Johnson was deeply but not necessarily conventionally religious: he struggled within himself most of his life to sustain his belief in God in the face of enormous pressures, disappointments, and psychological calamities. On the surface, and in much of his work, he appeared to be an orthodox, conventional, conservative adherent of revealed religion, of the Church of England, but the conventional Anglican explanations for the existence of evil in the world failed to satisfy him, and in any case his characteristic reluctance to believe without evidence, his fear of credulity, his dislike of mysteries, continually undermined his attempts to accept conventional beliefs. He was remarkable, privately, for his tolerance; maintaining that the differences between Christian sects (Protestants and Roman Catholics, for example) were trivial, and due primarily to political rather than religious differences.
His religious difficulties began at a very early age. His mother, when he was only three, told him of "a fine place filled with happiness called Heaven" and "a sad place, called Hell." Many years later he recalled that (as one might expect) this account did not impress him very deeply: it is significant, however, that he remembered it at all. After the age of nine, and through his adolescence, he stopped going to church. One part of him remained a sceptic for the rest of his life, and, as his private journals show, even after he had regained his faith he struggled continually (and privately) with fears, guilt, and disbelief: in "The Vanity of Human Wishes," written when he was forty, he returns to a traditional religious theme as well as a personal preoccupation and insists that we cannot find genuine or permanent happiness in this world, and that we must therefore turn to religious belief and a faith in the existence of a better world after death if we are to endure our existence here. It was a belief, however, which he himself had difficulty maintaining. The happiness derived from such belief was in any case a limited one, but the only alternative to religious faith, as Johnson saw it, was a dull apathy, a stoical disengagement from life.
He was troubled, too — a better word would be tormented — by a fear of death and by a deeper fear that he might in spite of his best efforts be so guilty, so sinful, that he merited damnation. And beneath that fear was another, even deeper — the fear that God might not exist at all, that death might bring annihilation, mere nothingness, the loss of personal identity. He struggled all his life — in the end, successfully — not so much to overcome these fears as to coexist with them. In public he was much more conventional, much more characteristically paternalistic. He maintained in print, for example, that religion was a valuable asset to society and to mankind and that Anglicanism, as the English state religion, ought therefore to be carefully protected: "Permitting men to preach any opinion contrary to the doctrine of the established church," he wrote, "tends, in a certain degree, to lessen the authority of the church, and, consequently, to lessen the influence of religion."
In private, though, as we have seen, his religious beliefs were much less doctrinaire, and much more complicated: what is of interest to us here, of course, is the extent to which his works reveal his religious thought, or the senses in which his religious thought helps us to come to terms with his work. In what sense, for example, are "The Vanity of Human Wishes" or Rasselas concerned with religious themes?
Incorporated in the Victorian Web July 2000