Clergyman, educator. The son of Joseph Johnson and Mary Bullein, William Bullein Johnson was born on Johns Island on June 13, 1782. Johnson received little formal education, but studied law until his life was changed due to a conversion experience at a religious revival in Beaufort in 1804. Brown University later conferred an honorary master of arts degree on Johnson in 1814. In 1803 Johnson married Henrietta Hornby and the couple had eight children who lived to maturity.
The Baptist church in Beaufort licensed Johnson to preach in January of 1805, and the next year he was called to become pastor of the Eutaw Baptist Church. In 1809 Johnson moved to Columbia and was instrumental in founding the town’s First Baptist Church, dedicating the church building in 1811. From 1811 until 1815 he served as pastor of the First Baptist Church in Savannah, Georgia. In 1814 Johnson served as a member of the constitutional committee of the Triennial Convention, the first nationwide organization among Baptists, held in Philadelphia to coordinate mission activities. In 1821 Johnson helped to found the South Carolina Baptist Convention. He wrote a strongly argued address to the denomination and traveled widely speaking in support of the new state organization. He served as the state convention’s vice-president from 1821 to 1825 and as president from 1825 to 1852.
In 1822 Johnson became principal of the Greenville Female Academy, holding that position until 1830. While in Greenville, Johnson helped to found the First Baptist Church and served as the congregation’s first pastor. In 1830 Johnson was appointed pastor of the Edgefield Baptist Church. He held that position (except for the year 1845) until 1852 and also served as principal of the Edgefield Female Academy. Along with his support of female education, Johnson also used his influence in favor of a better educated Baptist clergy. He raised money for the support of Furman Academy and Theological Institute (now Furman University). Johnson Female Seminary (later Johnson Female University), founded in 1848 in Anderson, was named in his honor.
Johnson served as president of the national Triennial Convention from 1841 to 1844, using his office to foster cooperation between the northern and southern constituencies. Eventually he came to see sectional differences, mainly regarding the morality of slavery, as irreconcilable.
When the sectional split in the Baptist denomination came in 1845, Johnson immediately began work on the constitutional committee for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) and served as the new organization’s first president from 1845 to 1851. The long-term success of the SBC can be attributed in part to Johnson’s adaptation of the organizational plan developed for the South Carolina Baptist Convention. It was a centralized organization, which, unlike the Triennial Convention’s “society plan,” allowed the SBC to control all benevolent enterprises through elected boards. Johnson described the plan as a “judicious concentration,” which still honored the autonomy of the individual church and the Baptist “aversion for all things but the Bible.”
After struggling with poor health for many years, Johnson died in Greenville on October 2, 1862. He was buried in the churchyard of First Baptist Church in Anderson.
Clayton, J. Glenwood. “William Bullein Johnson and the Formation of the Southern Baptist Convention.” Viewpoints: Georgia Baptist History 15 (1996): 21–27.
Johnson, William Bullein. The Gospel Developed through the Government and Order of the Churches of Jesus Christ. Richmond, Va.: H. K. Ellyson, 1846.
Legendre, Raymond John. “William Bullein Johnson: Pastor, Educator, and Missions Promoter.” Ph.D. diss., New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, 1995.
Woodson, Hortense. Giant in the Land: A Biography of William Bullein Johnson. Nashville.: Broadman, 1950.