Knox County's Other University: Johnson University

At 118 years, the former Johnson Bible College goes its own way

A dozen miles southeast of town, Kimberlin Heights is mostly rural woods and pastures, one of the parts of Knox County that doesn't suggest, for better or worse, proximity to any city. It's gorgeous, in spots, especially where it offers a view of the French Broad River. Most folks keep up their own homes and churches, but there's little business out here except a forlorn-looking roadside post office. The dearth of traffic on the 40 mph two-lane known as Kimberlin Heights Road is easy to understand, because it's not on the way to anywhere. There's no bridge over the snaky river, and the adventurous driver is likely to find himself trapped in networks of dead ends and peninsular cul-de-sacs and roads that dissolve into nothing.

But take one particular turn off Kimberlin Heights, and reality shifts. Suddenly you're immersed in well-kept lawns and clean neo-Georgian collegiate buildings surrounding a pool with a plume of fountain. Adolescent kids lope around with satchels, drinking Cokes, texting each other. A skateboarder, cap on backward, surfs down the main road as casually as if he were riding an escalator. You've found yourself on the 350-acre campus of Johnson University.

Maybe you've never heard of it. Until early this year, it went by the name Johnson Bible College. Even by that name, it's a mystery to most Knoxvillians, though it's been right here for the last 118 years. It's twice as big as it was in the 1990s, and it has a national reputation, if mainly in certain circles. The school represents an independent wing of the Christian Church, a denomination more popular in other parts of the country than in East Tennessee.

As even president Gary Weedman is quick to admit, use of the word "university" might strike some as pretentious. It's just a school with not quite 850 students, after all. And everybody majors in Bible.

But Johnson, which played a role in popularizing the term "Bible College" in the first half of the 20th century, may have become a victim of that success. Of the estimated 1,400 schools coast to coast that are called "Bible Colleges" today, most aren't accredited; many are just short courses that don't even offer degrees. Of all of them, Johnson is one of only about 25 that are accredited by the secular authorities as four-year colleges, with credits transferable to mainstream universities. Johnson also offers several graduate degrees, six masters degrees, and now even a doctorate, in Leadership.

For the record, the University of Tennessee was much smaller than Johnson when it began using the term "university" to describe itself. And in one respect, Johnson's student body can seem more, well, universal, than UT's. Walk around the dormitory parking lots, and you see mostly out-of-state plates: Ohio, Illinois, Michigan, Kentucky, especially Indiana. Of its undergraduate student body, two-thirds come from outside of Tennessee, and one in 20 are from foreign countries. In the tutelage of non-natives, Johnson may be the most exotic school in the Knoxville area.

The faculty's equally far-flung. Today, Johnson U. employs faculty with graduate degrees from UT, but also from Gonzaga, Marquette, Purdue, London University. And of the 13 members of Johnson's governing Board of Trustees, only three are based in Knox County, only six in Tennessee. Others travel here from Illinois, Missouri, Maryland. One current Johnson U. trustee is D.C. civil-rights attorney and former Clinton administration ambassador to Gambia George W. Haley.

Its alumni get around, too. Many Johnson grads are missionaries or teachers, now living and working as far away as New Guinea. UT is proud to boast it has produced a U.S. senator, Howard Baker. Tiny JBC has helped raise a senator, too, and their alum co-founded a state. Oren Long, Class of 1912, and onetime territorial governor of Hawaii, became one of the 50th state's first U.S. senators.

Somehow, though, the school is not that well-known in its greater neighborhood. A pretty picture of Johnson Bible College made the cover of the 1981 Knoxville phone book, but local newspapers only occasionally report on it. At the public library, where some individual crimes rate multiple folders, one slim file folder is big enough to hold a century's worth of clippings about Johnson Bible College/University. Partly to blame for that neglect is that they've never been associated with a major controversy or public scandal.

"We're not a local school," says Vice President Philip Eubanks. "We're not even a regional school. We're a national school." The college has worked happily under the local radar. But bringing several hundred kids to Knox County, most of them from far away, does have a local effect, as Johnson U. occasionally feels obliged to point out. According to a recently released economic impact study, Johnson Bible College/University has had an economic impact of close to $210 million on the Knoxville area over the last five years.

It also comes with a story.


Ashley Sidney Johnson, born in a log cabin just across the river in 1857, was the great-grandson of Jacob Kimberlin, for whom Kimberlin Heights is named. That connection came with no great inheritance. His parents were not wealthy, nor were they particularly religious.

At 18, Johnson came to Knoxville to attend the university's college of law (then it was officially still East Tennessee University), and studied in the office of J.C.J. Williams, a politically prominent attorney who was then on City Council. But Johnson was soon much more impressed with a Baptist tent-meeting revival at Gap Creek, near his childhood home. Lantern-lit camp meetings were notorious for stirring resolutions to quit gambling, cheating, or drinking that might last for days or weeks, but this one changed Johnson's life forever.

He dropped law and studied theology on his own, and found himself drawn to a quiet theological revolution, the 19th-century Stone-Campbell movement. Originating in northern Kentucky, the Restoration movement, as it's sometimes known, was an idealistic attempt to bring all believers together through a respect for the gospels, a kind of educated fundamentalism. They became known generally as the Christian Church. Over the years, that denomination to end denominations has for practical purposes divided into at least three sub-denominations: the Church of Christ, which eschews the use of musical instruments in services; the mainline Christian Church, also known as the Disciples of Christ; and a loose alliance of independent Christian Churches, which Johnson represents. Back in Ashley Johnson's day, it was all one big church.

By age 22 he was publishing an evangelical journal called The Christian Watchman, and later wrote a book called The Great Controversy. In 1884, he traveled to Ontario to study elocution, and there fell for the daughter of a lakeside resort manager. He brought home his Canadian bride, Emma Johnson, and they spent a couple of years sojourning in the Deep South, preaching and teaching, with a particular passion for helping the poor. Back in Knoxville, Johnson founded the Correspondence Bible School, offering "the most thorough and comprehensive course of Bible Study on earth," an exacting four-year regimen. The opportunity to study Johnson's plan by mail attracted hundreds of students nationwide.

The Johnsons lived on Fourth Avenue, on the north side of downtown, a fun place for a young couple in the 1880s. "We built a nice residence in Knoxville and were enjoying our selfish lives immensely," he later recalled, "when I had another inspiration." By one account, he suddenly realized "I can't train preachers through the mail"—though he kept doing so for some years. Around 1890, he set about to find a permanent, brick-and-mortar place for a college to teach preachers. He first looked in Knoxville, but decided it wouldn't work. Maybe it was the factory smoke, maybe the proliferating saloons. But when Johnson heard part of his ancestor Kimberlin's estate along the French Broad was available, he bought 150 acres of Kimberlin Heights, and in 1890 built a new house there and painted it white.

For a while, the Johnsons' lives still orbited around Knoxville, where Johnson was a familiar guest preacher. In 1892, the 35-year-old evangelist was preaching at a Christian church in Bearden when he mentioned the prospect of a college-level school for the gospels. "I am not seeking money," he told his congregation. "I am only seeking encouragement." From most of the congregants, he got neither. As the story goes, one Knoxvillian, a William F. Crippen, did offer encouragement, plus $100 if Johnson could get something started.

It was the beginning of a fund-raising campaign that never ended. Johnson raised enough to build a hall on a hill near his house and named it, originally, the School of the Evangelists. In May 1893, 200 guests boarded the steamboat Onega in downtown Knoxville to witness the laying of the cornerstone. The grand Main Building, with its five-story square tower that offered a sweeping view of the French Broad, was completed in 1895.

Johnson's school was pretty unusual on the American landscape. According to current President Gary Weedman, there were only two other colleges like it in America: Nyack College in New York and the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. Johnson's was never as famous as those. For three-quarters of a century, Johnson Bible College remained on top of its little hill, surrounded by farmland. Students, most of whom couldn't have afforded college otherwise, worked off their tuition on Johnson's farm, the main part of which was a dairy, located beside a large pond at the foot of the college hill, where cows could drink.

It was a full four-year college from its early days, with a curriculum of algebra, history, geography, rhetoric, grammar, "psychology and logic," and, of course, Bible. At Johnson, the Bible has always been a primary textbook. The college drew hundreds, but only a few stuck with the rigorous coursework to earn a degree. Some early graduating classes included only four of five young men. During Ashley Johnson's 32-year tenure as president, the founder witnessed only 200 students graduate. The graduation rate during those years has been calculated at 5.1 percent. A diploma was not always the goal.

Every founding legend has its crisis, and Johnson's happened when the school was barely nine years old. On Dec. 1, 1904, a fire broke through a chimney and destroyed the uninsured main building. Johnson, who was away preaching in Virginia, might have questioned Providence for destroying his dream, but he wired a professor: "LET THE HEIGHTS BE GLAD"—he didn't specify whether he was referring to the heavenly heights or Kimberlin Heights—"THE WORD FAIL IS FOREIGN TO HIS ETERNAL PURPOSE IN US. AMEN!"

Almost immediately the persuasive Johnson got donors to pitch in. The building's replacement was built twice as fast as the original. The 1905 building now known as Old Main, recently remortared, is so clean it might be mistaken for a new building. Its cornerstone is carved with Johnson's emphatic motto: "OPEN DAY AND NIGHT TO THE POOR MAN WHO DESIRES, ABOVE EVERY OTHER DESIRE, TO PREACH THE GOSPEL OF CHRIST."

The overwhelming majority of Johnson's early students were boys and men, but some women were on faculty, and female students were not forbidden, and became more evident in the middle part of the century. And from its earliest days, its students drew from parts of the South, but moreso from the Midwest, where the Christian Church was most populous. The representation of home states among the earliest graduates a century ago looks about the same as the pattern in the parking lot today.

The School of the Evangelists was already a four-year liberal-arts college, but the occasional misperception that it was a "glorified Sunday school" prompted a fresh name, in 1909: Johnson Bible College.

Ashley Johnson was famous for his unwavering ideals about education and faith, and for his hard work. Years after his death, he earned a spot in Ripley's "Believe It or Not" cartoon, for his reputed ability to compose four letters at once. His dictating machine is on display.

Johnson died in 1925. His wife Emma became the first female in Knoxville-area history to be president of a college. Her trusted assistant was a favorite student, an extraordinarily bright kid from Pennsylvania named Alva Ross Brown. The Johnsons, whose only child had died, informally adopted the bookish boy as their own.

When Emma Johnson died unexpectedly just two years later, the trustees felt they had no choice but to honor the Johnsons' wishes and make this kid, not quite 22 years old, president of the college. Brown turned out to be an effective leader—his book Standing on the Promises was a tribute to the Johnsons, and he carried their legacy through the Great Depression—but his term ended suddenly when he died of a heart defect in 1941, at the age of 35.

Brown's successor, R.M. Bell, was president of Johnson Bible College for 27 years, during which time JBC maintained its quiet standards but grew only modestly, from about 150 students just before World War II to just over 200 in the 1960s.

After Bell's death, David Eubanks, minister of Knoxville's Woodlawn Christian Church, got the nod. A JBC alum with a doctorate in history from UT, Eubanks led Johnson Bible College for 38 years, becoming its longest-tenured president (and its first to leave the office alive). It was only during Eubanks' tenure that the college, no longer feeling obliged to run a dairy farm, expanded beyond its original perch on the hill, with major construction projects that allowed enrollment to grow from only 235 in 1969 to a peak of over 900 a couple of years ago.


It's remarkable, considering the untimely deaths and foreshortened presidential tenures of Brown and Mrs. Johnson, that Weedman is only the sixth president in Johnson's history. "As someone said at my inauguration, some colleges have six presidents in a decade," Weedman says, and adds, with a slightly wicked grin, "Not to mention any other local universities."

The campus looks, on first glance, like any well-laid-out secular liberal-arts college. This month, parts of the Biblical Christmas story are told, from text, on signs alongside the driveway, Burma Shave style. But there are no giant crosses. In the hallways, portraits of Jesus are mostly historical in nature. There may be more pictures of Ashley and Emma Johnson, at various stages of their shared career. Relics of Johnson's life are all over campus. A wooden podium he used in Bearden, ca. 1892—presumably the one from which he gave the sermon that prompted the first gift to help establish this college—is in a hallway, where students can touch it between classes.

More conspicuous than religious imagery is the Coca-Cola logo. At Johnson, you could almost find our way around in the dark by the light of Coke machines, all of them loaded with the big 20-ounce bottles. Corporate America isn't as obvious here as it is in most places, but there's one other exception. Hardly 10 years ago, newcomers complained that Knoxville was so backward there wasn't a Starbucks in the whole city. But now there's one in the basement of the Johnson University student union. Caffeine is popular here.

The bookstore, like most UT-area bookstores, devotes much more space to clothing and souvenirs, all in Johnson blue, than books. The books for sale are almost entirely religious in nature, with the exception of Rudolph Giuliani's 2007 book, Leadership. In the hall, past a well-stocked bank of tourist brochures for attractions in Sevier County, are colorful displays, obviously results of group projects, responding to rhetorical questions concerning how to respond to poverty, how to treat prisoners, whether it's ever appropriate for Christians to participate in wars. (Their conclusion is yes, with some reservations, and only because of the fallen nature of man).

The library, across the way, seems a little careworn. The literature section suggests no obvious censorship, exhibiting several authors who have been banned somewhere for something: Kafka, Mann, Hesse, Wilde, Joyce, D.H. Lawrence, Chinua Achebe. Here, the only suggestion that maybe you're in a Bible school is that there's a whole lot of C.S. Lewis, maybe five full shelves.

Johnson University courses include the liberal-arts basics—English comp, a spectrum of history, biological sciences, "essential mathematics," and several languages, those necessary for Biblical translation—Greek, Latin, and Hebrew—plus Spanish. "We've added urban ministries, Islamic studies, management of nonprofit organizations," says Weedman.

At Johnson, "Restoration History" isn't about England's licentious late 17th century, but America's 19th-century religious movement. With classes in Old Testament poetry, Acts of the Apostles, and homiletics—which all Johnson freshmen can all tell you is the study of preaching—the 2011-12 catalogue actually looks a little more religious than that of Johnson's original School of the Evangelists.

Johnson offers "open enrollment"—that is, they accept nearly anybody who passes the basic qualifications, like a minimum ACT score of 18.

Weedman claims that Johnson is "the cheapest private college in Tennessee," but a year's tuition, room, and meal plan is still $14,880. "If you can pay, come," says Philip Eubanks. "If you can't, come anyway." Johnson generates $1.6 million in scholarships, on its own, and the student-work program is another option. They closed down the college farm 40 years ago, but students still mow the grass, help with food service, work as receptionists and clerks.

Of course, there's another factor implied by the school's emphasis. "Every student majors in Bible," Eubanks says. "Someone who's not interested in God, who's not a person of faith, just wouldn't fit."

Weedman is frank about the fact that Johnson's faculty all present their subjects from a Christian perspective. The Johnson library contains hundreds of books by non-Christian authors. Weedman says they're presented within the context of their time. "We try to analyze the worldview of the period, and how greater events impact thinking and perspective, and analyze assumptions. Everybody has to make assumptions about ultimate reality somewhere."

Johnson offers only a few practical science courses, so faith-based education's most notorious bugaboo, the Darwinism vs. creationism tangle, may not be as conspicuous at Johnson as it is in some high schools.

"We don't have any faculty who would dismiss God's activity in creation," Weedman says, then brings up one of the more extreme examples of creationist ideology. "I'm fairly sure we have faculty who would not embrace a young-Earth theory of creation. Creationism means different things, as so many terms do, but the young-Earth theory is a fairly new idea. Augustine didn't subscribe to a young-Earth theory, William Jennings Bryan didn't subscribe to a young-Earth theory."

He adds, though, that he admires his friend Steve Meyer, a leading creationist, and that he thinks pure Darwinism is vulnerable to criticism. But it's not his field, and it's not an emphasis, one way or the other, at Johnson U.

"We have faculty who are interested in it," Weedman says, "but it's not something we obsess about. I think there's more heat than light, probably, from both sides of the issue."

Later, coincidentally, two young students are in the student center's basement River Grill, debating that very issue, one taking the liberal view that much of Genesis I was meant to be poetic, symbolic, the other insisting that if Genesis isn't literally true, the Bible's later chapters can't be trusted, either.

Conclusions are elusive. But a Darwinian might be at least curious about this case of survival of the fittest: the apparent success, in spite of competition in a crowded habitat, of Johnson University.

Corrected: Changed the line "the only major is Bible" to the more accurate "everybody majors in Bible."