Joseph Addison: Christian Statesman


Joseph Addison (1672-1719), lived a fascinating life as an essayist, poet, playwright, and politician in England. He was born near Wiltshire, the son of Rev. Lancelot Addison, but the family moved to Lichfield, where the elder Addison was appointed dean of the cathedral.

Addison was educated at Charterhouse school (where he met his longtime friend and collaborator Richard Steele), and then at Queen's College, Oxford, where he excelled in Latin and the classics. Later, he became a fellow at Magdalen College, Oxford. There he developed his interest in poetry, writing some himself, and publishing in 1694 a book on the lives of English poets and a translation of Virgil's Georgics.

He had reportedly planned to go into ministry (as his father), but his academic work had caught the attention of some influential nobles who employed him in a diplomatic role to enable him to travel Europe, writing and studying politics, which "altered his intent." Upon the death of King William III in 1702, his benefactors lost their influence, and Addison returned unemployed to England.

He began writing more, and his poem The Campaign (commemorating 1703's Battle of Blenheim) brought him acclaim. His friends in the British government appointed him a commissioner of appeals, and, in 1705, the Undersecretary of State, where he accompanied the First Lord of the Treasury (the office today known as Prime Minister) on several diplomatic trips. Later, he served as a Member of Parliament from 1708 to his death

During a visit to Ireland, he met Jonathan Swift, rekindling his love of writing. He began regularly contributing essays for the Tatler, a literary journal started by his friend Steele. In 1711, the two together founded The Spectator newspaper, which greatly influenced England's public discourse. Later, several of his essays were published as Evidences of the Christian Religion. "Addison and Richard Steele were for a reconciliation of the harsh austerities of Puritans with the careless profligacy of the Restoration. They were in fact great moralists."

He wrote several plays, including Cato, which was immensely popular in its day. Its themes of freedom, resistance to tyranny, and honor in the face of opposition made it a strong influence on the thinking and rhetoric of many American patriots (including Patrick Henry, Nathan Hale, and George Washington). Addison also wrote several hymns including "When All Thy Mercies O My God" and "The Spacious Firmament on High". Perhaps the latter is his most important contribution in this area.

In 1716, he married the dowager countess of Warwick, a widow whose son he had tutored. He was again engaged in the government cabinet, appointed as Secretary of State for the Southern Department in 1717, his health began to fail, however, and he had to resign after just one year.

It is said that during his last illness, Addison sent for a young nobleman of very irregular life and loose opinions, saying, "I have sent for you that you may see how a Christian can die." Suffering from asthma and dropsy, he died at only 47 years of age, and was buried in Westminster Abbey.

"Well done, thou good and faithful servant" (Matt. 25:21).

Bernard R. DeRemer chronicled the lives of dozens of heroes of the faith in more than a decade of writing for Pulpit Helps Magazine. He continues to serve in this capacity as a volunteer contributor to Disciple. He lives in West Liberty, Ohio.

References:Who Was Who in Church History, by Elgin S. Moyer, excerpts used by permission of Moody Publishers; Wikipedia "Joseph Addison",

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