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Johnson on ecclesiastical censure.
[A.D. 1776. Those who dreaded the blast of publick reprehension, were willing to submit themselves to the priest, by a private accusation of themselves; and to obtain a reconciliation with the Church by a kind of clandestine absolution and invisible penance; conditions with which the priest would in times of ignorance and corruption, easily comply, as they increased his influence, by adding the knowledge of secret sins to that of notorious offences, and enlarged his authority, by making him the sole arbiter of the terms of reconcilement. 'From this bondage the Reformation set us free. The minister has no longer power to press into the retirements of conscience, to torture us by interrogatories, or put himself in possession of our secrets and our lives. But though we have thus controlled his usurpations, his just and original power remains unimpaired. He may still see, though he may not pry: he may yet hear, though he may not question. And that knowledge which his eyes and ears force upon him it is still his duty to use, for the benefit of his flock. A father who lives near a wicked neighbour, may forbid a son to frequent his company. A minister who has in his congregation a man of open and scandalous wickedness, may warn his parishioners to shun his conversation. To warn them is not only lawful, but not to warn them would be criminal. He may warn them one by one in friendly converse, or by a parochial visitation. But if he may warn each man singly, what shall forbid him to warn them all together? Of that which is to be made known to all, how is there any difference whether it be communicated to each singly, or to all together? What is known to all, must necessarily be publick. Whether it shall be publick at once, or publick by degrees, is the only question. And of a sudden and solemn publication the impression is deeper, and the warning more effectual.
'It may easily be urged, if a minister be thus left at liberty to delate sinners from the pulpit, and to publish at will the crimes of a parishioner, he may often blast the innocent, and distress the timorous. He may be suspicious, and condemn without evidence ; he may be rash, and judge without examination; he may be severe, and treat slight offences with too much harshness; he may be malignant and partial, and gratify his private interest or resentment under the shelter of his pastoral character.
Of all this there is possibility, and of all this there is danger. But if possibility of evil be to exclude good, no good ever can be done. If nothing is to be attempted in which there is danger, we must all sink into hopeless inactivity. The evils that may be
Aetat. 67.] Johnson on ecclesiastical censure.
feared from this practice arise not from any defect in the institution, but from the infirmities of human nature. Power, in whatever hands it is placed, will be sometimes improperly exerted; yet courts of law must judge, though they will sometimes judge amiss. A father must instruct his children, though he himself may often want instruction. A minister must censure sinners, though his censure may be sometimes erroneous by want of judgement, and sometimes unjust by want of honesty.
'If we examine the circumstances of the present case, we shall find the sentence neither erroneous nor unjust; we shall find no breach of private confidence, no intrusion into secret transactions. The fact was notorious and indubitable; so easy to be proved, that no proof was desired. The act was base and treacherous, the perpetration insolent and open, and the example naturally mischievous. The minister, however, being retired and recluse, had not yet heard what was publickly known throughout the parish; and on occasion of a publick election, warned his people, according to his duty, against the crimes which publick elections frequently produce. His warning was felt by one of his parishioners, as pointed particularly at himself. But instead of producing, as might be wished, private compunction and immediate reformation, it kindled only rage and resentment. He charged his minister, in a publick paper, with scandal, defamation, and falsehood. The minister, thus reproached, had his own character to vindicate, upon which his pastoral authority must necessarily depend. To be charged with a defamatory lie is an injury which no man patiently endures in common life. To be charged with polluting the pastoral office with scandal and falsehood, was a violation of character still more atrocious, as it affected not only his personal but his clerical veracity. His indignation naturally rose in proportion to his honesty, and with all the fortitude of injured honesty, he dared this calumniator in the church, and at once exonerated himself from censure, and rescued his flock from deception and from danger. The man whom he accuses pretends not to be innocent; or at least only pretends; for he declines a trial. The crime of which he is accused has frequent opportunities and strong temptations. It has already spread far, with much depravation of private morals, and much injury to publick happiness. To warn the people, therefore, against it was not wanton and officious, but necessary and pastoral. 'What then is the fault with which this worthy minister is charged? He has usurped no dominion over conscience. He
Attorney-General Thurlow's opinion. [A.D. 1776.
has exerted no authority in support of doubtful and controverted opinions. He has not dragged into light a bashful and corrigible sinner. His censure was directed against a breach of morality, against an act which no man justifies. The man who appropriated this censure to himself, is evidently and notoriously guilty. His consciousness of his own wickedness incited him to attack his faithful reprover with open insolence and printed accusations. Such an attack made defence necessary; and we hope it will be at last decided that the means of defence were just and lawful.'
When I read this to Mr. Burke, he was highly pleased, and exclaimed, 'Well; he does his work in a workman-like manner'.'
Mr. Thomson wished to bring the cause by appeal before the House of Lords, but was dissuaded by the advice of the noble person who lately presided so ably in that Most Honourable House, and who was then Attorney-General. As my readers will no doubt be glad also to read the opinion of this eminent man upon the same subject, I shall here insert it. CASE.
"THERE is herewith laid before you,
1. Petition for the Reverend Mr. James Thomson, minister of Dumfermline.
'2. Answers thereto.
3. Copy of the judgement of the Court of Session upon both.
4. Notes of the opinions of the Judges, being the reasons
upon which their decree is grounded.
'These papers you will please to peruse, and give your opinion, 'Whether there is a probability of the above decree of the Court of Session's being reversed, if Mr. Thomson should appeal from the same?'
'I DON'T think the appeal adviseable: not only because the value of the judgement is in no degree adequate to the expence; but because there are many chances, that upon the general
As a proof of Dr. Johnson's extraordinary powers of composition, it appears from the original manuscript of this excellent dissertation, of which he dictated the first eight paragraphs on the 10th of May, and the remainder on the 13th, that there are in the whole only seven corrections, or rather variations, and those not considerable. Such were at once the vigorous and accurate emanations of his mind. BOSWELL. complexion
Aetat. 67.] Attorney-General Thurlow's opinion.
complexion of the case, the impression will be taken to the disadvantage of the appellant.
'It is impossible to approve the style of that sermon. But the complaint was not less ungracious from that man, who had behaved so ill by his original libel, and, at the time, when he received the reproach he complains of. In the last article, all the plaintiffs are equally concerned. It struck me also with some wonder, that the Judges should think so much fervour apposite to the occasion of reproving the defendant for a little excess.
'Upon the matter, however, I agree with them in condemning the behaviour of the minister; and in thinking it a subject fit for ecclesiastical censure; and even for an action, if any individual could qualify' a wrong, and a damage arising from it. But this I doubt. The circumstance of publishing the reproach in a pulpit, though extremely indecent, and culpable in another view, does not constitute a different sort of wrong, or any other rule of law, than would have obtained, if the same words had been pronounced elsewhere. I don't know, whether there be any difference in the law of Scotland, in the definition of slander, before the Commissaries, or the Court of Session. The common law of England does not give way to actions for every reproachful word. An action cannot be brought for general damages, upon any words which import less than an offence cognisable by law; consequently no action could have been brought here for the words in question. Both laws admit the truth to be a justification in action for words; and the law of England does the same in actions for libels. The judgement, therefore, seems to me to have been wrong, in that the Court repelled that defence. 'E. THURLOW.'
I am now to record a very curious incident in Dr. Johnson's Life, which fell under my own observation; of which pars magna fui', and which I am persuaded will, with the liberal-minded, be much to his credit.
It is curious to observe that Lord Thurlow has here, perhaps in compliment to North Britain, made use of a term of the Scotch Law, which to an English reader may require explanation. To qualify a wrong, is to point out and establish it. Boswell.
'Quæque ipse miserrima vidi,
Et quorum pars magna fui.'
'Which thing myself unhappy did behold,
Yea, and was no small part thereof.'
Morris, Eneids, ii. 5.
Johnson and Wilkes as opponents. [A.D. 1776.
My desire of being acquainted with celebrated men of every description, had made me, much about the same time, obtain an introduction to Dr. Samuel Johnson and to John Wilkes, Esq. Two men more different could perhaps not be selected out of all mankind. They had even attacked one another with some asperity' in their writings; yet I lived in habits of friendship with both. I could fully relish the excellence of each; for I have ever delighted in that intellectual chymistry, which can separate good qualities from evil in the same person.
Sir John Pringle, ' mine own friend and my Father's friend,' between whom and Dr. Johnson I in vain wished to establish an acquaintance', as I respected and lived in intimacy with
In the year 1770, in The False Alarm, Johnson attacked Wilkes with more than 'some asperity.' 'The character of the man,' he wrote, 'I have no purpose to delineate. Lampoon itself would disdain to speak ill of him, of whom no man speaks well.' He called him a retailer of sedition and obscenity;' and he said:-'We are now disputing... whether Middlesex shall be represented, or not, by a criminal from a gaol.' Works, vi. 156, 169, 177. In The North Briton, No. xii, Wilkes, quoting Johnson's definition of a pensioner, asks :—' is the said Mr. Johnson a dependant? or is he a slave of state, hired by a stipend to obey his master? There is, according to him, no alternative.
As Mr. Johnson has, I think, failed in this account, may I, after so great an authority, venture at a short definition of so intricate a word? A pension then I would call a gratuity during the pleasure of the Prince for services performed, or expected to be performed, to himself, or to the state. Let us consider the celebrated Mr. Johnson, and a few other late pensioners in this light.'
* Boswell, in his Letter to the People of Scotland (p. 70), mentions 'my old classical companion, Wilkes;' and adds, 'with whom I pray you to excuse my keeping company, he is so pleasant.'
When Johnson was going to Auchinleck, Boswell begged him, in talking with his father, 'to avoid three topicks as to which they differed very widely; whiggism, presbyterianism, and-Sir John Pringle.' Boswell's Hebrides, Nov. 2, 1773. See also ib. Aug. 24. Pringle was President of the Royal Society
"who sat in Newton's chair,
And wonder'd how the devil he got there.""
J. H. Burton's Hume, i. 165.
He was one of Franklin's friends (Franklin's Memoirs, iii. 111), and so
was likely to be uncongenial to Johnson.