A Biographical Sketch of W. B. Johnson

A Biographical Sketch of W. B. Johnson
Southern Baptist Denominationalist

By Dr. Tom Nettles

“No single individual had more to do with determining the nature of the Southern Baptist Convention than W. B. Johnson.” So states James M. Morton, Jr., in an article in Baptist History and Heritage. That Johnson was the first president of the Southern Baptist Convention surprised no one who was familiar with his unparalleled qualifications. As early as 1813, when Johnson was about 30, he discussed with Luther Rice the formation of a general body of Baptists to support foreign missions. This discussion later bore fruit in the formation of the General Missionary Convention, known more familiarly as the Triennial Convention.

Johnson, born in South Carolina in 1782, had a rich Baptist background. He graduated from Brown University, taught school, pastored churches in South Carolina and Georgia, and as protégé of Richard Furman, fulfilled his ideals as Joshua did those of Moses.

In 1813 Johnson presided over the Savannah Baptist Society for Foreign Missions. While connected with that body he led in preparing a constitution which included the words “elicit, combine, and direct,” words later to appear in the constitutions of both the Triennial Convention and the Southern Baptist Convention.

From 1817 till his death Johnson was in South Carolina. Active and formative in associational work, he was one of those men who, in 1821, worked together to draft a constitution in founding the South Carolina Baptist state convention. in [sic] 1825, he was elected president of the South Carolina Baptist Convention, a position he held for twenty-eight years.

When in 1845 division in the ranks of the General Missionary Convention became inevitable, Johnson, who served as president of that Convention during the years 1841-1844, became a leading figure in the new organization for Baptist in the South. Not only was he elected president of the consultative convention which met in Augusta, May 1845, but he was elected first president of the Southern Baptist Convention, a position he held until 1851.

The largest and best known work of Johnson was entitled The Gospel Developed through the Government and Order of the Churches of Jesus Christ, printed in 1846. This book treats Johnson’s concepts of the nature, officers, ordinances, authority, and duties of the Church of Jesus Christ is its local expressions. In the introduction to the book he lists as a fundamental principle of the gospel of Christ “the sovereignty of God in the provision and application of the plan of salvation: (p. 16). His definition of church in the first chapter highlights its universal nature (“the whole body of the redeemed from Adam to the last believer”) and summarizes his definition by saying, “This body consists of all that the Father hath given to Christ, and this is his church” (p. 21).

The present work, Love Characteristic of the Deity, was preached before the Charleston Baptist Association in November of 1822. This association, the First Baptist Association in the South, having within its membership the first Southern Baptist Church, was founded in 1751 and adopted as its confession of faith the Second London Confession of 1689. The Association had maintained the Calvinism of the confession as a statement of Christian orthodoxy at least until the end of the nineteenth century.

The sermon constitutes an accurate and muscular exposition of the doctrine of God’s love as illuminating and illuminated by the doctrines of grace. Several emphases deserve some degree of preview.

First, Johnson subjugates everything to the glory of God. Nothing occurs in history but that some aspect of the character of God will receive more abundant display and, thereby, a greater manifestation of his glory. “The chief end of Jehovah’s pursuit…is his own glory.”

Second, in harmony with God’s major purpose, the biblical doctrine of providence contributes healthily to the discussion. No event, not even the fall of the angels and the apostasy of man, takes God by surprise. Instead, all events are so overruled and determined by God that he “will infallibly secure the accomplishment of the great object (his own glory) he purposes to himself.”

Additionally, God’s love is not prostituted but is discriminate and particular. The grandeur of God’s love, as Johnson measures it, doesn’t receive its manifestation in the number of people to whom it comes but, rather, in the character of those to whom it comes. Though man maliciously rebelled, God did not doom his rebellious creature to “immediate and interminable misery” but, in love, devised a plan for redemption through which “we might be brought to love him.” Love procured the atonement and is experienced only by the objects of his grace and not, in particular, by “”he miserable subjects of his justice.”” None are actively excluded; they are left in “their state of rebellion…They exclude themselves by their own act.”

Johnson also distinguishes between natural ability and moral ability. Such eminent and edifying writers as Jonathan Edwards, Andrew Fuller, John Newton, A. W. Pink, and others have made this distinction and have considered it helpful if not necessary. Johnson says, “For the experience of this faith, they have the natural ability–for with the same ability that they disbelieve, they can believe.” The faculties of mind, will, and emotion are present, and nothing in one’s natural makeup hinders true belief. Actions are exerted on the basis of motivating principles, but the motivating principles, are all creature-centered, therefore sinful. All of man’s moral motivations are turned from God, and therefore he cannot seek God. Only by an omnipotent act of divine grace will man be turned from such moral perversity, but God is under no manner of obligation to do such.

Johnson clearly avoided the error of resting man’s duty to his creator on the condition of God’s grace. That man is a creature subject to divine law paints a sufficient picture of duty. The particularity of grace diminishes the duty of no moral creature. A contemporary of Johnson, John L. Dagg, anticipates an objection to this concept and states the case in the following manner.

Objection. If repentance and faith are gifts of grace bestowed by the Holy Spirit in effectual calling, men on whom this grace is not conferred, are not blameworthy for being impenitent and unbelieving.

The objection virtually assumes, that men are under no obligation to serve God further than they please; or that if their unwillingness to serve him can be overcome by nothing less than omnipotent grace, it excuses their disobedience. Let that man who makes to himself this apology for his impenitence and unbelief, consider well, with what face he can present his plea before the great Judge. “I did not serve God, because I was wholly unwilling to serve him; and so exceedingly unwilling that nothing less than omnipotent grace could reconcile me to the hated service.” Who will dare offer this plea on the great day? [J.L. Dagg, D.D., Manual of Theology (Harrisonburg, VA: Gano Books, 1982), pp. 334-335].

The particularity of the atonement looms large in Johnson’s sermon. “One great object that Christ had in view, in undertaking the office of Mediator, was actually to redeem and introduce to glory, all believers in his name, all who are his people.” The benefits of the atonement, according to Johnson, do not adhere to the passion event itself but rather to the particularity of God’s decree. God, being compassionate toward particular individuals, gave them by covenant to the Son; and, on that basis, they are considered in him in his propitiatory death. Thus, interest in the atonement is imparted “according to the righteous and sovereign will of God.” This differs at some points, but not entirely, from Dagg’s treatment on page 326-331 of his Manual of Theology.

Undergirding all this discussion (and certainly consistent with it) rests the affirmation of the unconditional nature of God’s electing love. Every part of the gift of salvation is obtained with particular individuals in view, and all is done to God’s own glory, that is, for the full display of all his moral perfections. No more benevolent enterprise could be imagined.