Johns, Vernon Neapolitan 1892–1965
Vernon Neapolitan Johns 1892–1965
Preacher, civil rights activist
Vernon Johns was a passionate orator who used his farming experiences to inspire stirring sermons about the value of hard work and the sacredness of nature. He rose to become a prominent figure in the Baptist church and was the first African-American preacher to have a sermon published. Later in his career, Johns developed his sermons into controversial fiery speeches about social justice and equality among the races. Although his message was not always well received, he laid the groundwork for the American civil rights movement of the 1960s. He preached these messages throughout the South, from Virginia to Alabama, until his death in 1965, with his career peaking at the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama, where he was the immediate predecessor of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Vernon Neapolitan Johns was born on April 22, 1892, in Darlington Heights, Virginia, which is near Farmville in Prince Edward County. His paternal grandfather was a slave who was hanged for killing his master. Johns’ mother, Sallie Branch Price, was the daughter of a black slave mistress and a white slave owner. When her mother died, the white master and his childless wife raised Sallie Price and her siblings, showing that blacks and whites could live together peacefully. It was into this environment that Johns was born.
John’s family highly valued education and by the time he was six, Johns and his older sister, Jessie, attended school at a one-room schoolhouse located four miles from their home. When he was ten years old, Johns attended the Boydton Institute, a Presbyterian mission school, where he first fell in love with theology and religion. Johns had hoped to foster his education at Boydton until he was prepared for a collegiate education, however this dream was shattered in 1907 when his father passed away and he had to leave school and return to the family farm. This did not quell the young man’s love of education and he took it upon himself to continue his education for the next eight years. He was a voracious reader who would devour any book that he could get his hands on. He also had a remarkable memory, which he used to memorize poems, the works of great philosophers and writers, such as Aristotle and Shakespeare, as well as passages from the Bible. Most impressively, he taught himself German, Greek, and Latin.
Johns later continued his formal education at the Virginia Theological Seminary and College in Lynchburg, Virginia, and he received a Bachelor of Arts degree in 1915. Johns then set his sights on the Theological Seminary (later renamed the Graduate School of Theology) at Oberlin College. When his application was rejected, Johns went to the college to speak with the dean personally. Dean G.W. Fiske was reluctant to accept Johns as a student because he did not think he had sufficient night school credits for admission. According to African American Orators, Johns replied to Fiske, “Do you want students with credits or students with brains?” Fiske then tested Johns’ knowledge, including his skills in Greek and German, and he was impressed with Johns’ abilities.
At a Glance…
Born Vernon Neapolitan Johns on April 22, 1892, in Darlington Heights, VA; died on April 11, 1965, in Washington, DC; married Altona Trent, 1927; six children. Education: Virginia Theological Seminary and College, BA, 1915; Oberlin College, BD, 1918; Graduate work in theology, University of Chicago, 1918. Religion: Roman Catholic.
Career: Virginia Theological Seminary, lecturer, 1918-19; Court Street Baptist Church, Lynchburg, VA, Pastor, 1920-25; Baptist Education Center, New York City, director, 1926-28; Virginia Theological Seminary and College, president, 1929-34. Traveling preacher and farmer, 1934-47; Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, Montgomery, AL, pastor, 1948-52; Maryland Baptist Center, director, 1955-60; Second Century Magazine, publisher, 1961; preacher, 1961-65.
Fiske finally admitted Jones to the seminary as a provisional student, however, within a year, Johns had not only secured full student status but was also head of the class, topping Robert M. Hutchins who would later become president of the University of Chicago. In 1918 Johns received his Bachelor of Divinity degree from Oberlin and he was ordained in the Baptist ministry. He was even selected for the honor of giving the student oration at Oberlin’s Memorial Arch.
Next Johns enrolled in the Graduate School of Theology at the University of Chicago, which housed the famous Social Gospel Theologians. Johns also taught homiletics and New Testament at the Virginia Theological Seminary and College. In 1920 he became the pastor of the Court Street Baptist Church in Lynchburg, where he stayed for six years. In 1926 Johns gave his first sermon at the Rankin Memorial Chapel at Howard University. That same year one of his sermons, entitled “Transfigured Moments,” was published in Joseph Fort Newton’s anthology Best Sermons. He was the first African American to be published in this prestigious collection, joining the ranks of prominent preachers such as Reinhold Niebuhr, Henry Sloane Coffin, and Willard L. Sperry. In his sermon Johns preached about transforming everyday experiences into exalted moments. “The great majority of our lives must be lived apart from any elaborate or jeweled settings; must plod along without any spectacular achievements,” Johns wrote in his famous sermon. “In the humblest routine, we must discover our task as part of the transforming enterprise of our Heavenly Father.”
Shortly after the publication of his sermon, Johns also became the director of the Baptist Educational Center in New York City. In 1927 Johns married Altona Trent. She was the daughter of William Johnson Trent, who was the president of Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina. That same year Johns switched jobs, taking over Mordecai Johnson’s position as pastor of the First Baptist Church in Charleston, West Virginia. In 1929 Johns took a position as president of the Virginia Theological Seminary and College. In this capacity he founded the Institute for Rural Preachers of Virginia and the Farm and City Club, which tried to promote economic ties between rural and urban blacks. Johns held this position at the seminary until he retired from the college in 1934.
Early in his career Johns established himself as a fierce, passionate, intelligent, and articulate preacher. However, he was also quite unconventional. “His themes were simple and direct: the dignity of labor, the sacred-ness of earth and nature, the need for heroic leadership, the equality of all men and women before God, the immorality of segregation, the importance of social justice, and the value of plebian self-pride—all of this delivered in the simple but penetrating style of a brilliant and learned man who was close to the earth and to the needs of his people,” wrote Robert Inchaust in African-American Orators. His eagerness to use the pulpit to challenge his congregations to moral action often disturbed the church members and deacons and often cost Johns his position at various churches.
For ten years following his presidency at the theological seminary Johns did not hold a steady job. During the Great Depression and World War II, Johns traveled extensively lecturing and preaching. He would alternate between farming, lecturing at colleges, and preaching at mostly rural black churches. He supported his family through farming and sporadic jobs, such as operating a grocery store or selling pulpwood. His wife also supplemented their income by working as a schoolteacher. Johns enjoyed working the land and he incorporated his respect for hard work and appreciation of nature into his sermons. It was not long before Johns established a reputation as a preacher for the common people, in comparison to other famous African American preachers, such as Mordecai Johnson or Howard Thurman, who were seen as more academic and aristocratic. Johns continued to perform manual labor, even though he was a college-educated preacher, because he truly believed in the virtue of work.
Johns also spoke out against segregation in his sermons. He encouraged his black congregations to acknowledge the economic, social, and political consequences of segregation and to fight against infringements on civil liberties. He saw economic independence as a means for blacks to gain freedom and equality. He encouraged blacks to work hard for their earnings, but also to invest their money back into their communities. Johns wrote sermons to address the everyday realities of life for blacks in his time. Some of his more famous sermons of the late 1940s and early 1950s included “Segregation After Death,” “It’s Safe to Murder Negroes in Montgomery,” and “When the Rapist Is White.” Johns also put his words into action by ordering food at an all-white restaurant and by refusing to ride on a bus with segregated seating. He was opposed to all Jim Crow laws and did not allow his family to partake in any “separate but equal” arrangements, including movie theaters, water fountains, and public transportation. His refusal to accept these laws sometimes made life inconvenient for his family, particularly his children, but he was a principled man who believed his personal sacrifices would benefit the larger black community.
In 1948 Johns was asked to serve as pastor of the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. His wife had already accepted a teaching job at Alabama State College, so this job allowed Johns to be with his family again. Johns reestablished himself as a prominent pastor by publishing his sermon titled “Civilized Interiors” in Herman Dreer’s anthology American Literature by Negro Authors. However, other aspects of Johns’ preaching caused controversy within his new congregation and the community. Local white authorities were disturbed by Johns’ fiery sermons against segregation. Additionally, his conservative, black, urban congregation did not approve of his common, country ways. The black community of the Dexter Avenue church consisted of many educated, professional, and middle class blacks. They were ashamed of their educated pastor who sold produce on the street. They did not respond well to his praise of manual labor in such sermons as “Good Earth” and “Mud Is Basic.” They were also afraid that they would bear the brunt of the anger he was creating among the local white community and the white authorities with his sermons against segregation. “At that time, Johns was considered by many a dangerous radical,” explained Dusty Saunders of the Denver Rocky Mountain News.
Johns often argued with the deacons of the Dexter Avenue church about his role in the church and the content of his sermons. After one such argument in 1952 Johns threatened to resign and the deacons accepted his offer. Johns hoped the deacons would change their minds, but they did not. They replaced Johns with a new pastor who was younger and more dignified. His name was Martin Luther King, Jr. Johns and his family moved away from Alabama. From 1955 to 1960 Johns was director of the Maryland Baptist Center and his wife taught at Virginia State College in Petersburg. Johns resigned from that position as well when he disagreed with how the white Baptist preachers handled race relations.
For the next few years Johns preached sporadically, but he was never again pastor of a church. In 1961 he became the editor and publisher of Second Century Magazine. On June 11, 1965, he delivered a sermon titled “The Romance of Death” at the Rankin Chapel at Howard University. After his lecture Johns suffered a heart attack and died at Freedmen’s Hospital in Washington, D.C. Through his impressive depth and breadth of knowledge and his incredible skills as an orator, Johns became one of the most prominent African-American preachers of the twentieth century. His lectures on racial equality were a little ahead of his time, but he paved the way for other preachers, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., to lead the American civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s.
Johns’ contributions to the civil rights movement were overshadowed by the more prominent activists who came after him, such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X. In 1989 television reporter Connie Chung hosted a docudrama about Johns’ life called “God’s Bad Boy: Montgomery, Alabama, 1949.” While her approach to the subject was criticized for blurring the lines between fact and fiction, Chung succeeded in generating public interest in Johns’ life and contributions to American society. In January of 1994 former basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar produced a television movie based on Johns’ life called The Vernon Johns Story. Veteran actor James Earl Jones breathed life into the role of Johns. “He was an exacting man who was as demanding of blacks as of whites,” Jones told A. Peter Bailey of American Visions magazine. “He was a trailblazer who never waited for a following.” The movie succeeded in introducing a new generation of Americans to the Johns’ legacy.
(Contributor) Newton, Joseph Fort, Best Sermons, Harcourt, Brace, and Company, 1926.
(Contributor) Dreer, Herman, American Literature by Negro Authors, Macmillan, 1950.
Garraty, John A., and Mark C. Carnes, National Biography, Oxford University Press, 1999.
Leeman, Richard W. (ed.), African American Orators, Greenwood Press, 1996.
Luker, Ralph E. Historical Dictionary of the Civil Rights Movement, Scarecrow Press, 1997.
American Visions, December-January, 1993, p. 42-43.
Denver Rocky Mountain News, January 16, 1994.
Wall Street Journal, October 30, 1989.
Vernon Johns: Farmer, Preacher, Civil-Rights Pioneer, www.oberlin.edu/EOG/BlackHistoryMonth/Vernon%20Johns/JohnsBioSketch.html
The Vernon Johns Story, television movie, January 1994.
—Janet P. Stamatel