Saint Matthias’ Church: Summer sermon series 2008, 27th July 2008
Last week we looked at Father Andrew, the Anglican priest, who devoted his whole life an ministry to the poor in the East End of London in the first half of the Twentieth Century. Today’s focus, Joseph Addison, could hardly be a greater contrast.
Addison, who lived at the turn of the 18th Century, spent his years amongst the rich and the influential and the powerful. Famous chiefly in our own times as founder of the British weekly magazine, The Spectator, (the magazine of which the new mayor of London, Boris Johnson, was editor) Addison was a major public figure in the early Eighteenth Century, prominent for many reasons. His varied career included being the member of parliament for Cavan Borough, in the Dublin Parliament, and being Chief Secretary of Ireland.
Born in in Wiltshire in 1672, Addison’s father was a clergyman who went to be Dean of Lichfield. Addison went to Charterhouse School and then to Oxford with the intention of following in his father’s footsteps, but the pull of the literary world was too strong; ordination was not to be Addison’s calling. A great scholar, Addison published his first major book, on the lives of the English poets, in 1894, when he was just 22.
Addison found influential friends and for four years from 1699 until 1703 was able to travel around Europe on a pension granted by the British government—imagine being granted a pension to allow you to do what you want at the age of 27!
Political changes brought an end to the pension in 1703, but by 1704 he had again found favour with those in power, and for the next fifteen years he pursued a literary and a political career that ended with his death through illness in 1719, at the age of 47.
Addison seems to have led a life of extraordinary activity and creativity. His biographers, who include Dr Samuel Johnson, show a man who seemed able to embark upon, pursue, and complete a great diversity of projects at the same time. The Spectator is a weekly magazine now, but in Addison’s time it appeared daily. To have sustained the sort of writing that would have been demanded by a readership prepared to pay the very expensive cost of a newspaper in those days would have demanded a huge effort. Between 2nd January 1711 and 6th December 1712, Addison wrote 274 papers for The Spectator, all signed C, L, I or O. (The use of pen names caused arguments in later times about what Addison had or had not written).
Addison was known as a writer, a politician, a poet and in 1712 as a major playwright. His play Cato became a huge success in Britain and Ireland, and in the American colonies. It is said to have been the literary inspiration for the American war of Independence. George Washington had it performed for his army encamped at its winter quarters at Valley Forge in Pennsylvania in the winter of 1777-78. Lines from the play are said to have been used by various of the American leaders in speeches. Almost eighty years after Cato was published, Edmund Burke was quoting from it in reflecting on the political upheavals of his time.
The life of Joseph Addison seems a far remove from the life of most of those who would write hymns today; there are few in church circles who would now command one fraction of the sort of profile enjoyed by Joseph Addison.
Addison’s biography could be read as the story of an early 18th Century politician and writer, leaving out any religious element, but his Christian faith was important to him. Everyone was a member of the Church of England in his time. Being a church member and attending on a Sunday did not signify any particularly strong beliefs or sense of the spiritual. This was the very dry Church of England into which the Wesleys were to bring changes in later decades.
But Joseph Addison was more than just an observant member of the Established Church; when he died in 1819 he left unfinished a book Evidences of Christianity. Addison took his Christianity sufficiently seriously to apply his scholarship and intellect in an attempt to convince others of the truth of what he believed.
Addison was a poet rather than a hymn writer; the hymns by him that are sung today are selected verses of poems set to music from much later times. The poems were published in The Spectator rather than in any church publication or hymn book. It is a measure of how different times were that an explicitly religious devotional piece would have found acceptance and a readership amongst the literary and political classes in London. It would be difficult to imagine in our own times that Boris Johnson’s readers would have had much time for religious poems.
This morning’s hymn, “When all thy mercies” appeared as a twelve verse poem in edition 453 of The Spectator, on 9th August 1712. It is a paraphrase of Psalm 103, a psalm in which King David expresses gratitude to God.
Addison wrote in an essay in The Spectator on that date.
There is not a more pleasing exercise of mind than gratitude. It is accompanied by such inward satisfaction, that duty is sufficiently rewarded by the performance. If gratitude is due from man to man, how much more from man to his Maker? The Supreme Being does not only shower upon us those bounties which proceed more immediately from His hand, but even those benefits which are conveyed to us by others. Every blessing we enjoy, by what means soever it may be derived upon us is the gift of Him Who is the great Author of good, and the Father of mercies.
The essay closes with the poem “When all Thy mercies, O my God” and is signed simply ‘C’, one of Addison’s four pen names.
Most people who have heard verses from Psalm 103 read today will have heard not the verses of gratitude, with which the psalm begins, but the verses in the middle of the psalm that are read at a graveside,
. . . for he knows how we are formed,
he remembers that we are dust.
As for man, his days are like grass,
he flourishes like a flower of the field;
the wind blows over it and it is gone,
and its place remembers it no more.
The strength of Addison’s faith is expressed in his recognition of weakness and mortality and his finding of cause for gratitude even in those dark moments,
When worn with sickness, oft hast thou
with health renewed my face,
he writes in response to poor health, and even death has no fears for him:
Through every period of my life
thy goodness I’ll pursue
and after death, in distant worlds,
the glorious theme renew.
Joseph Addison expresses the biblical faith in a God present at all times—at the beginning, at the end, and at every point on our worldly journey.