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June-July 2022

Congregation on Call


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PRIMARY SOURCE: Samuel Johnson—Born Almost Dead


“I must work the works of him that sent me, while it is day: the night cometh, when no man can work” (John 9:4).

Samuel Johnson’s diary opens: “I was born almost dead.” He was so slow to cry, they called the preacher to baptize him. That was September 7, 1709. Johnson couldn’t see well, especially out of his left eye. As a toddler, he developed scrofula, swelling of the lymph nodes around the neck and face. People thought a touch from royalty could cure it, but the hand of Queen Anne herself effected no change. Throughout his life he suffered from tics, probably Tourette’s Syndrome. His appearance and mannerisms, at best, were odd.

What he lacked in looks, however, he made up for in learning. Just after learning to read, his mother asked him to memorize a prayer of about 75 words. She headed upstairs, but upon reaching the second floor little Samuel caught up with her.

“What’s wrong?” she asked.

“I can say it,” he answered, and indeed he could—word perfect.

Words became Johnson’s life. He mastered several languages and said his schoolmaster “beat” Latin into him. He read and wrote voraciously, penning hundreds of essays. He poured poetry like prose. He compiled the first popular English dictionary, including over 42,000 entries.
Johnson, layman though he was, also penned about two dozen sermons. Each one carries the stamp of a master craftsman, combining insight with eloquence. He said of God: “As he cannot be mistaken, because he is omniscient, so he cannot be defeated, because he is almighty.” In another sermon, he wrote, “Gratitude is a species of justice.” In another, “Idleness produces necessity, necessity incites to wickedness, and wickedness again supplies the means of living in idleness.”

Some ministerial acquaintances learned of these sermons and purchased them to preach to their congregations, not informing them of their authorship. Friends of Johnson, hearing at church what seemed to exceed their preacher’s abilities, said to him, “I think I heard you preach today.”

Johnson took his celebrity status in stride. Once asked why he had wrongly defined pastern as the knee of a horse, he answered: “Ignorance, madam, pure ignorance.”

In a January 1 prayer, he called himself “the wretched mispender of another year.”

Why did Johnson accomplish so much? In a word: drive. He realized life came with an expiration date. In his diary, he resolved repeatedly to push harder, to do better, to be miserly with his minutes. In The Need for Enterprise, he wrote: “It is the duty of every man to endeavour that something may be added by his industry to the hereditary aggregate of knowledge and happiness. To add much can indeed be the lot of few, but to add something, however little, every one may hope.”

This attitude made its way onto the dial-plate of his pocket watch. It carried a Greek inscription from John 9:4: Nux gar erchetai or For night is coming.


About the Columnist: Paul V. Harrison has pastored Madison FWB Church in Madison, Alabama since 2015. Previously, he pastored Cross Timbers FWB church in Nashville, Tennessee, for 22 years. He was an adjunct professor at Welch College for 17 years, teaching church history and Greek. Paul is the creator of Classic Sermon Index, a subscription-based online index of over 66,000 sermons, with clients including Harvard, Baylor, and Vanderbilt, among others:


©2022 ONE Magazine, National Association of Free Will Baptists