From Sketches of Our Pioneers: a Brief Restoration Movement History.
JOHN T. JOHNSON
The religious movement of the Campbells was not only thoroughly evangelical, but it was intensely evangelistic. One of the best examples of this spirit among the pioneers is the subject of this sketch. He was born in Scott County, Ky., near Georgetown, October 5, 1788. His parents were Virginians and members of the Baptist Church. Kentucky was then a frontier state and Indians were still committing depredations upon the settlers. He received a fair education, completing his studies in Transylvania University. He studied law and practiced for a time. In 1811 he married Miss Sophia Lewis, a girl of fifteen. In 1813 he served as aid on the staff of Gen. W.H. Harrison and saw active service. After the war he was for several years a member of the Kentucky legislature and in 1820 was elected to congress.
He became a member of the Baptist Church in 1821. Speaking of this he said: “It was a most glorious thing for me. It preserved me from a thousand temptations and kept me a pure man.” “During the years ’29 and ’30,” he says, “the public mind was much excited in regard to what was vulgarly called ‘Campbellism,’ and I resolved to examine it in the light of the Bible. I was won over; my eyes were opened, and I was made perfectly free by the truth, and the debt of gratitude I owe to that man of God, Alexander Campbell, no language can tell.”
He began preaching and sought the reformation and enlightenment of the church of which he was a member. As they would not hear him, he, with two others, formed “a congregation of God,” February, 1831. He surrendered a lucrative law practice and began his career as an advocate of simple New Testament Christianity. At this time in Kentucky there were eight or ten thousand people variously styled “Marshallites,” “Stoneites,” “Schismatics,” but who claimed to be simply Christians, taking the Word of God as their only rule of faith and practice and repudiating all human creeds. He was soon associated with “that eminent man of God,” Barton W. Stone, and became co-editor of his paper, The Christian Messenger, then published at Georgetown, in 1832, the same year the followers of Stone and Campbell effected a union.
“I was among the first of the reformation in co-operation with Stone,” he tells us, “to suggest and bring about a union between the Christian churches and that large body of Baptists who had abandoned all human isms in religion.” 1833 was a remarkable year in Kentucky. Asiatic cholera swept the state. It was remarkable also for the success of this new plea for the union of Christians and conversion of the world. Thousands were added to the churches. J.T. Johnson was eminently successful. For the first time he extended his labors beyond the borders of the state, visiting Walter Scott at Carthage, Oh., and preaching with great power and acceptance to the people. His advocacy of the principles of reform in the Messenger was at the same time forcible and untiring.
In 1834 he closed his connection with the paper, Stone having removed to Illinois, and in the following year he began the publication of the Gospel Advocate. In labors he was every way abundant. He preached constantly and gathered into the churches large numbers of converts. In a meeting of ten days in September of this year 135 persons “were immersed for the remission of sins.” “There was nothing of excitement peculiar to revivals so called. Nothing was preached to excite the animal feelings. It was the gospel of truth that did the work.”
The cause of liberal education had also a large place in this good man’s affections. Bacon College, of which Walter Scott was the first president, was founded in 1836 at Georgetown, afterwards was moved to Harrodsburg and later became Kentucky University. Johnson was a fast friend of this institution. His suggestion also that some work should be undertaken for orphan children no doubt had its influence in bringing into existence, through the efforts of Dr. L.L. Pinkerton, that noble beneficence known as The Midway Orphan School.
In the year 1837 he published The Christian, in the editing of which he was assisted by Walter Scott. In a meeting conducted by him in Madison County, Kentucky, about this time, 185 persons obeyed the gospel in three weeks. Two meetings held at Caneridge and North Middletown resulted in 300 accessions. A man of most sanguine and buoyant nature, enthusiastic and unwearying in his labors for the spread of the gospel, he was a wonderful evangelist. He never for one moment doubted the correctness of the great principles he advocated and of their ultimate triumph. He was thoroughly absorbed in the work of converting the world and building up a united church as his master passion. He led thousands to decision for Christ. Some idea of the intense interest in the work of these men may be formed from the character of their meetings. They would speak for hours to audiences that never wearied. His labors were by no means confined to his own state. In 1843 he made a visit to Missouri in company with John Smith, preaching at St. Louis, Palmyra, Hannibal, and other points. In 1845 he made an extensive tour in the Southern States, holding meetings in Little Rock, New Orleans, and elsewhere. In 1845 he visited Virginia and labored in Louisa, Caroline and York counties, and in the City of Richmond, meeting with great success.
He was full of the spirit of missions. “The imperious mandate of our King to his apostles,” he declares, “is ‘Go into all the world and preach the gospel to every creature.’ The law says the laborer is worthy of his wages. Can we get along without consultation and co-operation? If we can, there is no need of congregations. Every divine dispensation of God’s goodness, Patriarchal, Jewish and Christian, has been distinguished by consultation and co-operation.” He suggested an apportionment plan for raising money, that church officers take the list of members and let each member furnish the committee the value of his estate, the committee ascertain at an equal vote what each member has to pay and affix it to his name, and the members be furnished each with a quota in writing.” His idea of the relative importance of the different demands upon the benevolence of the church is seen in this illustration: “Let the church decide upon the amount that can be raised without oppression, say $600. Let this sum be divided according to the magnitude of the objects to be accomplished. For example, expend $225 for preaching at home and the support of the poor, $200 for evangelical operations, $100 for colleges, $75 for the education of beneficiaries.” Such a system as this, if practiced, he thinks would “soon bear the gospel over America and Europe.” He advocated the sending of A. Campbell to England and David S. Burnet to the old world.
He was an ardent temperance advocate. Not only was he a total abstainer, but he publicly opposed the making, vending, and using of intoxicants as “Anti-patriotic, Anti- philanthropic, and Anti-Christian.” On this great issue the pioneers were sound. A. Campbell wrote in 1842: “For my own part for more than twenty years I have given my voice against the distillation of ardent spirits at all. I have both thought and said that I knew not how a Christian man could possibly engage in it. And how a Christian man can stand behind the counter, and dose out damnation to his neighbors at the rate of four pence a dose, is a mystery to me, greater than any of the seven mysteries of popery. I wish all the preachers who drink morning bitters and juleps would join the temperance society. All persons too should take the vow of total abstinence who habitually or even statedly or at regular intervals, sip, be it ever so little of the baleful cup.”
John T. Johnson fell asleep in Christ on December 18, 1856, at Lexington, Mo., where he was in the midst of a successful protracted meeting. His remains were taken to Lexington, Ky. Thus he fell in the ranks. His whole life for a quarter of a century was a series of protracted meetings. In labors he was as constant as Wesley. A man of delicate frame yet of great endurance and intense enthusiasm, he rested best when most laboriously and successfully engaged in the great work to which he had devoted his life. A man of apostolic zeal and fervor he was an evangelist of evangelists.