Francis Johnston

1790 - 1856

Cumberland Presbyterian Minister


FRANCIS JOHNSTON was born in Iredell county, North Carolina, September 12, 1790. His parents were moral and upright persons, and his mother was, at the time of his birth, a member of Bethany congregation of the Presbyterian Church. The congregation was under the care of Rev. Dr. Hall. Dr. Hall baptized the subject of this sketch.

About the year 1795 Mr. Johnston's parents moved to what was then called West Tennessee, and settled in Sumner county. The county was then a wilderness, in more senses than one. It was very sparsely populated, and almost wholly destitute of the means of grace. Mrs. Johnston, the mother, however, soon united herself with Shiloh congregation, then under the care of Rev. William McGee. Mr. McGee was succeeded by Rev. William Hodge. The first camp-meeting that ever was held in Sumner county, was held at Blythe's place, on Desha's Creek, in the bounds of Shiloh congregation. This meeting occurred in the spring of 1800. Mr. Johnston attended the meeting with his father's family. He was then in his tenth year. He tells us, in a sketch of his own life, that although so young, "he was old enough to feel that he ought to have religion."

In 1803, in his thirteenth year, he professed religion at home, under the guidance of his mother and a sister younger than himself, who had made a profession a short time before. He joined the Shiloh congregation in connection with his mother and sister. His father, in a year or two, in like manner united himself with the same congregation.

From 1806 to 1810 his mind was variously exercised on the subject of preaching the gospel. He laid his case before Mr. Hodge, but was not much encouraged. Mr. Hodge, however, advised him to travel on the circuit a while, with one of the circuit-riders, and make an experiment of his ability to teach. He accordingly spent a month with Rev. David Foster, and also a month with Rev. James Farr on the circuit, but with little satisfaction to himself. His education was indifferent, and his father was poor. He thought that a minister ought to be an educated man. In 1808 or 1809 a good school was opened in an adjoining neighborhood. He determined, notwithstanding his poverty, to avail himself of its advantages, entered, and attended a few days; but his father fell sick, and he was obliged to desist. Upon the recovery of his father, having become discouraged in regard to the matter of education, he resolved to learn the blacksmith's trade, and devote himself to the business for life. He learned the trade in his father's shop, and commenced business, but still felt doubtful whether he ought not to preach.

To add to his embarrassments, on the 24th of September, 1812, he married Miss Caty Foster, Sister of Rev. David Foster. The marriage seemed untimely; still, his wife was a most estimable woman, and throughout life was an earnest helper in every good work. To embarrass himself still farther, in December of the same year he joined the army as a volunteer for twelve months--a strange race for a man to run who was feeling all the while that he ought to preach the gospel. The reader will recollect, however, that Mr. Johnston's entrance into the army was early in the last war of this country with Great Britain, when the pressure of public sentiment upon young men was very powerful. He served six months of his term, and then hired a substitute. In 1813 he bought a little farm, and determined to devote himself to farming and his trade, and to renounce all thoughts of the ministry. His own record is the following:

"I went in debt for my farm, commenced farming, and determined to look no higher than to the position of a private Christian. But this was not to be my lot. Adverse providences met me on every corner. My former impressions returned. I found farming a slow way of making money. I commenced the blacksmith's business again, and promised the Lord that if he would give me the means of putting me out of debt, I would try to do what I believed to be his will. I labored hard, made money, and paid my debts; but still there were many difficulties in my way. My wife was weakly, and a family of children was growing up around me, to be raised and educated. We were poor. I was ignorant, and opposed by friends and neighbors. This was hard to bear. I had one friend, however, who never forsook me: that friend was my wife. Though she sometimes felt that her lot was hard--and so it was--yet she murmured not, but bore all patiently."

After all these difficulties and struggles, in 1818 Mr. Johnston attended a meeting of the Nashville Presbytery, and disclosed his feelings on the subject of preaching. The Presbytery did not receive him as a candidate for the ministry at that time, but advised him to exhort in prayer-meetings, and from some text of Scripture of his own selection to write a sermon for a subsequent meeting of the Presbytery, as a specimen of his ability to sermonize. He went home discouraged, of course. The next Presbytery he did not attend; but in the fall of 1819 he presented himself again before the Presbytery. He also brought his written discourse, and was received as a candidate on the 14th day of October. The session of the Presbytery was held at Big Spring Meeting-house.

On the 5th day of April, 1821, he was licensed to preach the gospel at Moriah Meeting-house, in Wilson county, Tennessee. The following summer he spent on the Overton Circuit. In the fall minutes of the Nashville Presbytery for 1821 I also find the following order: "That Francis Johnston and Robert Tate spend each half of his time on the Overton Circuit." The Overton Circuit was about four weeks in length, and lay from fifty to a hundred and fifty miles from Mr. Johnston's home. He left behind him, when from home, a weakly wife and several little children to be cared for.

In 1823 the subject of his ordination was agitated, but he begged longer time, from a consciousness that he could not fulfill the requirements of the discipline. In the spring of 1825 the subject was brought up again, and he was ordered to prepare for ordination at the fall meeting. In order to enable him to make preparation, a wealthy member of the Church, in whose neighborhood there was a good school, offered him gratuitous boarding. The school was twenty or twenty-five miles from his home. He, however, accepted the offer, and spent the summer in study. He saw his family but three times from the first of May to the first of October. On the 10th of October of that year, 1825, he was set apart to the whole work of the ministry, at the Beech Meeting-house.

From 1825 to 1837 he was the stated supply of Dry Fork and Mount Moriah congregations. He performed all the labors of a pastor in these congregations, in the meantime traveling annually, according to his own record, from three to four months, attending camp-meetings and protracted meetings.

In November of 1839 Mr. Johnston moved from Dry Fork, the neighborhood in which he had been raised and had hitherto lived, to Simpson county, Kentucky. From that time he became a member of the Logan Presbytery. His labors were still abundant, various, and useful. He had temporary connection with several congregations, the nature and length of which are, however, unknown to the writer. On the 16th of December, 1856, after a painful illness of two weeks, he died at the house of his son-in-law, Thomas Dickson Beard, in the sixty-seventh year of his age. His death was what might have been expected from the fidelity and devotion of his life--calm, quiet, and peaceful.

Mr. Johnston was not a great preacher--he made no such pretensions; but he was what was far better--a spiritual and useful preacher. His forte was in exhortation, and in the application of his sermons. In these he sometimes wholly surpassed himself. He had an iron-like bodily frame, and a voice like a trumpet, and when properly aroused, he was powerful. Sinners whom stronger men, intellectually, could not reach, often trembled beneath his terrible appeals. At a camp-meeting, among mourners, when the interest was beginning to flag, he excelled in arousing his fellow-Christians and mourners themselves to additional efforts. Often, in his earlier years, at least, he would thus labor through a whole night, and sometimes nights in succession, stirring up and kindling afresh the embers which were likely to die out.

I have spoken of what we called his exhortations at the close of his sermons. I recollect particularly one instance. In 1822 Rev. James S. Guthrie and myself, assisted by Brother Johnston, held the first sacramental-meeting that ever was held by Cumberland Presbyterians in what is now Western Tennessee. The meetings was held on Forked Deer, in a bottom near Adley Alexander's. We had no camps, no shelter; a few logs, however, for seats, and a coarsely constructed pulpit. The meeting was held about two months after the ordination of myself and Guthrie. Mr. Johnston was still a licentiate. We were all young men. The meeting was interesting from the beginning. When Monday came around, a brother of another denomination called in and preached. But little impression, however, seemed to be made. Mr. Johnston followed. He appeared to be, as we familiarly said in those days, in the brush for a while, but in the closing up of his sermon he became exceedingly aroused, the fetters fell off, and his appeals were stirring and effective in a very high degree. At the close, a few young persons of precious memory assembled around the pulpit as mourners. The most of them professed religion that day. It may be remarked, too, by the way, that these were the first professions ever made under Cumberland Presbyterian ministrations in a section of the country where the membership is, I believe, now numbered by thousands. I have witnessed many seasons of religious interest, but recollect few days of my life with greater pleasure than the Monday of that meeting. It was a day to be remembered.

Mr. Johnston is one of the men upon whose early career the writer looks with a tender personal interest. May not such an interest be indulged? He was my senior by a number of years, was the head of a family when I was but a boy; still, we grew up in the same neighborhood, were struggling in our preparations for the ministry about the same time, plowed several years in adjoining fields, often meeting at the partition fence and talking our troubles over; met once a week at prayer-meeting where one or both tried to exhort, suffered the same discouragements--even persecutions--from heartless, unappreciating neighbors and friends; with our own hands assisted in building the first meeting-house which was ever built in the neighborhood in which we lived--a very common log building, which still stands, a venerable landmark of former times. Many things conspire to create such an interest as I have suggested. I mention one more. I have always looked upon Mr. Johnston as a true man. Our habits of mind were very different. After a few years of our early ministry we pursued very different courses; still I think to the last meeting in life--and I recollect that meeting well--he was the same man that he was when we labored in our little prayer-meetings together. With many painful experiences of a different kind, I linger with a hallowed pleasure upon the memory of such a man.

Mr. Johnston had two sons who entered the ministry. Both were promising--the elder unusually so. The other died young. Both, however, preceded him to the grave. His widow survived him several years, shedding around her the sanctifying influence of an old age made honorable by a life of devoted, but unostentatious, piety and consecration to God.

The life of Francis Johnston suggests some practical thoughts which are too important to be overlooked in a work intended for usefulness.

We learn from his case, as well as from many others, something of the difficulty of our older men in reaching the ministry. Mr. Johnston thought an education important as a preparation for this work, but we had no colleges, no academies, or high-schools. The means of an education were not within his reach. I know what his sentiments were, however, for I have heard him express them a score of times. He thought preachers, if possible, ought to be educated men.

When the subject of ordination was pressed upon him, it was a matter of conscience with him to be as well prepared for it as possible. Instead of quarreling with the Book of Discipline and his Presbytery for requiring too much, he applied himself in such a way as few men would have done in order to meet these requisitions. At thirty-five years of age he left his family for five months, seeing them but three times in the course of those months, and went to school, for the purpose of enabling himself, as far as possible, to come up to the standard of order prescribed by the Church which he honored and loved. This seemed to indicate the spirit of an earnest man.

He commenced the ministry poor and encumbered with a family. He labored upon his farm; he labored in his shop--its traces still remain--but still he labored for God and the Church, spending, for years in succession, annually three or four months outside of his more immediate ministerial charge. He was a hard-working man everywhere. Many will rise up in heaven and call him blessed. It may be observed, too, that for his ministerial labors there was hardly a show of compensation. There is scarcely a probability that for thirty-five years' service he received as many hundred dollars.

He made no great pretensions to ability. His endowments were moderate; he was not ambitious; he never aspired to leadership in the Church--not even in his own Presbytery--but he was useful. I know of no one occupying a similar position in the Church who has been more so.

[Beard, Richard. Brief Biographical Sketches of Some of the Early Ministers of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Nashville, Tenn.: published for the author by Southern Methodist Publishing House, 1867, pages 263-272.]

Francis Johnson
Franklin, Kentucky
Logan Presbytery

[Source: Ministerial Directory, General Assembly Minutes of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, 1856, page 60]

The following are some of the Ministers who have died within the year past:

Rev. John M. Berry and Rev. S. M. Aston, of Illinois; Rev. Francis Johnson, of Kentucky; Rev. Jacob Lindley, of
Pennsylvania; Prof. Jno. G. Biddle, Rev. William Henry, and Rev. N. Lyon, of Tennessee; Rev. A. Buchanan, of
Arkansas; and Rev. E. W. Hall, of Indiana.

[Source: General Assembly Minutes of the Cumberland Presbyterian Church, 1857, page 77]

Johnston Family Information

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Updated March 5, 2009