D.L. Moody: A Life, by Kevin Belmonte

[Ed. note: Hieropraxis readers have enjoyed many literary-history pieces from Kevin Belmonte, often featuring D.L. Moody, one of Kevin’s particular interests as a biographer. I was pleased to invite him to announce his new biography of Moody here on Hieropraxis! — H.E.O.]

Moody coverAnnouncing the release of D.L. Moody: A Life

a new biography

D.L. Moody, the celebrated 19th century philanthropist, educator, and preacher, is the subject of my new biography. Its book description introduces this seminal Christian leader from yesteryear. It reads—

 He burst upon the fusty corridors of Victorian spirituality like a breath of fresh air, regaling one prime minister with his sense of humor, and touching the lives of seven presidents.

Who was this man? A sterling philanthropist and educator, D.L. Moody was also the finest evangelist in the nineteenth century-bringing the transformative message of the gospel before 100 million people on both sides of the Atlantic in an age long before radio and television. Thousands of underprivileged young people were educated in the schools he established. Before The Civil War, he went to a place no one else would: the slums of Chicago called Little Hell. The mission he started there, in an abandoned saloon, in time drew children in the hundreds, and prompted a visit from President-elect Abraham Lincoln in 1860.

But all this is just to begin to tell the life of D.L. Moody. Drawing on the best, most recent scholarship, D.L. Moody: A Life chronicles the incredible journey of one of the great souls of history.

 Though set for release on May 1st, I’m honored to say D.L. Moody: A Life has already received some very fine commendations. Dr. D. Michael Lindsay, President of Gordon College, and the author of the Pulitzer Prize-nominated book, Faith in the Halls of Power, writes: “Kevin Belmonte’s D.L. Moody revitalizes the story of the nineteenth century’s greatest evangelist. This book is an absolute tour-de-force…”

And from England’s shores, poet and scholar Malcolm Guite, Chaplain of Girton College, Cambridge University, has written:

After his exhilarating work on Wilberforce, Kevin Belmonte has produced another gripping biography of a great individual who helped to turn the tide of his time rather than just drift with it. Belmonte’s sweeping narrative, which takes Moody from the poverty and meagre education of his childhood to his role as a famous and passionate speaker, educator, and philanthropist, never loses track of a central theme: that our circumstances or the climates of opinion in which we are born do not have to determine our views, or restrict our hope. He shows how Moody, like his great contemporary Abraham Lincoln, stood firm on the rock of his moral and spiritual convictions and was enabled, by a paradoxical combination of grace and perseverance, to change the world for the better. All the detail in this rich biography is marshalled to the aid of an inspiring and uplifting narrative, which poses a real challenge to the weak fatalism of our own times.

In addition to the hardcover print edition of D.L. Moody: A Life, an unabridged audio book edition will also be released, narrated by one of America’s finest audio book readers: Grover Gardner.

Gardner has narrated books by Pulitzer Prize winning biographers Robert Caro, Jon Meacham and Ron Chernow. Among the novelists whose books Gardner has read are William Faulkner, John Irving and Walker Percy. Works by historians include books by Paul Johnson, John Lukacs, and Shelby Foote (noted for his work on The Civil War with Ken Burns for PBS).

Mr. Gardner has also narrated many books by noted Christian authors, among them John Stott, J.I. Packer, Francis Schaeffer, Eugene Petersen, Tim Keller, Dallas Willard and George Marsden.

For those curious about my earlier work and background, I hold a B.A. in English from Gordon College, an M.A. in Church History from Gordon-Conwell Seminary, and a second Master’s Degree in American and New England Studies from the University of Southern Maine. My first biography, William Wilberforce: A Hero for Humanity, (rev. ed. HarperCollins, 2007), received the prestigious John Pollock Award for Christian Biography.

For six years, this book has been required reading for a course on leadership and character formation taught at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. Other authors taught in this course have included Arthur Schlesinger Jr., Garry Wills, David McCullough and Edmund Morris. And for six years, I was the Lead Script and Historical Consultant for the film Amazing Grace, working closely with Oscar-nominated screenwriter Steven Knight.

I’m also the author of several other books, among them a literary biography of G.K. Chesterton. Defiant Joy, which received a Starred Review in Publishers Weekly. I reside in a seaside village in Maine with my wife, Kelly, and our eight-year-old son, Sam.





Tennyson and Moody: The Poet and the Preacher

When many hear the name Lord Tennyson, their thoughts turn at once to poems like “In Memoriam,” or the Arthurian “Idylls of the King.” Perhaps they recall that Tennyson’s name is synonymous with the Victorian Era, since he was Poet Laureate for much of Queen Victoria’s reign.

All this one might learn in a survey of British literature, or a brief reading of Tennyson’s life, as given in The Dictionary of National Biography.

Far less well known is a story from Tennyson’s life that connects him to the life of a prominent American: educator, philanthropist, and preacher D.L. Moody.

Many times, during a sermon, Moody spoke of Tennyson—recounting a story one may find in the letters Tennyson wrote to Emily Sellwood, the young woman who would one day be his wife.

In one letter, from 1839, Tennyson told Emily of his visit to Mablethorpe, a small seaside town in Lincolnshire. “I am housed at Mr. Wildman’s,” Tennyson said,

an old friend of mine in these parts: he and his wife are two perfectly honest Methodists. When I came, I asked her after news, and she replied: “Why, Mr. Tennyson, there’s only one piece of news that I know, that Christ died for all men.” And I said to her: “That is old news, and good news, and new news,” wherewith the good woman seemed satisfied. I was half-yesterday reading anecdotes of Methodist ministers, and liking to read them too…and of the teaching of Christ, that purest light of God.[1]

Moody knew this story well, as so many in the nineteenth century did. Tennyson had unrivalled fame as a British poet among American readers. And if Henry Wadsworth Longfellow was revered in Great Britain, Tennyson was no less so in America.

As for D.L. Moody, few saw anything of the poet in him. He’d only few years of formal schooling, and while a gifted autodidact, and voracious reader, he never wrote any verse. Throughout the English-speaking world, he was famous as a preacher with a rich fund of anecdote, cast in “simple, strong Anglo-Saxon speech, caught from the Bible he loved and believed in.”[2] That was Moody, many thought, rope and knot.

Moody coverYet in truth there was, unmistakably, something of the poet in Moody, as I discovered when writing my biography, D.L. Moody: A Life. There are many arresting lines in his books, but one line caught my attention above all others. “This earth,” Moody said, “is the little isle; eternity the ocean round it.”[3]

Many a poet would be glad to own that line.

And no preacher was more grateful than Moody was to recall the story above from Tennyson’s letters. Many times, he drew on that story, verbatim, to commend the gospel— the old, yet ever-young story of faith. “It is said,” Moody would recall,

that Tennyson once asked an old Christian woman if there was any news.

“Why, Mr. Tennyson,” she said, “there’s only one piece of news that I know, and that is—Christ died for all men.” [To which he replied:]

“That is old news, and good news, and new news.”[4]

 It is singular that Tennyson and Moody, two such widely different men, share a place of common ground through telling this story. But maybe the best things in life are like that: they catch you on the sudden, and are the more welcome for it. I’ve often thought poetry is like that—and old stories too.

Glad tidings, indeed.


The author of many books, including studies of Wilberforce and G.K. Chesterton, Kevin Belmonte is the author of D.L. Moody: A Life, set for release on May 1st, 2014.

[1] from pages 168-169 of Alfred Lord Tennyson: A Memoir by His Son, vol. 1, (New York: Macmillan, 1898).

[2] from page 45 of Dwight L. Moody: The Discoverer of Men and the Maker of Movements, by John McDowell, (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1915).

[3] from page 87 of Heaven, by D.L. Moody, (Chicago: F.H. Revell, 1880).

[4] from page 98 of Moody’s Stories, by D.L. Moody, (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1899).

Undaunted: Discernment’s Kinship with Courage

“We are only travelers,” a famous educator once said, and life is a journey.[1]

If so, what will we meet with on the way? What kind of map will we follow? How can we know a true path from a false one? And, if we meet with fellow travelers on the way, how do we know which voice to listen to, whose counsel to heed?

Consider the author of the phrase above. He framed many wise thoughts, many eloquent and profound. It was he who said, “This earth is the little isle; eternity the ocean round it.”[2] At another time, he stated, “Truth never grows old; truth is as young today as it has ever been. Don’t you enjoy the rays of the same sun which has been shining these thousands of years?”[3]

To ponder these reflections, even briefly, is to see they say a great deal in just a few words. The man who spoke them sounds much like a philosopher.

* * *

But what if it were known that this man had no formal training as a philosopher—indeed, that he hadn’t finished high school, much less college? Still more, what should we say on hearing that he only had a fourth-grade education?

All this was true of D.L. Moody, the founder of Northfield Mount Hermon—one of America’s finest preparatory schools. He had little formal education, but he set great store by it. Family poverty meant he’d no choice other than going to work early in life. Yet, as an adult, he embarked on a remarkable program of study.

It lasted the rest of his life.

Moody rose at five most mornings to read, pray, and reflect. The Bible was his favorite text, but he read many other kinds of books. He knew, and could quote, ancient writers like St. Augustine. So too writings from the Puritans, and works of ancient Rome and Greece. Lines from writers like Polybius found their way into his talks.[4]

Moody grew familiar with writers of great literature, people like Alfred, Lord Tennyson, or John Bunyan, author of the classic allegory, The Pilgrim’s Progress.[5] Moody read, and recommended, books about famous political figures, like Napoleon—and spoke often of the great British anti-slavery reformer, William Wilberforce.[6]

With humility, Moody sat at the feet of people better educated than he was. Often, he’d say to them: “What has been your best thought today?”[7] He had a profoundly teachable heart, and few people were more voracious readers. C.H. Spurgeon, one of the finest speakers of the 19th century, once presented Moody with a set of his collected works. He read them all, cover to cover.[8]

Yet it wasn’t always so. Marshall Hazard, a prominent banker, knew Moody during his youth in Chicago. He vividly recalled:

The contrast between Mr. Moody as he now is—and Mr. Moody as I first knew him is simply amazing. Those who have known him from his earliest beginnings, find it next to impossible to realize the change that has taken place in him. Those whose acquaintance with him is but recent can hardly conceive of the difficulties…through which he has struggled up to the present.[9]

* * *

All well and good.

But why explore this context, and give a sketch of Moody’s intellectual life? Simply this: to underscore the great truth that a man or woman may be wise, and eloquent, despite humble birth or circumstances. To recognize this is to begin to see something rare, and very fine: a door that opens on the word discernment.

Many wouldn’t give Moody a second thought, or they would dismiss him entirely, if the first thing they learned about him was his lack of education.

But to hear his phrase, “this earth is the little isle; eternity the ocean round it,”[10] before learning anything else, is so see him in a different light.

Moody possessed a cradle gift for arresting language, and casting vivid word pictures. It took time, and great effort, to burnish this gift. But it was always there, wedded to a keen intelligence.

And here, it needs to be said that discernment, as it relates to thinking of someone like Moody, means we should strive never to be deceived by appearances—or, to put it another way—we should always try to see the whole picture before forming a judgment of someone.

* * *

 To underscore these things, we might look at another man who had even less formal education than Moody—a man whose writings are treasured by Americans, and someone Moody once met: Abraham Lincoln, America’s sixteenth president.

Scholars tell us Lincoln had about a year and half of formal education, far less than Moody did. But we revere his writings. The Gettysburg Address and his Second Inaugural are classic literature—and testament to Lincoln’s mastery of the written word.

He cultivated his intelligence and gifts in much the same way Moody did: ceaseless reading and constant writing—trial and error—with guidance from those whose good opinion and education he respected. Lincoln had access to few books as a young man, but he was always, a cousin remembered: “reading everything he could lay his hands on,” and a “stubborn reader.”

The painter Eastman Johnson has left us with a rich evocation of Lincoln’s insatiable desire to read. Johnson’s memorable painting, “The Boyhood of Lincoln,” shows Lincoln reading by the light of a fireplace. Lincoln’s biographer, Ronald White, has said of this portrait: it “suggests that, regardless of social station, learning is Lincoln’s key to a life of purpose and meaning.”[11]

So it was that young Lincoln read Aesop’s Fables, William Scott’s Lessons in Elocution, and Noah’s Webster’s American Spelling Book. But two books whose word stock, imagery, and rhythms became especially meaningful were books that D.L. Moody also drew on all his life: The King James Bible and John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress. Another of Lincoln’s biographers, the Pulitzer Prize winner David Herbert Donald, has written that “the biblical cadences of Lincoln’s later speeches owed much to John Bunyan.”[12]

The reason is not hard to find. Lincoln memorized whole sections of the Bible. The Psalms were a particular favorite. There is every reason to think that Lincoln memorized whole sections of The Pilgrim’s Progress as well.[13] These works were pillars of Lincoln’s moral imagination, even as they led him to a temple of story, sound and imagery of the highest order.[14]

And so, while some might say that Lincoln and Moody’s educations were extremely limited, discernment shows that there’s much to be said for what their education was restricted to. True, the opportunities of their youth were slender. But then, they took the little they’d been given, and painstakingly cultivated it to great advantage.

Both became great men of the nineteenth century. A lay preacher and educator, Moody traveled over a million miles, and spoke to over 100 million people—all this in an age long before radio and television.[15] His books sold in the millions. He educated thousands of underprivileged children. In the years since his passing, over 60 books have been written about him.

We are, of course, much more familiar with Lincoln. One could marshal many telling facts to illustrate his place in our living cultural memory, but a recent one is striking. The newly constructed Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership in Washington, D.C., has a unique design feature: a 34-foot “tower of literature” comprised solely of 15,000 books about Lincoln.[16]

Discernment, therefore—as it relates to Lincoln and Moody, is deeply important. Many automatically discount people of limited education. Discernment dictates we give careful attention to the merits of what people say, regardless of their apparent limitations. How much truth do their words contain? Do their words possess a natural eloquence, perhaps a keen insight? We might miss a great deal worth knowing, if we ignore these kinds of questions. John Newton never attended university—yet he gave us the poetry of Amazing Grace. What are we to make of that?

I have often thought it takes courage to see sterling worth in unlikely places. In this way, discernment and courage are allies. Are we willing to walk a less traveled path? That is a deeply important question as we journey through life.

Some of the best wisdom in the world is the hardest won. This only reinforces the idea that we shouldn’t be hasty in forming judgments of people who have what might be called “a rough-hewn exterior.”

Last of all, discernment is key ally in the quest for truth. At the same time, a virtue like discernment often seems increasingly rare. Our world is filled with incredible clutter and clamor—life rushing by at a seemingly breakneck pace. But, “the race is not always to the swift,” as we learn from one of Lincoln’s best loved books, Aesop’s Fables. There’s a great deal to be said for running our race well.

Critical thinking is a skill, or strength, too sadly in short supply. The world has need of strong-minded, discerning thinkers. We need lovers of true wisdom, wherever it may reside.

As we journey through life, many things are not as they seem. All that glitters is not gold. We must learn to separate the dross from things that are really good, right, and true. Many siren voices—many false and deeply flawed ideas—compete for our attention. At the same time, many we may not see first as friends, turn out to be true friends indeed.

In brief, as we seek truth, and to find the best things in life, we must be discerning—and undaunted.

[1] D.L. Moody, Heaven, (Chicago: Fleming H. Revell, 1884), p. 71.

[2] D.L. Moody, Heaven, (Chicago: Fleming H. Revell, 1884), p. 87.

[3] D.L. Moody, from page 555 of Echoes from the Pulpit, (Hartford, Connecticut: A.D. Worthington & Co., Publishers, 1900).

[4] Moody’s acquaintance with the Puritans is in evidence, for example, on page 20 of D.L. Moody, Prevailing Prayer, (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1885). Here, Moody writes: “[Thomas] Brooks, that grand old Puritan writer, says: ‘A person of real holiness is much affected and taken up in the admiration of the holiness of God.’” Moody’s familiarity with Polybius is shown on page 113 of D.L. Moody, Anecdotes, Incidents and Illustrations, (Chicago: Fleming H. Revell, 1898).

[5] Moody cites Tennyson in D.L. Moody, Moody’s Stories, (New York: Fleming H. Revell, 1899), p. 98. His familiarity with Bunyan is attested in many places, for example, D.L. Moody, To the Work! (Chicago: Fleming H. Revell, 1884), p. 143.

[6] Moody reading of Abbot’s Life of Napoleon is confirmed by Dr. Lyle W. Dorsett in his study of Moody’s life, A Passion for Souls, (Chicago: The Moody Press, 1997). Moody frequently spoke of William Wilberforce, and for one example, see pages 171-172 of Best Thoughts and Discourses of D.L. Moody, (New York: Tibbals & Sons, Publishers, 1876).

[7] D.L. Moody, as quoted on page 175 of D.L. Moody and His Work, by W.H. Daniels, (Hartford: American Publishing Company, 1876). Moody’s teachable heart and great hunger for learning is also described at length in Lyle W. Dorsett’s A Passion for Souls, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1997). See particularly page 81, but also pages 79, 135 & 396.

[8] From page 64 of J.C. Pollock, Moody, (New York: Macmillan, 1963). Spurgeon’s gift of a multi-volume set of his writings to Moody is described on page 396 of Lyle W. Dorsett’s A Passion for Souls, (Chicago: Moody Press, 1997).

[9] From page 35 of W.H. Daniels, D.L. Moody and His Work, (Hartford: The American Publishing Company, 1876). For the purpose of narrative flow, I have compressed this citation and modified pronouns.

[10] D.L. Moody, Heaven, (Chicago: Fleming H. Revell, 1884), p. 87.

[11] The quotes from Dennis Hanks, the information about Eastman Johnson’s painting, and Ronald White’s comments appears on pages 31-32 of A. Lincoln: A Biography, by Ronald C. White, (New York: Random House, 2009).

[12] See page 30 of Lincoln, by David Herbert Donald, (New York: Touchstone Books, 1996).

[13] See page 30 of Lincoln, by David Herbert Donald, (New York: Touchstone Books, 1996); page 32 of A. Lincoln: A Biography, by Ronald C. White, (New York: Random House, 2009); and lastly, pages 18-19 of Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, by Fred Kaplan, (New York: HarperCollins, 2008).

[14] Again, see pages 18-19 of Lincoln: The Biography of a Writer, by Fred Kaplan, (New York: HarperCollins, 2008).

[15] From page 4 of Mr. Moody and the English Evangelical Tradition, (London: T & T Clark, 2005).

[16] this 34-foot pillar of books about Lincoln is described in detail online at the Ford’s Theatre Center for Education and Leadership webpage: http://fords.org/home/explore-lincoln/lincoln-book-tower

Red Booth Notes: The Professor’s Bequest

Red BoothIn so many ways, books are a gift.

I learned this first hand during a recent visit to a favorite antiquarian bookstore. Southern Maine has many such stores, and I’ve come to know them all. To lose myself in close-set shelves, many bent with age, and studded with books well over 100 years old—is a privilege. For me, it’s like prospecting for gold. I keep company with the learning of ages past. I sit at the feet of men and women whose lives and writings have shaped the world we live in.

So many times, as I’ve poured over well-worn shelves, I’ve struck a rich vein, mingling literature and history. And while it’s true that in a formal sense, my college days have ceased, these books have become my university. Here, “school never lets out”—nor do I hope it ever will.

* * *

Going straight to the poetry section on this particular visit, I saw that several new acquisitions were there on the shelves—all beautiful blue binding, Oxford University Press editions of collected poems from various authors: Keats, Coleridge, Arnold, and Blake.

I bought them all, or rather, acquired them all in trade for books that I exchanged for store credit. I was the more eager to do so as I learned that they were books from the library of a distinguished Professor of English at Colby College: Eileen Curran. She was a specialist in the study of Victorian literature, and a guiding light behind the creation of the “Curran Index,” a groundbreaking online reference work cataloguing Victorian periodical literature.

I told the bookstore clerk I was glad to give Dr. Curran’s books a good home—to welcome them to my library. That brought a knowing smile that made my day.

* * *

And here, I think, is a lesson, at least one for me. Stewardship lies at the heart of it.

Often, I’ve thought that the books of my library aren’t really my own. I’m allowed to keep them for a time, and treasure them. I will mark days and seasons turning their pages—many well remembered, and gladly returned to. But someday, these books will belong to my son, or those he chooses to give them to.

What is a library really? For me, it’s a place to collect the best things I’ve found in my journey through life—texts that hold wisdom, eloquence, or evoke a resplendent world of imaginative fiction—say from Tolkien, or C.S. Lewis.

I wish to be a good and faithful steward, and learn the lessons these books hold. I hope to share some of those lessons too, in the books and essays I write.

But someday, my journey here will close. Bless God; I can look to the fair haven of a home that lasts for eternity. My name has been written in the great book of God’s keeping. But my books—my covered keepsakes—will be earthbound. They will go to another.

* * *

I never met Eileen Curran, nor did I know of her lifetime of scholarship until I saw several handsome books there before me one day on a shelf.

But I find myself deeply grateful that she chose so well when choosing books for her library. I’m honored they’ll now have a place in my own. I will try to keep faith with the texts of wisdom and eloquence that she knew—and do my best to pass them on.


An award-winning author, Kevin Belmonte has written and edited over a dozen books, including biographies of William Wilberforce and G.K. Chesterton. He is also a columnist for BreakPoint magazine, and a frequent contributor to The Huffington Post.

Red Booth Notes: Gone Like to Visions: the Poems of John Clare

Red BoothFrom the time I was a boy, I’ve loved elm trees of great age—though they’re a rare sight now. Years ago, Dutch elm disease claimed many leafy monarchs near to where I grew up in southern New Hampshire. But for a long time, long after so many elms had been lost, one great elm endured—set in the middle of the playing fields I used to care for at Phillips Exeter Academy. To watch that tree contest a sudden thunderstorm was to see something at once regal and elemental—a mighty Ent that would not yield. And the symmetry of its branches, it was beautiful to see. When a wind stirred its leaves, there was music. The great tree is gone now, but I remember it fondly, and still mourn its loss.

There are other kinds of loss too.

Sometimes, I think of poems that lie hidden in unread books. It’s haunting to think any praiseworthy verse should suffer such a fate, and be rendered silent.

Which is why I’m deeply grateful to have discovered John Clare, poet of “the splendid gift that nature gives.”[1] He gave the nineteenth century, and posterity, verse that conjures yearning in the heart of anyone who has walked the English countryside, and grown to love it. The silences of morning are there—with the flow of water in a brook, glimpses of furtive creatures, or the touch of a hand on a venerable elm. Clare heard an ancient music, and set it to words.

The actor and literary critic David Timson has written memorably that Clare’s poems “are a picture of Northamptonshire and the Fens just as Wordsworth’s are of the Lakes.”[2] The comparison to Wordsworth as a poet of place is apt. But I read Clare’s verse and think more readily of a latter-day John Bunyan, casting lines that are rough-hewn, but beautiful, as in the poem “Morning”—


O now, the crimson east, its fire-streak burning,

Tempts me to wander ’neath the blushing morn,

Winding the zig-zag lane, turning and turning,

As winds the crooked fence’s wilder’d thorn.

Where is the eye can gaze upon the blushes,

Unmov’d, with which yon cloudless heaven flushes?[3]


To read these lines aloud is to hear an unerring gift for rhythm, displayed in a deft concert of word sound. Here is sureness of touch, wedded to arresting imagery: as in “the blushing morn.”

I hadn’t encountered a phrase like the “wilder’d thorn” before, but as soon as I did, it won me over. I’ve never been fond of thorns (who is?), but I’ll think better of them now. Clare found a way to give them beauty, woven about a crooked fence, cast over with flowers. I’ve walked those kinds of footpaths, and I find myself missing them.

Then too, Clare had a gentle gift for taking readers’ thoughts captive with just one line. There are times, even for poets, when words fall far short of what they wish to convey. Clare understood this, and so he wrote with touching honesty:

Beyond this, I remember the great elm at Phillips Exeter. John Clare knew an elm like that, and wrote about it in a noble poem called “The Fallen Elm.”


O words are poor receipts for what time hath stole away[4]


* * *

John Clare

Old elm that murmured in our chimney top

The sweetest anthem autumn ever made

And into mellow whispering calms would drop

When showers fell on thy many coloured shade

And when dark tempests mimic thunder made—

While darkness came as it would strangle light

With the black tempest of a winter night

That rocked thee like a cradle in thy root—

How did I love to hear the winds upbraid

Thy strength without—while all within was mute.

It seasoned comfort to our hearts’ desire,

We felt that kind protection like a friend

And edged our chairs up closer to the fire,

Enjoying comfort that was never penned.

Old favourite tree, thou’st seen time’s changes lower,

Though change till now did never injure thee;

For time beheld thee as her sacred dower

And nature claimed thee her domestic tree.

Storms came and shook thee many a weary hour,

Yet stedfast to thy home thy roots have been;

Summers of thirst parched round thy homely bower

Till earth grew iron—still thy leaves were green.

The children sought thee in thy summer shade

And made their playhouse rings of stick and stone;

The mavis sang and felt himself alone

While in thy leaves his early nest was made,

And I did feel his happiness mine own…

Thou owned a language by which hearts are stirred

Deeper than by a feeling clothed in word.[5]


There is so much more to say of John Clare, and more will follow in subsequent post. His life was not an easy one, and for many years he was confined in an asylum. He knew poverty, hardship and loss. But for now it will suffice to say these things could not silence him. His poetry prevailed. I find that inspiring.

So to close with a kind word for praiseworthy verse that should not lie hidden in unread books. The common grace of technology brings those old books closer than ever before, archived digitally online. Find one and open it, you’ll hear a sylvan litany, or the song of an English meadow. Nearly one hundred fifty years have flown since John Clare’s death, yet there is still an alluring, undiminished reverence in his verse. It shines. The memory of that brings a poem all its own, clad in homely array:


John Clare, John Clare,

whither do ye fare—

a tenant of the quiet world?


And say, is that a prayer,

in the gentle song ye share—

a flag that isn’t furled?


An award-winning writer and literary historian, Kevin Belmonte is the author of Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton

[1] As quoted on page 152 of John Clare: Selected Poems, (London: Penguin Books, 2000).

[2] From David Timson’s liner notes to John Clare: The Great Poets, (Redhill, Surrey: Naxos AudioBooks Ltd., 2013).

[3] See page 73 of Poems, by John Clare, (London: Henry Frowde, 1908).

[4] See page 125 of Poems, by John Clare, (London: Henry Frowde, 1908).

[5] See pages 132-133 of John Clare: Poems Chiefly from Manuscript, compiled and edited by Edmund Blunden and Alan Porter, (London: Richard Cobden-Sanderson, 1920).

Red Booth Notes: The Place of Light and Hope

Red BoothIn the Old Testament book of Exodus, it’s said the darkness that once fell on the land of Egypt was “thick enough to be felt.” This vivid image, and phrase, comes to us from the time of Moses—a time that might seem long ago and far away—even mythical.

But for many today, darkness of another kind is all too pervasive. Some, by choice, are without God in the world, and are like the lost folk in Bruegel’s famous painting of the blind leading the blind. Ruin threatens because they renounce, or reject the way home. They are in darkness.

Belief lies at the heart of such a dilemma, and this was something the nineteenth century preacher D.L. Moody understood well. “The world is in darkness,” he wrote, “and the gospel offers light. Because man will not believe the gospel that Christ is the light of the world, the world is dark to-day. But the moment a man believes, the light from Calvary crosses his path and he walks in an unclouded sun.”[1]

Belief and light were matters of eternal moment for C.S. Lewis too. And one phrase from his writings is remarkably similar to Moody’s words above. “I believe in Christianity,” Lewis wrote, “as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”[2]



Moody and Lewis were, to all appearances, very different men. One had just four years of formal education—the other was an Oxford don. One was reared amid poverty in rural New England, the other raised as a gentleman’s son in Ireland and England. One published books largely because he had the assistance of stenographers who recorded his sermons and talks, the other was seldom without a pen in his hand—crafting classic works in an astonishing array of genres: autobiography, essays, scholarly studies, works of fantasy, letters and poetry.

Yet in one way, these men could not have been more alike. They gave us descriptions of light that richly compliment one another.

To return to Moody’s writings, I can imagine Lewis would have ardently approved Moody’s invocation of light as a metaphor in the following lines: “Truth never grows old; truth is as young today as it has ever been. Talk of the old truths wearing out! Don’t you enjoy the rays of the same sun which has been shining these thousands of years?”[3]

And, moving on from this, I don’t know that I’ve ever found a more graceful, or more illuminating definition of the word “revival” than one Moody once wrote. As he phrased it, revival “simply means a recalling from obscurity—a finding some hidden treasure, and bringing it back to the light.”[4]

D.L. Moody

I find it moving too that Moody and Lewis were kindred spirits in their reflections on the reasons for hope. Moody wrote: “You ask me what my hope is; it is that Christ died for my sins, in my stead, in my place, and therefore I can enter into life eternal.”[5]

Lewis pointed his readers to the cross in beautiful prose, saying: “The central Christian belief is that Christ’s death has somehow put us right with God and given us a fresh start.”[6] He then completed this thought: “We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed.”[7]

The place of light and hope. It was a realm two very different men knew well. Bless God for all that they told us about it.


 An award-winning writer and literary historian, Kevin Belmonte is the author of Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton (Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins, 2011).

[1] See page 33 of Twelve Select Sermons, by D.L. Moody, (Chicago: Fleming H. Revell, 1881).

[2] See page 140 of The Weight of Glory, by C.S. Lewis, (New York: HarperCollins, 2001).

[3] D.L. Moody, as quoted on page 555 of Echoes from the Pulpit, (Hartford: A.D. Worthington & Co., 1900).

[4] See page 8 of To the Work, by D.L. Moody, (Chicago: F.H. Revell, 1884).

[5] See page 28 of Twelve Select Sermons, by D.L. Moody, (Chicago: Fleming H. Revell, 1881).

[6] See page 54 of Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis, (New York: HarperOne, 2001).

[7] See page 55 of Mere Christianity, by C.S. Lewis, (New York: HarperOne, 2001).

Red Booth Notes: The Unlikely Courier: Benjamin Franklin and William Cowper

Red BoothBenjamin Franklin left many bequests to posterity. His autobiography became a classic of American letters. He was preeminent among America’s Founding Fathers. His work as a scientist led to devices we still use today: the lightning rod and the Franklin stove. Few did more than he, in colonial times and after, to encourage the establishment of libraries. He was a patron and originator of many good works.

Far less known among Franklin’s bequests was the kindness he showed to a poet in need: William Cowper.

Outside literary circles, Cowper’s name (pronounced Cooper) is little known. Yet lines from his verse have become common phrases in our language: “God moves in a mysterious way,” “Variety’s the very spice of life/That gives it all its flavour,” “I am monarch of all I survey,” along with “God made the country, and man made the town.”

Still, it is a sombre fact that many of Cowper’s best lines, whether in poetry or prose, were born of affliction. For long periods, he was overwhelmed by storms of depression and despair. Yet, as John Piper has written, these seasons of affliction ultimately gave rise to timeless hymns like, “There Is a Fountain Filled with Blood” and “God Moves in a Mysterious Way.” In these anthems, mercy met paradox. The troubled places of Cowper’s journey, Piper concludes, “yielded sweet music.”[1] In the two centuries since Cowper’s death, many a harried soul has found solace in his words and the music wedded to them.

* * *

But there was once a time when Benjamin Franklin, no less, proved an unlikely courier of grace for Cowper himself.

In April 1782, the British merchant and philanthropist John Thornton (a long-time friend of Cowper) sent a gift to Franklin—then the leader of America’s diplomatic delegation in France. The gift was a copy of the book: Poems by William Cowper of the Inner Temple.

Thornton’s gift to Franklin was noteworthy in itself. America and Britain were still technically at war, and would be until September 1783. What is more, it’s not entirely clear why Thornton thought to send Franklin Cowper’s new collection of verse. The best surmise holds that since Thornton was one of the world’s great merchants, and traded extensively with America, he and Franklin grew to know one another some years earlier when Franklin represented the then American colonies in London. This said, the true context behind Thornton’s gift to Franklin might never come to light.

We do know that Thornton’s gift to Franklin was accompanied with a letter. “Permit me,” Thornton said, “to request your acceptance of some poems of a friend of mine who has been many years excluded from the World, as not being in his right Mind, & considers himself as a Non Entity, & reads nothing beyond a Newspaper, & yet he wrote the most of these poems last Year.”[2]

One month later, in May 1782, Franklin wrote a reply full of warmth and praise. He told Thornton: “I received the letter you did me the honour of writing…and am much obliged by your kind present of a book. The relish for reading poetry had long since left me; but there is something so new in the manner, so easy, and yet so correct in the language, so clear in the expression, yet concise, and so just in the sentiments, that I have read the whole with great pleasure, and some of the pieces more than once. I beg you to accept my thankful acknowledgements, and to present by respects to the author.”[3]

Thornton received Franklin’s letter, and immediately sent it to Cowper. The reclusive poet could not have been more surprised or captivated. He lost no time writing to a friend nearby, the Rev. William Unwin. With flashes of sportive wit, Cowper’s letter showed how clearly Thornton’s act of kindness (and Franklin’s words) were a tonic in tandem:

A Merchant, a friend of ours (you will soon guess him,) sent my Poems to one of the first Philosophers, one of the most eminent literary characters, as well as one of the most important in the political world, that the present age can boast of. Now perhaps your conjuring faculties are puzzled, and you begin to ask who, where, and what is he? Speak out, for I am all impatience. I will not say a word more, the Letter in which he returned his thanks for the Present shall speak for him.”[4]

Cowper then transcribed Franklin’s letter to Thornton and commented: “We may now treat the Critics as the Arch-Bishop of Toledo treated Gil Blas when he found fault with one of his Sermons. His Grace gave him a kick on the breech and said, ‘Begone for a Jackanapes, and furnish yourself with a better Taste if you know where to find it.’”[5]

* * *

We know too little of such moments from literary history. Too often, it seems, the dreams of struggling artists make landfall on a barren shore. It’s profoundly moving to learn that Cowper found relief in this way from his depression and despair. Few surprises can have been more welcome than this, and how fine it is that Benjamin Franklin was part of it all.

May we lay that good truth at John Thornton’s feet, and honour his kind regard for a troubled friend. Such a providence recalls some of Cowper’s most eloquent lines about God, and things we cannot see:

Deep in unfathomable mines

Of never-failing skill

He treasures up His bright designs,

And works His sovereign will.


An award-winning writer and literary historian, Kevin Belmonte is the author of Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton (Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins, 2011).

[1] See page 19 of The Hidden Smile of God: The Fruit of Affliction in the Lives of John Bunyan, William Cowper and David Brainerd, by John Piper, (Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2001).

[2] See page 223 of The Library of Benjamin Franklin, by Edwin Wolf II and Kevin J. Hayes, (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 2006).

[3] See page 223 of The Library of Benjamin Franklin, by Edwin Wolf II and Kevin J. Hayes, (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 2006).

[4] See page 223 of The Library of Benjamin Franklin, by Edwin Wolf II and Kevin J. Hayes, (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 2006).

[5] See page 223 of The Library of Benjamin Franklin, by Edwin Wolf II and Kevin J. Hayes, (Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 2006).

Red Booth Notes: Philip Doddridge, a Man of Great Parts

Red BoothFor most people, the name Philip Doddridge brings no flicker of recognition. But on a time, in the eighteenth century—and for many years after his death in 1751—this British thought leader exerted a great influence for good. His life and faith were an ornament to his age.

One of his books, Religion in the Soul, became a classic text, and was a catalyst for the conversion of William Wilberforce. John Wesley sought his counsel, and Doddridge wrote many fine hymns that are often classed with those of Charles Wesley. The volumes of The Family Expositor, Doddridge’s learned biblical commentary, were prized possessions among the books of Jonathan Edwards’s personal library. Edwards quoted Doddridge as a trusted authority in his sermons.[1] Much admired as an educator, the founders of Princeton University looked to Doddridge for guidance, and wrote important letters seeking his counsel. In 1787 the future president, John Quincy Adams, wrote of how Doddridge’s writings were to be taught at Harvard.[2]

Across the Atlantic, in Britain itself, Doddridge was widely respected. No less a figure than Samuel Johnson, the great lexicographer and man of letters, singled Doddridge out for special praise.

Therein lies a very fine story.

In late September 1773, Samuel Johnson and James Boswell were in the midst of their famous tour of the Hebrides in Scotland. One night, as Boswell remembered, “there was as great a storm of wind and rain as I have almost ever seen.” Confined to their lodgings for the evening, Dr. Johnson carried the day. His gift for conversation shone as brightly as the fire in the hearth.

Johnson spoke vividly of men he’d known, and writers he’d read. One of these was the orator and statesman Edmund Burke, a friend of many years. Burke was then the toast of London, and a famous author as well. Noting this, Johnson paid Burke a handsome compliment, saying that he “did not grudge Burke’s being the first man in the House of Commons, for he was the first man everywhere.”

The night, it seemed, was destined to be one of tributes, for Johnson spoke with admiration for another contemporary, Philip Doddridge, the eminent Christian divine. Doddridge, said Johnson, “was the author of one of the finest epigrams in the English language.” The epigram was a Latin phrase Doddridge had chosen for his family motto: dum vivimus, vivamus, or, “live while you live.” Johnson especially liked the way Doddridge had borrowed the phrase, as it were, from ancient Epicurean philosophy, and made it his own. Doddridge cast his paraphrase in verse, which Johnson recited:


Live, while you live, the epicure would say,

And seize the pleasures of the present day.

Live, while you live, the sacred preacher cries,

And give to God each moment as it flies.

Lord, in my views let both united be;

I live in pleasure, when I live to thee.[3]


Johnson’s praise was telling, but it was far from the only claim to fame Doddridge had in Britain, or beyond her shores. For though he died at the tragically young age of forty-nine, few men of his years led a more consequential life. Doddridge was accomplished in many fields of endeavour, some seven in all. He was biographer, educator, poet, philanthropist, pastor, religious statesman, and author.

As an innovative educator, Doddridge taught in English at a time when most academics gave lectures in Latin. He was also the founder of Northampton Academy, now part of the University of London. The academy’s fame was such that educational leaders in colonial America consulted Doddridge, among them Aaron Burr, the second president of Princeton University. Said one historian: “to Doddridge the founders of Princeton turned for guidance and assistance, and, in April 1748, Burr opened a regular correspondence which continued until Doddridge’s death in 1751.”[4]

Though Northampton Academy was a school for students who were from dissenting faith traditions, that is, they worshipped outside The Church of England, Doddridge forged important friendships with several dons at Cambridge and Oxford. Lynford Caryl, Master of Jesus College, Cambridge, considered him “a man of great parts and learning.”[5] Two colleges of Aberdeen University awarded him honorary degrees.


* * *


As a writer of religious verse, Doddridge’s gifts were prodigious. Eric Routley of Oxford University ranked him fourth among the great hymn writers of England, after Isaac Watts, Charles Wesley, and James Montgomery.[6] At the time of this death he had written nearly 400 hymns.[7] “Hark, the Glad Sound” is perhaps the most famous of these.

In the field of philanthropy, Doddridge was a founder of the Northampton Infirmary, now Northampton General Hospital. In 1737, he also established a charity school to clothe and teach poor children. Committed as well to the cause of biblical literacy, he proposed a society for distributing Bibles and other good books among the poor. Never a wealthy man, he frequently gave substantial portions of his income to charitable causes.

Missions were never far from Doddridge’s mind either. His plan “for the advancement of the gospel at home and abroad,” has been called as first nonconformist project of foreign missions.[8] He presented this plan to three different gatherings of ministers in 1741, and his advocacy probably stemmed from his important correspondence with the Moravian missionary pioneer Count Zinzendorf.

As a religious statesman, Doddridge is credited with having done “more than any man in the eighteenth century to obliterate old party lines, and to unite nonconformists on a common religious ground.”[9] He had cordial consultations with Thomas Herring, the Archbishop of Canterbury, about a rapprochement with nonconformists. Nothing ultimately came of this, but mutual respect endured. Doddridge also established congenial relations with George Whitefield, and this in an era when the early Methodists were widely despised in British society. Doddridge took part in services at Whitefield’s meetinghouse, though this brought a rebuke from Isaac Watts for doing so. Doddridge knew John Wesley too, and in June 1746, Wesley wrote to Doddridge, asking about a course of reading for young preachers. By return post, he received a detailed and welcome reply.

Doddridge’s daughter best described his sentiments as a religious statesman. She recalled: “The orthodoxy my father taught his children was charity.”[10] An ardent admirer of Richard Baxter, who coined the phrase: “meer Christianity,”[11] Doddridge agreed with Baxter’s commitment to it. “I think it my duty,” he wrote, “to do my part…to promote true Christianity both in the Establishment and separation.”[12]


Philip Doddridge (1861 engraving)
Philip Doddridge (1861 engraving)

Powerful words

Doddridge was an incredibly prolific author. Over a twenty-one-year period, he prepared fifty-three works for publication. Several of these passed through myriad editions under his supervision. In the late nineteenth century, biographer Charles Stanford wrote:


It would be impossible to tell the total number of editions [of Doddridge’s works] from first to last, down to the present time. But, leaving out the numerous issues of his works in whole and in part in America, also those in the French, Dutch, Danish, and Welsh languages, and not attempting to discover all published in our English provincial towns, [I] have counted two hundred and nine editions of his works, great and small, and have not yet finished counting. [One] wonders at his industry [and] popularity….Copies of his books have been circulating in hundreds of thousands.[13]


When the first volume of Doddridge’s classic biblical commentary, The Family Expositor, was published in 1736, he became one of the first who attempted to popularize a learned understanding of the Bible. Running to six volumes, twenty-one editions were published by 1880.

Remarkable as the popularity of The Family Expositor was, Doddridge is best remembered for his classic apologia, The Rise and Progress of Religion in the Soul (1745). Few books could boast such a pedigree. It was written at the request of Isaac Watts, and its pages breathe the spirit of the man who gave the world the timeless hymn, “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross.”


A literary influence


Religion in the Soul prompted many famous conversions, none more famous than that of William Wilberforce (1759-1833), the British statesman who has been called “the greatest reformer in history.”[14] Thus Doddridge’s book led ultimately to many great social and political reforms of the nineteenth century. These include the abolition of the British slave trade, the passage of more humane child labour laws, support for the education of the blind and the deaf—the funding of hospitals and schools and the founding of organizations as diverse as the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals and the National Gallery (of Art)—these reforms were the fruit of Wilberforce’s self-described “great change” or embrace of Christianity. England, and the world, would have been far different if Wilberforce had not had a life-altering encounter with Doddridge’s book.

Wilberforce revered Doddridge as a man of “great erudition,” and “deep views of religion.”[15] In later years he wrote to his daughter Elizabeth: “I understand you are reading Doddridge’s Rise and Progress. You cannot read a better book.”[16]

Religion in the Soul has been published in dozens of editions over the last 260 years. It has been translated into nine languages: French, Welsh, Gaelic, Italian, Tamil, Syriac, Dutch, German, and Danish.

In writing Religion in the Soul, Doddridge crafted a book that was a “reasoned, elegant” exposition of Christianity.[17] These words describe Doddridge himself: one of the finest, most accomplished leaders of the early evangelical movement.


An award-winning writer and literary historian, Kevin Belmonte is the author of Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton (Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins, 2011).


[1] See page 474 of Jonathan Edwards: A Life, by George Marsden, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003). See also page 490 of Sermons and Discourses, by Jonathan Edwards, ed. by W.H. Kimnach, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2006).

[2] See page 20 of Life in a New England Town: The Diary of John Quincy Adams, (Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1903).

[3] All information about Samuel Johnson’s admiration for Doddridge, including Doddridge’s lines of verse, is given on page 271 of Boswell’s Life of Johnson, vol. 5, ed. by G.B. Hill, (Oxford: At the Clarendon Press, 1887).

[4] See the article, “We Labour Under Difficulties…” by Thomas Jefferson Wertenbaker, originally published on page 8 of the October 8, 1954 issue of The Princeton Alumni Weekly. Dr. Wertenbaker was then Historian of the University and Edwards Professor of American History, Emeritus. During a visit to Oxford University, he discovered the Doddridge correspondence with Aaron Burr and other early educational leaders. Dr. Wertenbaker’s article is posted online at:


[5] See page 109 of Philip Doddridge, by Charles Stanford, (New York: A.C. Armstrong and Son, 1881).

[6] See Christopher Idle, “Philip Doddridge, 1702-1751,” the Evangelical Library Lecture given in London on 4 March 2002. Here Idle writes: “Erik Routley placed Doddridge at No. 4 in his table of merit. James Montgomery, who came 3rd, used these words of numbers 1, 2, & 4: ‘the piety of Watts, the ardour of Wesley, and the tenderness of Doddridge.’”

This lecture is posted online at: http://www.evangelical-library.org.uk/articles/detail/philip-doddridge-1702-1751/

[7] This tally is confirmed on page 163 of The Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 15, (New York: Macmillan and Co., 1888).

[8] Information given on page 162 of The Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 15, (New York: Macmillan and Co., 1888).

[9] See pages 160-161 of The Dictionary of National Biography, vol. 15, (New York: Macmillan and Co., 1888).

[10] See page 63 of The Correspondence and Diary of Philip Doddridge, vol. 5, (London: Colburn and Bentley, 1831).

[11] Richard Baxter, as quoted on page 24 of Richard Baxter: Puritan Man of Letters, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1982).

[12] See page 117 of The Works of Philip Doddridge, vol. 1, (London: Richardson, Baldwin, and Robinson, 1804).

[13] From page 159 of Philip Doddridge, by Charles Stanford, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1880).

[14] A descriptive phrase applied by Oxford scholar Dr. Os Guinness in correspondence with the author.

[15] See page 392 of A Practical View of Christianity, by William Wilberforce, (London: T. Cadell, 1798).

[16] See page 169 of The Private Papers of William Wilberforce, ed. by A.M. Wilberforce, (London: T. Fisher Unwin, 1897).

[17] See page 34 of Wilberforce, by John Pollock, (London: John Constable, 1977).

Red Booth Notes: The Gadfly and the Pedagogue, a Fable

Red Booth

Every now and again, writers pen cautionary tales. They hold lessons that ought to strike deep roots. Aesop, the father of fables, plied his trade in antiquity. But it seems we always have need of those who take up his mantle.

In September 1919, the writer H.L. Mencken did just that, taking a learned academic named Thorstein Veblen to task for inflicting a book full of prose that was indecipherable. Teachers, he thought, ought to teach, not deal recklessly in consternation.

A mere portion of one sentence from Dr. Veblen, in particular, flummoxed Mr. Mencken. It was there that the good professor tried, but failed to explain, “in his peculiar dialect…the meaning of ‘that non-reverent sense of aesthetic congruity with the environment which is left as a residue of the latter-day act of worship after elimination of its anthropomorphic content.’” To this, Mencken replied:

Just what does he mean by this “non-reverent sense of aesthetic congruity”? I have studied [this] for three days, halting only for prayer and sleep, and I have come to certain conclusions. I may be wrong, but nevertheless it is the best that I can do. What I conclude is this: he is trying to say that many people go to church, not because they are afraid of the devil but because they enjoy the music, and like to look at the stained glass, the potted lilies and the rev. pastor.[1]

This, Mencken wryly observed, was neither profound nor highly original. To make matters worse, Prof. Veblen was really rather stingy. He had given only “a cent’s worth of information, wrapped in a bale of polysyllables.”

Reading this kind of prose, Mencken felt himself a latter day Theseus. He was hopelessly lost in Veblen’s “labyrinth of nouns, adjectives, verbs, pronouns, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions and participles.”[2] He found freedom only when he closed Veblen’s inscrutable book.

What’s the moral to this story?

Like Aesop, Mencken’s good counsel came down to this: if writers care about craft, they should strive for clarity. And sometimes, to foster that good end, there’s a great deal to be said for simplicity—best captured in the old chestnut of a phrase: “concise is nice.”

For those in the family of faith, C.S. Lewis offered a complimentary idea that’s stayed with me ever since I read it. “Any fool,” he said, “can write learned language. The vernacular is the real test. If you can’t turn your faith into it, then either you don’t understand it, or you don’t believe it.”[3]

[1] From page 69 of Prejudices: First Series, by H.L. Mencken, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1919).

[2] From page 70 of Prejudices: First Series, by H.L. Mencken, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1919).

[3] C.S. Lewis, as quoted on page 163 of Jack: C.S. Lewis and His Times, by George Sayer, (New York: Harper & Row, 1988).


 An award-winning writer and literary historian, Kevin Belmonte is the author of Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton (Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins, 2011).

Red Booth Notes: The Faith of Samuel Johnson

Samuel Johnson has come down to us as the “great Cham of literature,” the man whose immense erudition gave rise to the classic Dictionary of the English Language (1755). He was, in the words of one contemporary, “among the best and ablest writers that England has produced.”

Biographer and essayist, lexicographer, literary critic, poet and playwright—he was all of these things as well as the subject of the most famous biography in the English language.

And yet, for all his erudition and his many achievements, Samuel Johnson’s journey of faith was at times a very arduous one.

Sam Johnson (1891 drawing)

He was profoundly religious. Devoted to the Church of England, he was prayerful and regularly attended church services. He wrote some forty sermons, and his other writings bore testimony to the centrality of faith in his life. He once wrote: “the highest honour…the most constant pleasure this life can afford, must be obtained by passing it with attention fixed upon Eternity.” He deemed Christianity “the reasonable hope,” and the “one solid basis for happiness.”

Still, he was dogged in moments of despondency by fear.

Johnson’s friend and biographer James Boswell described the nature of this fear: “He had, indeed, an awful dread of death, or rather, ‘of something after death’; and what rational man, who seriously thinks of quitting all that he has ever known, and going into a new and unknown state of being, can be without that dread?”

Boswell says immediately thereafter: “But his fear was from reflection…”

What are we to make of this? One of the many who puzzled over why such a deeply pious man like Johnson should be so troubled at times was William Wilberforce. The two men never met, but following a dinner visit with Wilberforce in which Johnson’s views on many subjects were discussed, the American diplomat Richard Rush learned that the two men had much in common. Both, he wrote, were “social in their habits,” and “their political creed was much the same.”

Though, as Wilberforce told diarist Joseph Farington, he regretted never having seen Johnson, he knew the great cham’s writings intimately. He often quoted from them in common conversation and in letters. After Boswell’s Life of Johnson was published in 1791, Wilberforce reproached himself for too often postponing the business of the day to pore over its contents. “I leave with reluctance the mere chit-chat of Boswell’s Johnson,” he wrote on more than one occasion.

One day, in conversation with his young friend John Harford, the subject of devotional poetry provided an entrée into a discussion of Johnson’s fears about his eternal destiny.

“We were talking of devotional poetry,” Harford remembered. ‘Dr. Johnson,’ said Wilberforce, ‘has passed a very sweeping condemnation on it, and has given his opinion, that success in this species of composition is next to impossible. And the reason which he gives for it, is that all poetry implies exaggeration; but the objects of religion are so great in themselves, as to be incapable of augmentation.

‘One would think however that religion ought to be the very region of poetry. It relates to subjects which, above all others, agitate the hopes and fears of mankind; it embodies everything that can melt by its tenderness, or elevate by its sublimity; and it has a natural tendency to call forth in the highest degree, feelings of gratitude and thankfulness for inestimable mercies.

‘His prejudice, poor man, appears to me to resolve itself into the same cause which prevented his deriving comfort from the cultivation of religion. The view which he took of Christianity acted on his fears; it inspired him with terror, it led him to superstition, but it did not animate his affections; and therefore it neither duly influenced his conduct, nor imparted comfort to his feelings.’”

What was this view that Johnson took of Christianity? Scholar Robert Folkenflik puts the matter succinctly: “Johnson was in dread at the prospect of death and judgment.”

Judgment. How many a believer down through the ages has wrestled with conflicting images of God: the holy, righteous and awful Judge, contrasted with the loving, gracious Father described by Christ in the parable of The Prodigal Son.

For all his learning, including a deep and searching knowledge of scripture, the picture of God as a righteous judge dominated Johnson’s thinking when he thought about death. He knew Christ’s parable, and many other grace-laden passages in the Bible. But somehow, for reasons that are not fully known, he found it difficult to believe that he had been accorded the grace that the scriptures say God so freely imparts to those who come to Him in faith.

Based upon what we do know, it seems Johnson’s sense of his own sinfulness kept him from seeing how all-encompassing grace and forgiveness can be.

About one year before his death on December 13, 1784, Johnson (suffering from increasing ill health) was visited by his friend Sir John Hawkins. Like Boswell, Hawkins wrote a Life of Samuel Johnson. In his description of the visit he had with Johnson in December 1783, the full extent of Johnson’s struggle with his sinfulness is revealed. Hawkins wrote:

 In a visit, which I made him in a few days, in consequence of a very pressing request to see me, I found him labouring under great dejection of mind. He bade me draw near him, and said, he wanted to enter into a serious conversation with me; and, upon my expressing a willingness to join in it, he, with a look that cut me to the heart, told me, that he had the prospect of death before him, and that he dreaded to meet his Saviour.

I could not but be astonished at such a declaration, and advised him, as I had done once before, to reflect on the course of his life, and the services he had rendered to the causes of religion and virtue, as well as by his example, as his writings; to which he answered, that he had written as a philosopher, but had not lived like one.

In the estimation of his offences, he reasoned thus—‘Every man knows his own sins, and also, what grace he has resisted. But, to those of others, and the circumstances under which they were committed, he is a stranger; he is, therefore to look on himself as the greatest sinner that he knows of.’

At the conclusion of this argument, which he strongly enforced, he uttered this passionate exclamation,—‘Shall I, who have been a teacher of others, myself be a castaway?’


Hawkins was with Johnson a week before his death, and his account of Johnson’s last days reveals that Johnson had undergone a remarkable transformation.

Prior to Hawkins’ visit, Johnson had spent a day in prayer. Following this, his edema (a build-up of bodily fluid due to heart failure) spontaneously disappeared. He entered into what one scholar has described as “a previously unknown state of serenity.” He knew he was dying, but he ceased to struggle with the fear it had heretofore held for him.

Hawkins’ account tells the rest of the story: “[Dec.] 5th. Being Sunday, I communicated with [Johnson] and Mr. Langton, and other of his friends, as many as nearly filled the room. Mr. Strahan, who was constant in his attendance on him throughout his illness, performed the office. Previous to reading the exhortation, Johnson knelt, and with a degree of fervour that I had never been witness to before, uttered the following most eloquent and energetic prayer:

     ‘Almighty and most merciful Father, I am now, as to human eyes it seems, about to commemorate, for the last time, the death of thy son Jesus Christ, our Saviour and Redeemer.

Grant, O Lord, that my whole hope and confidence may be in his merits and in thy mercy: forgive and accept my late conversion; make this commemoration of him available to the confirmation of my faith, the establishment of my hope, and the enlargement of my charity; and make the death of thy son Jesus effectual to my redemption.

Have mercy upon me, and pardon the multitude of my offences. Bless my friends, have mercy upon all men. Support me by the grace of thy Holy Spirit in the days of weakness, and at the hour of death, and receive me, at my death, to everlasting happiness, for the sake of Jesus Christ.—Amen.’

So close to the end, Johnson had found the grace, the peace and the hope that had for so long eluded him. Serenity was his at last, and he knew that grace would lead him home.

Taking his final leave of one of his closest friends, William Windham, Johnson’s parting words were words of hope. They were words for his friend—words also for himself: “May you and I find some humble place in the better world, where we may be admitted as penitent sinners. Farewell. God bless you for Christ’s sake, my dear Windham.”

John Newton, who knew something of “the grace that leads me home,” wrote an epitaph for Johnson, a friend whom he much admired. It recalls I Corinthians 15:55: “O Death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”

The scholar, genius, author, here

Finished his long adorned career.

But when the man resigned his breath

The Christian triumphed over death.

What once he was his writings show,

What now he is, immortals know.


An award-winning writer and literary historian, Kevin Belmonte is the author of Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life & Impact of G.K. Chesterton (Thomas Nelson/HarperCollins, 2011).