Some sort of faith-based education is available in every part of the country, but something makes Johnson University distinctive.
On top of the hill, the historic Old Main building now houses a small theater used for dramatic presentations—not necessarily religious, says Vice President Philip Eubanks, but never anti-Christian—and across the hall, a work in progress, a Middle Eastern archaeological museum. A Johnson U. faculty member is heading a dig of an ancient fortified settlement in Jordan. It's a "back-burner" project, says President Gary Weedman, but it now displays stone pots, lamps, and an empty ossuary from 3-4,000 years ago.
Just below Old Main are some large stones visible from most of the campus. They're the graves of the college's first four presidents: Ashley and Emma Johnson, Alva Ross Brown, and R.M. Bell.
The original Johnson home, known as the White House, gleams on the next rise over. The college recently won a top Knox Heritage prize for its imaginative reuse of Johnson's original 1890 house, which, expanded in character on a plan by Knoxville architect Lee Ingram, still serves as the president's home, with room for guests and official functions. It's furnished with antiques from the Johnsons' era.
But nearly everything in between is new since the 1970s, most of it along simplified classical lines, with columns and cupolas. Keep Knoxville Beautiful awarded Johnson Bible College an Orchid Award for beauty in 2009.
The beauty seems to work in a practical way. Asked why they chose to come to Johnson U., students tend to mention the beauty of the campus. "If we can get prospective students on campus, we have a good chance of getting them," Weedman says. He says Johnson's facilities are second to none, maybe literally. A couple of new, large dormitories offer unusual amenities: large rooms, private baths, kitchen facilities.
The pond, with fountain, in the middle, might be assumed to be a landscape architect's touch, but it's actually what remains of the farm pond where Johnson Bible College's dairy cattle once found water on hot days. It is about to be embellished with a bit of exotica: a monopteron, a sort of classically styled gazebo made of Egyptian marble, soon to be installed.
The facilities, the pretty campus, and the "family atmosphere" that nearly everybody talks about are the most repeated reasons why students cross state lines, sometimes several state lines, to get here.
On the sidewalks, in the corridors, the campus seems like any campus, except that everybody seems nicer. College clerks and receptionists are all of a type, but Johnson's seem a little more cheerful. Only here do teenage boys hold the door open for a middle-aged stranger. Students don't look any different from college students anywhere. Maybe fewer piercings, hairstyles maybe less provocative. Clothing, for the most part, more practical than fashionable.
But overheard conversation can startle. In a corridor, one college kid's bemoaning a performance. "Oh, man, the one I wrote was so much better than the one I preached!" Johnson offers multiple courses on preaching technique.
"Imagine how much life I could live if I didn't have to take Greek," speculates one young man.
"Dude, I am so glad Jesus didn't have your attitude."