins’ Johnson nevertheless occasionally reports incidents and sayings of Johnson that Boswell missed, and in some details of Johnson’s earliest years, Hawkins is the more accurate writer. On the other hand Piozzi’s account is almost wholly distinct in content from Boswell, with most of the incidents and conversations given by her alone. Her work is marred by a certain degree of self-justification regarding a falling out with Johnson late in his life.
The true Johnsonian--and I proudly confess to being a devotee--will wish to have and read Piozzi’s compilation, among the other lives of Johnson, contemporaneous and more modern. ---Doug Kutilek
Quotes from Piozzi’s Anecdotes of Samuel Johnson--
“To recollect, however, and to repeat the sayings of Dr. Johnson, is almost all that can be done by the writers of his life; as his life, at least since my acquaintance with him, consisted in little else than talking, when he was not absolutely employed in some serious piece of work; and whatever work he did, seemed so much below his powers of performance, that he appeared the idlest of all human beings; ever musing till he was called out to converse, and conversing till the fatigue of his friends, or the promptitude of his own temper to take offense, consigned him back again to silent meditation.” (p. 18)
“Our Doctor, however, displayed so copious, so compendious a knowledge of authors, books, and every branch of learning in that language [i.e., Greek], that the gentleman appeared astonished.” (p. 38)
“The piety of Dr. Johnson was exemplary and edifying: he was punctiliously exact to perform every public duty enjoined by the church, and his spirit of devotion had an energy that affected all who ever saw him pray in private. The coldest and most languid hearers of the word must have felt themselves animated by his manner of reading the Holy Scriptures. . . .” (p. 61)
“The settled aversion Dr. Johnson felt towards an infidel he expressed to all ranks, and at all times, without the smallest reserve; for though on common occasions he paid great deference to birth or title, yet his regard for truth and virtue never gave way to meaner considerations. We talked of a dead wit one evening, and somebody praised him--‘Let us never praise talents so ill employed, Sir; we foul our mouths by commending such infidels.’ “ (pp. 62-3)
“Of a Jamaican gentleman, then lately dead--‘He will not, whither he is now gone (said Johnson), find much difference, I believe, either in the climate or the company.’ “ (p. 63)
“Johnson’s own notions about eating however were nothing less than delicate; a leg of pork boiled till it dropped from the bone, a veal-pie with plums and sugar, or the outside cut of a salt buttock of beef were his favorite dainties. . . . He took his chocolate liberally, pouring in large quantities of cream, or even melted butter; and was so fond of fruit, that though he usually ate seven or eight large peaches of a morning before breakfast began, and treated them with proportionate attention after dinner again, yet I have heard him protest that he never had quite as much as he wished of wall-fruit, except once in his life.” (p. 68)
“No one ever had higher notions of the hard task of true Christianity than Johnson, whose daily terror lest he had not done enough, originated in piety, but ended in little less than disease. Reasonable with regard to others, he had formed vain hopes of performing impossibilities himself; and finding his good works ever below his desires and intent, filled his imagination with fears that he should never obtain forgiveness for omissions of duty and criminal waste of time. These ideas kept him in constant anxiety concerning his salvation.” (p. 74)
“There was a Mr. Boyce . . . of whose ingenuity and distress I heard Dr. Johnson tell some curious anecdotes; particularly, that when he was almost perishing with hunger, and some money was produced to purchase him a dinner, he got a bit of roast beef, but could not eat it without ketchup, and laid out the last half-guinea he possessed in truffles and mushrooms, eating them in bed too, for want of clothes, or even a shirt to sit up in.” (p. 79)
“We must either outlive our friends you know, or our friends must outlive us; and I see no man that would hesitate about the choice.” (p. 80)
“Mr. Johnson loved late hours extremely, or more properly hated early ones. Nothing was more terrifying to him that the idea of retiring to bed, which he never would call going to rest, or suffer another to call so. ‘I lie down (said he) that my acquaintance may sleep; but I lie down to endure oppressive misery, and soon rise again to pass the night in anxiety and pain.’ ” (p. 81; and he meant chiefly mental pain--editor)
“Of Dr. Johnson, when my father and he [i.e., the artist William Hogarth] were talking together about him one day: That man (says Hogarth) is not contented with believing the Bible, but fairly resolves, I think, to believe nothing but the Bible.” (p. 90)
“I asked him upon this, if he ever disputed with his wife? (I heard that he loved her passionately). ‘Perpetually (said he); my wife had a particular reverence for cleanliness, and desired the praise of neatness in her dress and furniture, as many ladies do, till they become troublesome to their best friends, slaves to their own besoms [brooms], and only sigh for the hour of sweeping their husbands out of the house as dirt and useless lumber: a clean floor is so comfortable, she would say sometimes, by way of twitting; till at last I told her, that I thought we had had talk enough about the floor, we would now have a touch at the ceiling.’ “ (p. 96)
“He often delighted to say of Edmund Burke, ‘that you could not stand five minutes with that man beneath a shed while it rained but you must be convinced you had been standing with the greatest man you had ever yet seen.’ “ (p. 135)
“. . . a life of seventy years [actually seventy-five] spent in the uniform practice of every moral excellence and every Christian perfection, save humility alone, says a critic. . . . Lowly towards God, and docile towards the church; implicit in his belief to the people appointed to preach it; tender to the unhappy, and affectionate to the poor, let no one hastily condemn as proud, a character which may perhaps somewhat justly be censured as arrogant.” (p. 142)
“He liberally confessed that all his own disappointments proceeded from himself.” (p. 161)
“Mr. Johnson indeed always measured other people’s notions of every thing by his own, and nothing could persuade him to believe that the books which he disliked were agreeable to thousands, or that air and exercise which he despised were beneficial to the health of other mortals.” (p. 167)
“Books without the knowledge of life are useless (I heard him say) for what should books teach but the art of living?” (p. 171)