James Johnson

1785 - 1837

Cumberland Presbyterian Minister


[Manuscripts of Dr. J. M. Johnson, Hon. J. L. Johnson, and Minutes of Logan Presbytery.]

JAMES JOHNSON was born the 15th of June, 1785, in Prince Edward county, Virginia. In 1790 his father emigrated to Kentucky, and settled in Scott county. Subsequently, however, he moved to Barren county, and became the owner of the land upon which Glasgow now stands. In 1802 James Johnson, the son, left his father's house for the purpose of seeking his fortune in the wide world. He was then seventeen years of age. His leaving home does not seem to have been produced by any domestic difficulties or dissatisfaction, but from an anxious desire to take his part in the stirring scenes of life. The country was new, and there were many openings to active and aspiring young men. He made his way to Louisville, then a mere trading village and military post. He there became acquainted with General Clarke, whose confidence he seems to have soon acquired. He was sent by General Clarke on several perilous missions through the North-western Territory, then inhabited by Indians, with a few French settlements interspersed. In one of these agencies he landed his canoe at the mouth of Hurricane Creek, in what is now Crittenden county, Kentucky, and made his way to Centerville, then the seat of justice of Livingston county. Here he became acquainted with John Gray, then a prominent citizen of Lower Kentucky, and Mr. Woods, afterward of the house of Yeatman and Woods, of Nashville. He engaged himself as a clerk in the store of Mr. Woods. He continued in this position, however, but a short time, as we find that when he was but about eighteen years of age, through the influence of several prominent men, he was appointed sheriff of Livingston county. He held this office six years, and at the expiration of that time commenced the study of medicine with Dr. Stewart, who is represented to have been a physician of eminence and ability. He is said also to have enjoyed the friendship and esteem of Drs. Griffin and Delany, both, like himself, Virginians, and both men of education and refinement.

In 1806 Mr. Johnson was married to Miss Jane Leeper, of Livingston county. In process of time, he commenced the practice of medicine. The country was new, and thinly settled: he was a popular physician, and of course his practice was very laborious.

In 1808 he made profession of religion, and joined the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. About a year afterward his wife also professed religion, and seems to have become an unusually pious woman. I have in my possession a long and interesting account of her Christian profession, her life, and her death. She was awakened to the necessity of religion by the death of a younger sister. Says the writer: "On the fourth day of July, in the town of Salem, whilst the large majority of its citizens were engaged in the usual manner of celebrating the anniversary of American Independence in a public dinner, ball, and similar amusements, Mrs. Johnson now awakened to a sense of the danger of living without God in the world, as also of the depravity of her nature and corruption of her heart, in her garden was engaged at a throne of divine grace for that mercy and grace which she felt she so greatly needed. Whilst thus engaged, her mind was relieved: God shed abroad his love in her heart. She lived in the faithful discharge of religious duties. In the absence of her husband, she made it a matter of conscience to convene her children and servants for family prayer."

Such a wife could not be otherwise than a great helper to a good man.

In the war of 1812 he entered the public service as a volunteer, and was made assistant surgeon of his regiment. He also served in the campaign of General Hopkins against the North-western Indians. Finis Ewing was a chaplain in this expedition, or rather, served in the two-fold capacity of a private soldier and chaplain. The times were trying.
On the 11th day of December, 1818, Dr. Johnson lost his excellent wife. Her death seems to have been an unusual Christian triumph. Having joined her friends in a sweet song, she exhorted all around her to seek the salvation of their souls. Her friends thought that supernatural strength had been imparted to her. After addressing her relatives very earnestly for two, or two and a half hours, says my authority, "She ceased not to praise God, and express her views of heaven, which appeared just in prospect, in such language as the following: 'What is this I see--is it Pisgah's view? No, it is heaven itself! Glory, glory, glory!'" Such a death as this was well calculated to make an impression upon the mind of the surviving husband. He had already turned his attention to the Christian ministry. The circumstances were well calculated to strengthen his purposes in that direction. On the 8th day of April, 1818, he was received as a candidate for the ministry by the Logan Presbytery. Its sessions were held at Lebanon Academy, in Christian county, Kentucky. The first text assigned him for a trial sermon was Eph. ii. 8. At the fall sessions of the same Presbytery in 1819, on the 18th day of November, at Antioch Meeting-house, in Christian county, he and Woods M. Hamilton, John M. Berry, William C. Lang, and Joseph McDowell, were licensed. The text of Mr. Johnson's popular discourse, preparatory to licensure, was John iii. 16. On the 2d day of April, 1822, he and Woods M. Hamilton were set apart to the whole work of the ministry by the Logan Presbytery, at Rose Creek Meeting-house, in Hopkins county. Rev. Aaron Shelby preached the ordination-sermon, and Rev. John Barnett presided and gave the charge.

When Mr. Johnson was licensed, he was directed to spend two months of the time intervening between that and the next Presbytery on the Christian and Montgomery Districts as a missionary, and at the spring sessions of the Presbytery, in 1820, he was directed to spend the whole of his time on the Christian District. The record is that all these appointments were fulfilled. It will be recollected that at this time Dr. Johnson had a family of several motherless children.

After Dr. Johnson's ordination, according to the custom of those days, his missionary services were sometimes called into requisition. I quote from one of the manuscripts in my possession: "When ordered by his Presbytery to travel as a missionary through Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, or Arkansas, he went cheerfully to the work, carrying a bell and hobble for his horse, preaching in the wilderness, under the shade of a tree, often to half-a-dozen of poor hunters; still, however, erecting the standard of the cross whenever and wherever the opportunity offered itself. He was a zealous man in every thing he undertook; he never yielded to discouragements; dashed all obstacles aside, and moved directly on to the accomplishment of his purposes. His greatest efficiency was in exhortation and prayer. His sermons, however, were always good--sometimes excellent. In private life, he was kind and exemplary. He loved the Church, loved the ministry, loved the brethren. In his temperament he was cheerful, and always hopeful."

In 1820 or 1821 Dr. Johnson was married a second time, to Mrs. Louisa Harman, of Tennessee. Mrs. Harman's family name was Brigham. Some of her brothers and their families were amongst my earliest acquaintances and friends after I entered the ministry. I recollect them with deep interest.

After the death of his second wife, he was married again, to a Mrs. Jarratt, of Livingston county, Kentucky. He survived this marriage, however, but a few weeks. His last affliction was of short duration. On the 18th day of December, 1837, his laborious and active life came to an end. I recollect it was said at the time that his death was rather a triumphant scene. My informant says: "His mind was perfectly composed; his trust in the Saviour of the world was unfaltering. He died exhorting his children to meet him in heaven."

My personal knowledge of Dr. Johnson was limited to seven or eight of the last years of his life. The most of that time we were co-presbyters. He was genial, cheerful, and social in his habits. If he had dark days, I never happened to meet him in one of them. He had a very interesting family growing up around him. The most of them have since become honored men and women. His home was the abode of hospitality. It is intimated in one of the manuscripts which I have used, and I know it to have been true, that there was always a special welcome to the ministerial brother. He kept up the practice of medicine to some extent, I suppose, from the time he entered the profession to his death.

He had a large family, and received but little remuneration for his ministerial labor. Still he maintained the character of an earnest and laborious preacher. His sons says: "He never passed a Sabbath without religious exercises of some kind." When I knew him, the prospects of the Church were dark in the section of country in which he lived. We had discouragements. For some years three of us constituted the whole available strength of the Presbytery. Still he never faltered in his fidelity to the Church, or to his ministerial vocation.

Dr. Johnson had mingled more with men of the world then most ministers. His habits of life as a physician kept him in constant contact with such men. Such relations to society are not always the most useful to the ministry. They sometimes become a snare. Still, to a thoughtful and dignified man, they open new avenues to usefulness. Men of the world are better understood by those who mingle with them. They can be approached more advantageously by such men. The subject of this sketch never lost by his contact with men. It increased, rather than diminished, his influence over them. They thought the more of Christianity from the exemplification of it which they found in him. He was a gentleman, as well as a Christian and a Christian minister.

He was free from professional envy. Whilst he did not make the highest ministerial pretensions, he certainly never looked with a spirit of rivalry upon those who may have stood somewhat above him in public estimation. He would rather have strengthened than weakened the influence of such men.

He was a bold and fearless expounder of his religious opinions. He had been trained in a hardy and rugged school. It gave him independence. Some of his neighbors were unbelievers, and bitter opposers. He never turned his course to avoid them. He gave them his mind plainly--they understood him. The line between them was distinctly marked--he met them with no spirit of compromise. His son says: "He never feared the face of man." I expect this is true. If he had seen an honest and upright man oppressed, he would have resisted the oppressor, if he had stood alone in his resistance. Such men are invaluable in any community.

Dr. Johnson left ten children. Some of these still live: Dr. John M. Johnson, of Atlanta, Georgia; Hon. James L. Johnson, of Owensboro, Kentucky; and Major-General R. W. Johnson, of the U.S. Army--are three of them. Alfred B. Johnson, his youngest son, graduated at Cumberland College in 1848, studied law, and settled in Owensboro, Kentucky. he was an earnest member of the Church, became a ruling elder in his congregation, was a delegate to the General Assembly in 1857, but died in early life. He was a young man of fine promise.
[Source: Beard, Richard. Brief Biographical Sketches of Some of the Early Ministers of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Nashville, Tenn.: Southern Methodist Publishing House, 1867, pages 245-262]

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Updated May 11, 2009