Ralph E. Luker

There was a time when John the Baptist was better known than the obscure man of Gallilee who came after him and there was a time when Vernon Johns was better known than Martin Luther King, Jr. When King became the pastor of Montgomery, Alabama’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, he identified himself as Vernon Johns’ successor. Subsequent events made it inevitable that Johns would ever thereafter be known as Martin Luther King’s predecessor.

Vernon Johns and Martin Luther King differed in remarkable ways. Johns was born in the rural South and found city life distasteful; King was born in the urban South and won his greatest victories in its cities. Johns was of the generation of King’s father and died in the midst of the civil rights crusade; King’s generation gave the movement its leadership in large numbers and some historians date its end at his death. Johns was an enthusiastic spokesman for black capitalism; King was a critic of capitalism’s economic disparities. Johns advocated armed self-defense of communities of color in the South; King hoped the South could become a peaceable kingdom via aggressive nonviolent protest. Vernon Johns’ congregations sometimes drove him from their pulpit, only subsequently to rehire him; either of Martin Luther King’s congregations would happily have made him their pastor into eternity.

Vernon Napoleon Johns was born on 22 April 1892 in Darlington Heights near Farmville, Prince Edward County, Virginia, the son of Willie Johns, a farmer, peddler and Baptist preacher, and Sallie Branch Price Johns. His father’s example fixed the son’s ambition to be the best farmer, peddler, and preacher that he could be. At three, said family members, young Vernon began preaching "on the doorstep or on a stump." Two years later, with his older sister, Jessie, he entered a one-room school four miles from the Johns home. The critical event of his early childhood, however, occurred in 1898, when Vernon Johns’ white grandfather killed a white fieldhand in Darlington Heights. Rumored to have killed his black paramour, young Vernon’s grandmother, many years earlier, old Thomas W. Price was twice tried for this later murder and twice his own relatives of color provided crucial evidence which helped to convict him. Twice, Thomas Price was sentenced to death by hanging, only to have his sentence commuted to life in prison by Virginia’s governor. Vernon Johns would not ever mention his white grandfather in public, but the old man’s episodic crime and punishment had a long-lasting impact on Vernon Johns’ preaching.

After the turn of the century, Jessie and Vernon Johns attended the Boydton Institute, a Presbyterian mission school at Boydton, Virginia, and, in 1911, he enrolled at Virginia Union University in Richmond. After a year there, Johns transferred to Virginia Theological Seminary and College in Lynchburg. The transfer was crucial to his development and would shape his career for another two decades, for Virginia Seminary challenged Virginia Union’s cooperation with Northern white Baptists with coeducation of men and women, an emphasis on the liberal arts, and unceasing devotion to African American autonomy. Apparently expelled before he graduated from Virginia Seminary, Johns nonetheless won admission to the theological school at Oberlin College and became the student pastor of a small Congregational church in Painesville, Ohio. At Oberlin, Johns sampled experience and learning that no one of color might have found anywhere in Virginia and won honors among his classmates. He gave the annual student oration at Oberlin's Memorial Arch in 1918, received a B.D. from the Oberlin School of Religion and was ordained in the Baptist ministry. In further preparation for a career in teaching and ministry, he studied for a summer at the University of Chicago. Coincidentally, it was the summer of Chicago’s race riot of 1919.
In 1919, Johns returned to Lynchburg to teach homiletics and New Testament at Virginia Theological Seminary. Continuing to teach at the seminary, he became the pastor of the city's large, historic Court Street Baptist Church, where he served from 1920 to 1926. His denunciation of Virginia Seminary’s administration in 1923 for offering public relations sham in lieu of substantial nurture prompted his departure from its faculty, the withdrawal of "the hand of fellowship" by his state convention, and the disappearance of his name in the state’s influential black press. Yet, by then, he was often speaking beyond Virginia. Already, within the small circle of the country’s well educated and most prominent Afro-Baptist preachers, a hallmark of Vernon Johns’ preaching was the range and abundance of its learned literary references. In a single sermon, he might demonstrate his mastery of obscure biblical texts, sample classical allusions, quote William Shakespeare, cite a range of Anglo-American and Afro-American poets, visit authorities from Thomas Jefferson and Abraham Lincoln to William James and H. G. Wells, and seal the case with an illustration from contemporary fiction.

In 1926, Vernon Johns preached for the first of many times at Howard University's Rankin Memorial Chapel and was the first African American preacher to have a sermon, "Transfigured Moments," published with those of Harry Emerson Fosdick, Reinhold Niebuhr and other luminaries in Joseph Fort Newton's Best Sermons. After launching a pamphlet series, Negro Pulpit Opinion, Johns left Lynchburg early in 1927 to succeed Mordecai Johnson as pastor of First Baptist Church in Charleston, West Virginia, serve as director of Harlem’s Baptist Educational Center in New York City and pursue his heart’s darling from the piedmont to the mountains of North Carolina. At the end of 1927, he married Altona Trent, the daughter of William Johnson Trent, the president of Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina. Johns resigned his West Virginia pastorate and settled in New York. Vernon and Altona Trent Johns became the parents of six children, first three boys and, then, three girls.

In the summer of 1929, Johns left New York to become the president of Lynchburg’s Virginia Theological Seminary and College. His impoverished alma mater’s financial problems had become critical since his departure and the school entered the depression already deeply in debt. Despite his best efforts to raise money, conditions at the school worsened and, in 1933, Johns left office in the face of student and faculty demands for his resignation. Briefly, he was interim pastor of Holy Trinity Baptist Church in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but in 1934 Johns retired to the family farm in Prince Edward County, Virginia. There, he farmed, cut and sold pulpwood, operated a grocery store in Darlington Heights, and traveled, lecturing and preaching on the black church and college circuits. While Altona Trent Johns supplemented the family income by teaching public school in a one-room public school four miles from the family home, he led a struggle to get school buses for the county’s African American students.

In 1937 Johns was called again as the pastor of First Baptist Church in Charleston, West Virginia. A former college president, the published pastor of an important African-American congregation, and son-in-law of a college president, Vernon Johns seemed bound to a secure position in the African American elite. Yet, he was rooted in the hard economic realities of Prince Edward County and grew contemptuous of the social pretense of the black bourgeoisie. As pastor of Charleston's First Baptist Church, he supplemented his income as a fishmonger. "I don't apologize for it," he later told students at Howard University, "because for every time I got one call about religion, I got forty calls about fish." It was a pattern of offense Johns would repeat. In 1941, Johns returned to Lynchburg as pastor of Court Street Baptist Church. Shortly after he was officially installed there, a struggle with lay authorities led to his ouster. At 51, Vernon Johns was back on the family farm and back out on the preaching circuits. As the youngest of his children entered school during World War II, his wife was still teaching in Prince Edward County. She would finish a graduate program at Teachers College of Columbia University and publish several books on music.

In the summer of 1948, Altona Trent Johns joined the music department at Alabama State College in Montgomery. In October, Vernon Johns was called as the pastor of the city's prestigious Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. There, he renewed his credentials as the publishing pastor of a leading African-American congregation with an essay, "Civilized Interiors," in Herman Dreer's American Literature by Negro Authors in 1950. But Johns was never a man to curry favor with the authorities, white or black. He antagonized local white powers with sermons such as "Segregation After Death," "It's Safe to Murder Negroes in Montgomery," and "When the Rapist is White" and by summoning black passengers to join him in a protest of racial discrimination by walking off a bus in Montgomery.

In 1951, Vernon Johns’ father-in-law, William Johnson Trent, became the first African-American appointed to the Salisbury, North Carolina, school board and Vernon Johns's sixteen-year-old niece, Barbara Johns, led African American students at Farmville, Virginia's R. R. Moton High School in a boycott to protest conditions in Prince Edward County's schools. A month later, attorneys for the NAACP filed suit to desegregate the county schools. The case would be decided only by the United States Supreme Court in 1954. The contrast was noteworthy. The Trents were cautious, conservative insiders, who hoped to manipulate a system; the Johns were aggressive outsiders, who believed the system needed a thorough renovation. In the summer of 1951, Barbara Johns left Prince Edward County to live with her aunt and uncle and finish her senior year of high school in Montgomery, Alabama. By then, however, Vernon Johns was already antagonizing his own congregation's bourgeois sensibilities with sermons such as "Mud Is Basic" and by hawking produce at church functions. In September 1952, Altona Johns moved her children from Montgomery to take a position at Virginia State College in Petersburg. In May 1953, after four and a half stormy years at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, its deacons accepted one of her husband's several resignations.

Vernon Johns was never the pastor of a church again. From 1953 to 1955, he shuttled between his Prince Edward County farm, where he raised livestock, and his wife's home in Petersburg, where he became a mentor to Wyatt Tee Walker, the pastor of Gillfield Baptist Church. In 1956, Johns succeeded John Tilley, executive director of Martin Luther King’s young Southern Christian Leadership Conference, as director of the Maryland Baptist Center in Baltimore. Walker in turn succeeded Tilley at SCLC. By then, the legend of Vernon Johns was fixing itself in the firmament of the Afro-Baptist preachers who were the core of King’s SCLC. He was, after all, King’s predecessor, mentor of Ralph Abernathy and Wyatt Walker, and successor of John Tilley. Apart from Johns’ commanding presence, nothing entertained his fellow Baptist preachers more than Wyatt Walker’s perfect mime of Vernon Johns’ rural Virginia accent or Ralph Abernathy’s latest Vernon Johns’ story. As for the man himself, Johns was forced to resign as director of the Maryland Baptist Center in 1960 after publicly rebuking white Baptist preachers in Baltimore for their failure of nerve in race relations. Thereafter, he still rode the preaching circuits and occasionally addressed mass meetings of the Lynchburg and Petersburg Improvement Associations. In 1961 and 1962, he edited Second Century, an annual magazine published in anticipation of the centennial of the Emancipation Proclamation.

In his last years, Willie Johns’ son ran a modest grocery stand in Petersburg. Martin Luther King’s personal attorney, Chauncey Eskridge, found him there in October 1963. The previous six months had been the most exhilarating and exhausting in SCLC’s brief history. In massive spring demonstrations in Birmingham, King and Walker had collaborated to produce the "Letter from the Birmingham Jail." Concurrent demonstrations in Cambridge, Maryland, Jackson, Mississippi, Savannah, Georgia, and Greensboro, North Carolina tested the distinction between demonstrations and riots. Medgar Evers was assassinated in Jackson and Fannie Lou Hamer beaten in Winona, Mississippi, by the time King addressed the March on Washington at the end of August. His "I Have a Dream" was a recycled speech, which had developed over many years.

Two weeks later, Birmingham’s Sixteen Street Baptist Church was bombed and four Sunday School students were killed. For them, King preached a eulogy in Birmingham, but he was exhausted and in need of fresh words of judgment and hope. So, he sent his attorney in quest of Vernon Johns’ sermon notebooks. In its own way, it was a remarkable tribute to the old preacher: an urgent request from Martin Luther King, perhaps the nation’s, perhaps the century’s, most prominent preacher, who had just produced the two texts by which he is best remembered, for Vernon Johns’ words. He would never receive them, for King had asked for Johns’ livelihood. He lived by the word and died by the word. After preaching his last sermon, "The Romance of Death," in Howard University's Rankin Chapel, Vernon Johns died on 10 June 1965 in Washington, D.C., just 3 months after the movement’s last great march, from Selma to Montgomery.

© 2003 - Ralph E. Luker - All Rights Reserved

African-American Religion: A Documentary History Project

Africans in America

Afro-American Odyssey: The Civil Rights Era

Albany Civil Rights Movement Museum

Best Sermons, 1926

The Black Abolitionist Papers

Center for the Study of the American South

Civil Rights Documentation Project, USM

Civil Rights Movement Veterans

The Civil Rights Project at Harvard

Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church

Documenting the American South

Frederick Douglass Papers Project

Freedmen's Bureau Online

Greensboro Sit Ins

Harlem, 1900-1940

The Harriet Jacobs Papers Project

The Herndon Home

Howard Thurman Papers Project

Images of African American Slavery and Freedom

The Life and Times of the Prophet Vernon Johns

The Malcolm X Project

Making of America Project, Cornell

Making of America Project, Michigan

The Marcus Garvey Papers Project

Martin Luther King Papers Project

The Project on Lived Theology

Ralph Bunche Civil Rights Documentation Project, Howard

Robert Russa Moton Museum

Slaves and the Courts, 1740-1860

Slavery Petitions Project

The Valley of the Shadow Project

Voices from the Days of Slavery

Without Sanctuary