About Rev. Dr. Samuel Johnson, 1st President of Columbia University
The Reverend Doctor Samuel Johnson (October 14, 1696 – January 6, 1772) was a clergyman, educator, and philosopher in colonial British North America. He was a major proponent of both Anglicanism and the philosophy of George Berkeley in the colonies, and served as the first president of the Anglican King's College (the predecessor to today's Columbia University).
Born in Guilford, Connecticut, he graduated from the Collegiate School (now Yale University) in 1716. Johnson first became Congregationalist minister of a church in West Haven, but influenced by the writings of John Locke and Isaac Newton, he and a group of other Collegiate School graduates began to express doubt in the legitimacy of their Congregational ordination. As a result, Johnson left the colony in order to seek ordination in the Church of England. Upon his return to Connecticut, he opened the first Anglican church in the colony at Stratford in 1724 and strenuously polemicized, under the auspices of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, against both the Congregationalists of New England and the new evangelical outburst occasioned by popular preacher George Whitefield and the Great Awakening he unleashed.
He remained in Stratford until 1754, when the vestrymen of the Anglican Trinity Church in New York City considered him the logical choice to serve as after the first president of King's College. Though reluctant to leave his family in Connecticut and fearing the smallpox epidemics he considered endemic of urban life, Johnson ultimately took up the post, assisting in behind-the-scenes maneuverings to ensure the college would be explicitly Anglican, rather than nonsectarian. In the early years of the institution, Johnson was the sole instructor, primarily teaching classics and philosophy. His first class consisted of eight boys he considered "woefully unprepared". Owing to his fear of smallpox, of which his son William had died while in England, Johnson was frequently absent from the city, and increasingly shared his teaching responsibilities. When his wife died of smallpox, Johnson began to seek a means to leave his post, although the Governors of King's College and the Archbishop of Canterbury had already maneuvered to replace him with the Oxford-trained minister Myles Cooper. Johnson left the post in 1763 and returned to his ministry at Stratford, where he died. Cooper penned the inscription which adorns his monument in the town:
If decent dignity, and modest mien,
The cheerful heart, and countenance serene;
If pure religion and unsullied truth,
His age's solace, and his search in youth;
In charity, through all the race he ran,
Still wishing well, and doing good to man;
If learning free from pedantry and pride;
If faith and virtue walking side by side;
If well to mark his being's aim and end,
To shine through life the father and the friend;
If these ambition in thy soul can raise,
Excite thy reverence or demand thy praise,
Reader, ere yet thou quit this earthly scene,
Revere his name, and be what he has been.
Johnson was among the few colonial Americans whose cultural and intellectual achievements garnered notice in Great Britain. He was a friend of and often corresponded with the Irish philosopher George Berkeley, and became the chief promoter of his philosophy of immaterialism in colonial America. In 1731 Johnson published his Elementa Philosophica (eng. Compendium of Logic and Metaphysics), and in 1746 his Ethica (eng. System of Morality). In 1752, Benjamin Franklin printed both in a single, expanded volume, a third edition of which appeared in 1754 with Johnson's corrections and an introduction by Dr. William Smith, provost of the College of Philadelphia. In 1757 a London publisher printed his English and Hebrew Grammar, to which was appended a "Synopsis of all the Parts of Learning".
Johnson is honored together with Timothy Cutler and Thomas Bradbury Chandler with a feast day on the liturgical calendar of the Episcopal Church (USA) on August 17.
Books on Samuel Johnson
Ellis, Joseph J., The New England Mind in Transition: Samuel Johnson of Connecticut, 1696-1772 (Yale University Press, 1973)
Rev. Dr. Samuel Johnson, 1st President of Columbia University's Timeline
October 14, 1696
Guilford, New Haven County, Connecticut Colony
October 7, 1727
Stratford, Fairfield, CT
January 6, 1772
Stratford, Fairfield County, Connecticut, United States
April 27, 1886
March 27, 1929
December 7, 1955