CHAPTER 11. THE PROPHET VERNON JOHNS

The Evolution Controversy

In July 1925 the world focused its attention on the so-called monkey trial in Dayton, Tennessee. The excitement centered on the confrontation of William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow at the trial of John Scopes, who volunteered to be indicted for teaching evolution contrary to the laws of the state. In an age of ballyhoo, it became something of a national joke.

The tenor of the Norfolk Journal and Guide was very critical of the concept of evolution. In fact, they gave Dr. Charles S. Morris a column on the editorial page and he wrote eleven installments denouncing the concept. The paper (J&G June 20, 1925:1) said that the preacher in the Norfolk City Armory "unloosed a verbal barrage against evolution and its exponents" in his talk entitled "Up From Monkey: Or Down From God."

The paper did allow a more modernist view to be published. This one was from Dr. W. H. Moses, campaign director of the National Baptist Convention and a nationally known divine. Dr. Moses, in company with a group of colored preachers, teachers, students, professors and doctors from Chattanooga, Tennessee, attended the trial. His views concerning the questions at issue were published in last week's issue of the Pittsburgh Courier. The Reverend said that the Scopes trial had actually served to aid religion among blacks (J&G August 1, 1925:12).

The Fundamentalist controversy was also fought between conservative and liberal forces within the churches. The chief provocation to renewed conflict was provided, oddly enough, by a Baptist, Harry Emerson Fosdick, who had come to Union Seminary in New York first as a student. From 1919 to 1925 he was the minister of the First Presbyterian Church of New York. In 1922 he became a spokesmen for the liberals when he asked in a widely read article in the Christian Century "Shall the Fundamentalists Win?" A furor broke out among the Presbyterians over the Auburn Affirmation of 1924, a statement signed by over twelve hundred people, which condemned the denomination's official biblical literalism . The conservatives managed to oust Fosdick from his pulpit, but in 1925 he went to the Park Avenue Baptist Church and that led directly to John D. Rockefeller's offer to build an interdenominational church on Morningside Heights that became known as the now famous Riverside Church. In 1931 Fosdick was installed in that great architectural and institutional eminence (Ahlstrom 1972:910-911).

During the next fifteen years Fosdick was the nation's most influential Protestant preacher. For countless tourists the chance to hear Fosdick in Riverside Church fulfilled a life's ambition. According to Chauncey Spencer, Johns knew Fosdick and even preached in his church.

The Prophet Johns

Branch (1988:9-10) says that the evolution controversy thrust Johns into prominence because of a sermon that Johns published. This is somewhat of an overstatement for he may have been prominent in the black community, but certainly not in the white.

In the battle over the Scopes trial, each side had its pamphlets, journals, conventions, and rooting sections. Johns was irritated that the liberals failed to include any works by blacks in their annual book of best sermons. He sent the theologians in charge of the book several sermons by Mordecai Johnson (president of Howard University) and Howard Thurman (an internationally known mystic theologian). These were rejected. Johns sat down and wrote out his own sermon, "Transfigured Moments."

The publication of the article came about this way (Powell 1995:13). "I wrote to the publishers of the collection telling them that since catholicity was their aim, they might consider including sermons from some black theologians. Negroes had developed their own concepts of theology and religion which in many ways differed from those of white theologians." Johns contacted three of the black theologians and told them to submit. They did but all three were rejected." I received another communication from the publishers asking me to submit others, but there was a deadline to meet which allowed little time to go through the process again. I was on a train when I read this latest communication and realizing how little time I had, I wrote my sermon on the back of the publisher's letter and submitted that."

Powell's version of the story is borne out by letters between Johns and Mordecai Johnson and Johns and Joseph Fort Newton. Vernon Johns on March 8, 1926 wrote to Dr. Mordecai W. Johnson in Charleston, West Virginia:

"My dear Bro. Johnson: I have been asked by Dr. Joseph Fort Newton, editor of the annual volume of Best Sermons, to collect a score of sermon manuscripts from the ablest colored preachers. From this collection, Dr. Newton will select one or two sermons for the 1926 Anthology. I am sure you feel the importance of having the Negro Pulpit reflected in a volume which is widely read by leaders of religious thought. Will you kindly mail me two manuscripts to go into this collection? Hoping for an early and favorable reply, I remain, yours very cordially, Vernon Johns."

Mordecai Johnson (Howard University archives) wrote Johns a letter, April 1, 1926: "I thank you heartily for your recent letter requesting that I mail you two manuscripts as possible materials for Doctor Joseph Forte Newton's Best Sermon for 1926. If it is possible for me to submit the manuscripts after June the first, I shall be glad. I should like to do a good piece of work, if possible. With cordial regards, I am sincerely yours, MWJ/MP."

On April 5, 1926, Dr. Joseph Fort Newton wrote Vernon Johns a letter saying that "It will be a little difficult to hold the book of ‘Best Sermons' open until June 1st, but I shall try to do so, awaiting the sermon by Rev. Johnson. The tables of contents is usually announced early in May, as the publishers wish to have it ready by the time their salesmen go out to the great book conferences which are held early in the summer. Please ask Mr. Johnson to do his best to get the manuscript to me a little earlier, if possible. Thanking you for your co-operation, I am, yours fraternally, Joseph Fort Newton."

In 1926 Johns's sermon became the first work by a black published in Best Sermons. This essay came to be studied by black theology students for the next generation. In his introduction to the essay, the editor Butler wrote that "Mr. Johns is the first colored preacher to appear in Best Sermons, and it is both an honor and a joy to bid him welcome, alike for his race and his genius." Butler also mentioned John's plans for a forthcoming book Human Possibilities (which he never completed). On May 21, 1926 Johns filled out a form for Oberlin's alumni files. His home address was 61 Monroe Street, Lynchburg, Virginia. He reported that he was still pastor of Court Street Baptist Church, Lynchburg. He said he was working on a manuscript for a book entitled Human Possibilities. He says it was yet to be published, but it had an introduction written by Dr. E. W. Lyman.

Taylor Branch (1988:9-10) misses the point of the essay. Branch says that the essay analyzed the symbolism of mountains in the lives of Moses, Elijah, and Jesus. "The luminaries of humanity were familiar with elevated ground. Moses, Elijah, Mohammed and Jesus all had mountain traditions." Johns is actually talking about the role of the prophet, although he chooses to use other words such as genius or talented person. The essay discusses the respective roles of prophet, philistine and those wishing to be more spiritual.

In the Biblical lands of the Mideast, the rift valley contains three lakes joined together by one of the most celebrated rivers in the world -- the Jordan (Frank 1975:25). The river rises from various springs in the general region of snowcapped Mount Hermon (9,232 feet), a mountain northeast of Dan and southwest of Damascus. Among these springs, Dan and Paneas were particularly famous in Biblical times. Paneas is the Caesarea Philippi of the New Testament, the city near which Jesus withdrew with his disciples. "It is no wonder Jesus chose this place as a retreat for rest and reflection and for private instruction to his intimate circle of followers for the abundant woods around Dan and Paneas are laced by numerous sparkling streams whose cold waters leap over rocks and occasional waterfalls until they come together to form the shallow, swift flowing Jordan."

Vernon Johns wrote of Peter, James and John with Jesus somewhere on the slopes of Mount Hermon. "There in their presence he was transfigured: his face shone like the sun and his clothes became as dazzling as light. And suddenly Moses and Elijah appeared to them; they were talking with him. Then Peter spoke to Jesus. 'Lord,' he said, 'it is wonderful for us to be here . . . " (Matthew 17:2-3)

Johns was really speaking of himself when he analyzed the outspoken speech of the disciple Simon Peter. Johns notes that many writers on Jesus were critical of Peter's speech and felt it necessary to apologize for him, but Johns defends the controversial genius. He does this by analyzing the outspoken words of Peter. "When Peter has a weighty idea or a generous impulse, it is likely to get expression. No matter what celebrities are present, no matter how delicate the situation, no matter if he breaks down short of the goal which he sets for himself: at least his Master may count on him to give honest expression to the best that he knows and feels. This is the man whom Jesus commissions to feed his sheep and lambs. This is the foundation man, on whose God-inspired utterance the Kingdom will be built against which the gates of hell shall not prevail."

Johns was known as a genius of the pulpit. And, as a genius, he must at times have felt as if he was Peter on the mountain top, experiencing the "transfigured moment." "Who can doubt that it was good to be there, high upon Hermon, in those Transfigured Moments!"

By defending Peter, Johns is defending himself. Johns knew he was an outspoken trouble-maker. At a sermon at Colgate Rochester Divinity School entitled "Tumultuous Preachers" he took as his starting point "These that have turned the world upside down are come hither also" (Acts 17:6b) (Boddie 1972:65). "Any one acquainted with Simon Peter will not be surprised if he speaks now. He is the type of man who can be depended on to say what others must need think and feel, but dare not utter. He was a valuable man to Jesus: a Rock Foundation Man, for this very reason that he revealed his thoughts and made it possible for Jesus to give them direction" (Johns 1926:336).

Johns mentions that the outspoken person receives much criticism for speaking out, but defends the controversial person. "Bishop McConnell says Peter asked many foolish questions, but those questions brought from Jesus very wise answers."

Johns praises controversial persons by maintaining that they bring out grave questions others are afraid to ask, but should ask. "It would be difficult for us to sojourn with Simon and dodge sensitive questions: covering up grave issues that so nearly concern us, and trying to hide them from ourselves as though they did not exist. The blundering genius for expression, which was the virtue of Simon Peter, would save us from the folly of applying ostrich wisdom to vital problems. If we had the courage to talk frankly concerning our problems, there would be less occasion to fight about them. In grave moral and social situations where the spokesmen of Jesus, so called, keep dependably mute, Simon Peter would certainly have something to say or at least ask some embarrassing questions."

Also in the above quote one can see the hostility of Johns to those who did not speak out. He often used the phrase "so-called" when describing his fellow clergy, because he felt that they went along with social evils. Therefore, he did not feel they were in the tradition of Jesus Christ.

Johns also discusses the role of genius in a democratic society. He is supposed to be humble and yet as Johns says it is as if he cannot contain the visions he sees that lie far beyond the average person. Johns must have heard many criticisms that he thought he was superior to others. He defends himself: "It is good to be the possessor of some mountain-top experience. Not to know life on the heights, is to suffer an impoverishing incompleteness. To be sure, there is better opportunity for practical pursuits in the valley regions, and life is easier and safer there: but views are possible from the mountain top which are not to be had in the vale." Johns speaks of his joy at being on the mountain top. "Up there we can read history with our eyes instead of our prejudices" and "on the mountain top, perspective is possible. Yes, "It is good for us to be here."

Johns had to phrase his sermons in more general terms so that at times it sounds like self-improvement literature. But beneath the surface is that greater meaning, particularly addressed to himself. "But woe to the world when there are no visitors on the heights!"

He speaks of how genius is often found in humble places. And he uses Jesus to make the point. "Who of all the contemporaries of Jesus, busy in market place, fields and thoroughfares, dreamed that the next great strides of history would take their direction from the visions of one who was praying in the midst of three unheralded fishermen, far above sea level and the level of life!" Who would have thought that a genius would be born to a poor farm family in Prince Edward County, Virginia?

But while he embraces the role of the genius, Johns writes that the genius has an obligation to speak to the common person. The ordinary person benefits from the genius by partaking of that transfigured moment of the more gifted or more fortunate person. By accepting and living by the transfigured message, the ordinary tasks of life can feel that much more important, because one feels one is a part of that message. "The lowly ones of earth need to experience this transformation" and "Those who think themselves the favored ones of earth need a transforming vision of life among the lowly."

Johns also speaks of how difficult it is to be a prophet. He speaks of the "weaklings" (the philistines) who criticize the gifted person who tries to live out their commitment to their gift. "We need power for renunciation. In the service of social progress, justice and brotherhood there are views and possessions of which one must have power to let go. Nothing short of Power will work the transformation. But we are apt to hang on to our self-love, our vantage points, our place with the strong, our purpose of self-advancement. And we get no strength for the demands laid on us from the weaklings on our level."

An addition to Johns' famous article was written February 17, 1940 (West Virginia Digest:4). He writes that "You can judge the caliber of a mind by the weight and bent of its questions. The very stupid raise few questions. They do not press for answers to any weighty question raised. For them, ‘whatever is, is right.'"

He adds: "The most eventful hour in the history of the human race was the day that someone invented the question mark. . . . Until then, practically everybody was a ‘yes man'."

Johns shows his contempt for what passed for truth among the intellectuals. He wrote of man's early history and how the cave man with the biggest club wield the upper hand. But the biggest cave man not only laid down the law, but also the truth! He here alludes to the fact that what passes for intellectual accomplishment is largely the rationalizations of a brutish system.

But then comes along a little guy like Vernon Johns who challenges the "law" and the "truth" of Charlie Big Brute: "Then one glorious day when Mr. Charlie Big Brute was laying down the law and the ‘truth' and the little brutes crouched around, hats in paws, braying their sycophant approval; Old Charlie observed one little fellow with posture erect, hat on and a quizzical look. Mr. Charlie Big Brute was simply furious. With blood-shot eyes, distended nostrils and veins swollen like whip cords, he fastened his gaze upon the rebel in the ranks and laying down the law again, he shouted, ‘Do you hear?' ‘Hear!' ‘Hear!' screeched the groveling apes. ‘And you, little upstart?' lumbered Big Charlie . . . Answered the little rebel, disdainfully: ‘I hear! So what?' With the first impulse in the direction of magnanimity which a brute ever felt, a face-saving impulse in this case, Old Charlie went on in a tone approaching mildness : ‘I said such and such is what we will and ought to do.' And the little rebel, God bless him, snickered, ‘Oh, yeah!'"

"The thing happened that day which has always happened, whenever brute force was defied by the weak and defenseless. The rebel paid for his daring all that the brute could exact. But the price was cheap for what it purchased! For out of the spirit of fearless inquiry and honest protest the stature of man arises on the ruins of his former brutishness."

"The instruments of the brutish man are falsehood and terrorism. If we are ever to have a decent world these must be met and opposed by honest inquiry and courageous defiance."

 

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