How Dr. Johnson Died

Dr. Johnson after eight years of solid labour produced his famous dictionary, a noble piece of work, entitling the author to being considered the founder of English lexicography. Johnson had in many ways a miserable life, beset with physical infirmities of a distressing and disfiguring nature, seeking a very scanty livelihood in the realm of literature, which was then “a dark night between two sunny days,” when the day of patrician patronage was at its close and that of public patronage had not dawned. For years he had great difficulty in keeping the wolf from the door.

Johnson was well over fifty when he emerged from obscurity. In 1762 a pension of £300 a year was conferred on him by Lord Bute, the then Prime Minister, and in the following year he made the acquaintance of James Boswell, a Scots laird, whose Life of Dr. Johnson is probably more imperishable than any of the doctor’s own writings.

In later years he mixed with very many distinguished people. But at last old age asserted itself, and his bodily condition grew serious, and it was apparent to all, as well as to himself, that the end was drawing near.

In early life he had been overpowered by debts, difficulties, ill health, and religious doubts, which rendered him a prey to morbid melancholy. These religious doubts continued till near the end of his life.

Like many others he had an aversion to making his will, completing it on December 8th, and 9th, 1784, dying on the 13th, with so little apparent pain that his attendants hardly perceived the actual moment of his dissolution.

That Dr. Johnson was deeply interested in religion is no marvel. Surely any man, with ordinary powers of observation—and Dr. Johnson had extraordinary powers of that nature—must think seriously of that which comes after death. Death is an awful reality, and we may well enquire into its reason, and what is its result.

No human religion attempts to explain this in a satisfactory way. Spiritualism, the latest and most dangerous demoniacal craze, speaks of death, but does not give one word of explanation as to why it is.

The Bible alone puts its finger upon the spot. It tells us: “The wages of sin is DEATH” (Rom. 6:23). And that death does not mean annihilation is proved by Scripture: “It is appointed unto men once to die, but AFTER THIS the judgment” (Heb. 9:27). Well might such thoughts fill Dr. Johnson’s mind with serious exercise.

The writer viewed with deep interest lately in the house of Dr. Johnson’s birth at Lichfield, the armchair (very uncomfortable compared to the present day armchair) in which he sat in his closing days. If the chair could speak what could it not tell us of his deep interest in the question of his soul’s salvation.

Thank God, in the very evening of his days the clouds broke and passed away, and he got into the sunshine. He discovered clearly the ground of being right before God, and being prepared to leave this world with calm assurance of going to heaven.

Shortly before he died he wrote to Sir Joshua Reynolds, the famous painter, begging him to forgive him a debt of £30, to read his Bible and not to use his brush on Sundays. To this Sir Joshua readily assented.

To Francis Barber, his negro man-servant, and to whom be bequeathed the great bulk of his fortune, some £1,500, he said, “Attend, Francis, to the salvation of your soul, which is the object of the greatest importance.” Do you agree with this, my reader? Is the salvation of your soul,


What does any other object, or every other object amount to compared to this pressing matter? Every other interest is but for such a short time. This is for ETERNITY.

Dr. Brocklesby, his friend and physician, on whom he had pressed the importance of these things, and whom he had made to write down the purport of his remarks to him on the subject, and to promise to preserve the record till his death, wrote:

“For some time before his [Dr. Johnson’s] death, all his fears were calmed and absorbed by the prevalence of his faith and his trust in the merits and propitiation of Jesus Christ.

“He often talked to me about the necessity of faith in the sacrifice of Jesus as beyond all good works whatever for the salvation of mankind.

“He pressed me to study Dr. Clarke and to read his sermons. I asked him why he pressed Dr. Clarke. ‘Because’ said he ‘he is fullest on the propitiatory sacrifice.’”

Here we get the secret of the happiness of Dr. Johnson’s closing days. He discovered the true meaning of the death of Christ and its relation to him. He discovered that Christ’s death was a propitiatory sacrifice, that is an atoning death, which met all the fullest claims of God’s righteousness, enabling Him to offer salvation to mankind.

Discovering this, Dr. Johnson, with the humility of a little child, trusted the Saviour and received the assurance from Scripture of his salvation. He clearly recognised that his own so-called good works could not save him. Christ and Christ alone; His atoning death and that alone; faith and faith alone were the means of his blessing—Christ, the glorious Person; His death meeting all God’s claims and setting Him free to offer pardon, forgiveness, salvation, justification and eternal life; faith, the empty hand of expectancy which receives the blessing.

Reader, you have read how Dr. Johnson died. How will you die? Are you prepared?

“God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life” (John 3:16).

“If thou shalt confess with thy mouth the Lord Jesus, and shalt believe in thine heart that God hath raised Him from the dead, thou shalt be saved” (Rom. 10:9).

The Gospel Messenger 1921, p. 27