Prayers of confession: Samuel Johnson, William Law, and Jeremy Taylor...

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Yesterday's post of an excerpt from Boswell's Life of Johnson led to a discussion of the origin of the one and two-line excerpts of prayers bringing the post to an end. Were they written by Johnson or taken from some prayer book of the time?

The lines are all Johnson's, and from the quote marks it's clear each line or so is a different excerpt from this or that prayer. Speaking of prayer, here's a discussion of confession of sin...

found in the fourth volume of Boswell's work:

On Friday, June 11, we talked at breakfast, of forms of prayer.

JOHNSON. 'I know of no good prayers but those in the Book of Common Prayer.'

DR. ADAMS, (in a very earnest manner): 'I wish, Sir, you would compose some family prayers.'

JOHNSON. 'I will not compose prayers for you, Sir, because you can do it for yourself. But I have thought of getting together all the books of prayers which I could, selecting those which should appear to me the best, putting out some, inserting others, adding some prayers of my own, and prefixing a discourse on prayer.'

We all now gathered about him, and two or three of us at a time joined in pressing him to execute this plan. He seemed to be a little displeased at the manner of our importunity, and in great agitation called out, 'Do not talk thus of what is so aweful. I know not what time GOD will allow me in this world. There are many things which I wish to do.' Some of us persisted, and Dr. Adams said, 'I never was more serious about any thing in my life.'

JOHNSON. 'Let me alone, let me alone; I am overpowered.' And then he put his hands before his face, and reclined for some time upon the table.

I mentioned Jeremy Taylor's using, in his forms of prayer, 'I am the chief of sinners,' and other such self-condemning expressions. 'Now, (said I) this cannot be said with truth by every man, and therefore is improper for a general printed form. I myself cannot say that I am the worst of men; I will not say so.'

JOHNSON. 'A man may know, that physically, that is, in the real state of things, he is not the worst man; but that morally he may be so. Law observes that "Every man knows something worse of himself, than he is sure of in others." You may not have committed such crimes as some men have done; but you do not know against what degree of light they have sinned. Besides, Sir, "the chief of sinners" is a mode of expression for "I am a great sinner." So St. Paul, speaking of our SAVIOUR'S having died to save sinners, says, "of whom I am the chief;" yet he certainly did not think himself so bad as Judas Iscariot.'

BOSWELL. 'But, Sir, Taylor means it literally, for he founds a conceit upon it. When praying for the conversion of sinners, and of himself in particular, he says, "LORD, thou wilt not leave thy chief work undone."

JOHNSON. 'I do not approve of figurative expressions in addressing the Supreme Being; and I never use them. Taylor gives a very good advice: "Never lie in your prayers; never confess more than you really believe; never promise more than you mean to perform." I recollected this precept in his Golden Grove; but his example for prayer contradicts his precept.'

Tim Bayly

Tim serves Clearnote Church, Bloomington, Indiana. He and Mary Lee have five children and big lots of grandchildren.

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