17 April, 2024

THROWBACK THURSDAY: ‘The Future of Johnson Bible College—Will It Survive Its Founders?’ (1924)

by | 15 February, 2024 | 0 comments

Our recurring history feature today does not spotlight an article written by an editor, staff writer, or correspondent. Instead, this update and appeal was quite possibly a paid advertisement (although that is unstated). It was a full-page letter written by Ashley S. Johnson, president of Johnson Bible College in Kimberlin Heights, Tenn. (JBC is now called Johnson University, and though it has not moved, it now lists its address as Knoxville, Tenn.) 


In his letter, Johnson states that he has been ill for several years and that he is seeking a medical solution. His malady is unclear, but the college is surviving . . . though it seems JBC is suffering through some tough times. 

Ashley and Emma Johnson laid the cornerstone for the main building of The School of the Evangelists in 1893 and classes started in 1894. In 1909, students petitioned that the name of the school be changed to Johnson Bible College to honor its founders. A few years after that, Ashley Johnson became sick. In this letter from February 1924 (exactly 100 years ago), Ashley Johnson describes some of his health struggles. 

Alas, about 11 months after writing this letter, Ashley Johnson died on Jan. 14, 1925, while undergoing an operation in Baltimore, Md. He was 68.  

Upon her husband’s death, Emma Johnson became JBC’s president. Her Wikipedia page says she was the first American woman to serve as president of a co-educational university. She was affectionately known by students as “Mother in the Gospel” (according to Johnson University’s history page). Emma Johnson died of cancer in May 1927. Ashley and Emma Johnson are buried near the main building on JU’s campus. 

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‘The Future of Johnson Bible College—Will It Survive Its Founders?’ (1924)  

March 1, 1924; p. 25 
By Pres. Ashley Sydney Johnson 

Nine years ago I broke down completely and was under the care of a physician. While I waited in bed for two months, Mrs. Johnson kept the work going and came nearer freeing it from debt than ever before. 

During these nine years I have fought for my life and the work which God gave me to do with all my heart. With J. B. C. it has grown immensely, but I have never been able to answer the inquiry: “What will become of J. B. C. when you die?” 

I have been answering that question a number of ways; first, there are five trained men in the old Jerusalem gospel, who are to-day members of our faculty, who believe what I believe, and teach what I believe, and teach and stand where I stand. 

Second, we have greatly increased our holdings until we now have 400 acres of land deeded to the college, which is an incorporated institution.  

Third, we have built five good houses for as many professors.  

Fourth, we have secured about 20,000 names of Christians, representing the United States and Canada. These are divided into the following groups: the Johnson family, the old guard, givers to the bread fund, givers to the light fund, givers to the coal fund, givers to the dinner fund, the alumni fund and the Faculty fund. These lists are handled and kept up to date under the superintendence of Mrs. Johnson and myself. We have never hired a stenographer. J. B. C. attracts students who can do almost everything we have to do. We have enrolled 165 so far this year. 

As intimated, my health has been very poor, especially nearly all the time since the aforesaid breakdown nine years ago. I have needed attention by a specialist, and my condition was such (blood pressure 200 to 240) that I could not submit to an operation. I planned, on the advice of one of my numerous doctors, to go to Philadelphia. He said he did not think I would ever get well, but it would be some satisfaction to me to know what is wrong with me.  

But here is the rub. I had no money on which I could lay my hands, having put my earnings into God‘s work. When my friends found it out, they supplied enough to meet the need in one mail. A brother in Iowa wrote that, if I would go to his doctor in Chicago, he would pay my bill “from one day to six months.” Mrs. Johnson accompanied me, for I was not able to take care of myself. She has since told me that she was afraid to start [the journey] with me. 

I had to leave and seek help. I was almost wrecked, mind and body. What caused the trouble? The same thing that nearly killed Epaphroditus! See Phil. 2:25-30.  

What was to become of J. B. C.? We left it in the hands of God and itself. “God is able.” What about J. B. C.? Can it run itself? I answer, it has done so for nearly a month and a half.  

Just before I left I told Miss Helen Campbell, who has been head stenographer in my office for over three years, that she had my permission to be president until my return. She knows my ideals and the business through and through, and is fearless to the highest degree. 

Her “administration” has been a great success. She opens the mails, does the banking, sends out the appeals, and solves the hard problems generally.  

She will graduate in May, but she voluntarily wrote us to stay until we get well and she will stay on the job. This proves that while Mrs. Johnson and I may have been indispensable in the past, and very useful now, there are others who can do the work. That answers partly the question, “What will be the destiny of J. B. C. when you die?”  

Listen, all you who doubt: J. B. C. is running itself successfully. All the Faculty are products of J. B. C. but two persons, and one of them will graduate in May. The other is Prof. E. L. Barham, widely known as a scholar, and great Christian after the old pattern. . . . 

I can not give my Chicago address. I could not possibly handle the correspondence that would start. J. B. C. is doing what no other college is doing or ever did; namely, running itself on God’s promises. It has proven itself worthy to live. It takes nearly $100 a day to keep it going, it is my chief concern. I believe I shall get well if my friends, my brethren, will take care of it.  

There are a thousand churches throughout the brotherhood that can make contributions to us in this time of the heroism of faith if some one will lead. There are ten thousand individual members of the body of Christ who will make individual gifts if told of the need. Tell it, press it. It is the call of the Master through His servant. 

J. B. C. has proved every year, for thirty years, its right to exist and prosper and grow; during this time, nineteen hundred young men, aspiring to the full Christian ministry, have passed through our halls.  

J. B. C. has a plant valued at $360,000. There is no debt on it; there never has been any debt on it. I have personally borne its burdens. It is triumphantly prosperous in every department now!  

I appeal to you for a gift and a prayer; a prayer if you can not give. Either or both will be an investment that will multiply itself until the Lord shall return.  

I have a great physician. I could not wind my watch when I came here. My general health has improved wonderfully. I am not going to die soon, but the thing from which I suffer most holds me in its grip, and God alone knows the final outcome.  

Chicago, Ill., Feb. 13, 1924.  

Address all letters to Pres. Ashley S. Johnson, Kimberlin Heights, Tenn. 

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FURTHER READING: “Reporting on Johnson University’s Origins” (Oct. 25, 2018)


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