Samuel Johnson and Hebrew at Columbia

Samuel Johnson’s copy of the Psalms

We’ve discussed the history of Hebrew language study at Columbia in previous posts, but until now, not much has been said about Revered Samuel Johnson’s connection to the study of Hebrew. Samuel Johnson was the founder of King’s College (renamed Columbia after the American Revolution), and its sole faculty member until 1757.  He served as president of the college until he was succeeded by Myles Cooper in 1763.

Samuel Johnson’s Psalms
Samuel Johnson’s Psalms

As cited in Isadore S. Meyer in “Doctor Samuel Johnson’s grammar and Hebrew Psalter,” (in Essays on Jewish Life and Thought. Presented in Honor of Salo Wittmayer Baron. Edited by Joseph L. Blau [et al.]. New York: Columbia University Press, 1959, pp. 359-374), Dr. Johnson explained that he was drawn to Hebrew at a young age, when he found a book of his grandfather’s that included Hebrew words.  By the time he was President of the newly established King’s College in New York, he considered Hebrew “indispensably necessary for all such as are designed to be teaching Christianity.”  Hebrew grammar and Hebrew Bible were included in the fourth year studies of the King’s College curriculum.

Samuel Johnson’s Psalms

Johnson clearly showed his dedication to the prominence of Hebrew by using his own Hebrew-Latin Psalter for the Commencement.  His copy of the Psalter, used at the early commencement ceremonies, includes a handwritten formula that was used in the giving of degrees at King’s College.

Monis to Johnson (bottom)

Even before his King’s College days, though, Johnson was a dedicated student of the Hebrew language.  As early as 1716, he received a letter from

Monis to Johnson (portion of verso)

Judah Monis (future professor of Hebrew at Harvard University, who would print his grammar in Boston as the first book with Hebrew moveable type in the New World) expressing Monis’s dismay that Johnson had not visited him as promised. Monis, who had just converted to Christianity from Judaism the year before, wrote the letter in Hebrew “for Want Inglish [sic] Words” and “…Take particular Pleasure in the Hebrew Tongue.”

Additional items in Samuel Johnson’s collection attest to his study of Hebrew.  An early manuscript shows Johnson’s initial attempts at Hebrew writing:

A later pamphlet (with Christian principals of belief rendered in Hebrew among the traditional Hebrew Bible quotations) shows just how far Johnson’s penmanship had progressed:

Johnson’s final contribution to Hebrew studies was the publication of his own Hebrew grammar, produced, so he wrote, to better teach his grandson the Hebrew language (he was dissatisfied with the Hebrew grammars that already existed).  Columbia owns a number of copies of this volume, which was printed in multiple editions.  One of our copies of the first edition (1767) was donated to Columbia by Samuel’s son, Samuel William Johnson.

Johnson’s dream of creating a chair for Hebrew language would not be fulfilled for a couple of centuries, but his legacy of Hebrew studies at the University continues to this day.

Inscription from Samuel William Johnson
Title page of Samuel Johnson’s grammar

3 thoughts on “Samuel Johnson and Hebrew at Columbia

  1. This post is fascinating, but I’d like to point out a few things.
    a) The page presented as being part of Johnson’s book of Psalms contains a mangled version of Psalm 117, as well as some other aphorism written in two versions. I don’t know if it should be called Johnson’s Book of Psalms.
    b) based on a perfunctory reading, Monis’ Hebrew doesn’t appear to have been all that good. Is this something that has been dealt with in the literature?

  2. Samuel Johnson was Christian, so he translated Christian texts (including the Latin Psalms) into Hebrew. Regarding Monis’s Hebrew, even Jews didn’t generally converse in Hebrew during that period (they studied it, but it wasn’t a spoken language), and so his writing would indeed seem a bit stilted.

  3. A great post on Columbia’s founder, the Rev. Dr. Samuel Johnson. It would be fascinating to have a complete translation of Monis’ letter to Johnson, including the cover information that seems to have been added later on. Johnson learned Hebrew, his “chief curiosity”, from his first tutor Noyes while at Yale in 1710-1714 (Herbert Schneider, “Samuel Johnson, His Career and Writings”, CUP, 1929,I:6). The nineteen year old Johnson was teaching at the Guilford Grammar school in early 1716, and was about to become the junior tutor at Yale in October of 1716 – just before the college split into two factions, one in Wethersfield and one in New Haven, leaving him the only faculty member in New Haven. He became rather to busy to teach Hebrew at that time, I suspect, or meet with Monis.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *