|Right Rev. John Johns, D.D., LL.D.|
|Bishop of Virginia|
|Successor||Francis McNeece Whittle|
by James Kemp
by William Meade, Levi Silliman Ives, Alexander Viets Griswold
New Castle, Delaware
|Died||4 April 1876 (aged 79)
|Previous post||Assistant Bishop of Virginia (1842–1862)|
Early life and education
Born into a prominent political family in New Castle, Delaware in 1796, John Johns was the son of Chief Justice Kensey Johns, and grandson of Governor Nicholas Van Dyke of Delaware. However, he was raised at the family's estate in Maryland.
In 1815, Johns graduated from Princeton College in New Jersey and from Princeton Theological Seminary in 1819. He was ordained to the deaconate in the Episcopal Church in 1819 in Philadelphia. At the age of 23, Deacon John Johns began his ministry and service in the church in Maryland. In 1820, Bishop Kemp ordained Johns to the Priesthood, and and he served at All Saints Church in Frederick, Maryland. Johns, at the age of 32, narrowly lost the election to succeed Bishop Kemp, who died unexpectedly young, as Bishop of Maryland by three votes.
Consecration and Ministry under Bishop Meade
In 1842, John Johns was consecrated bishop and named Assistant Bishop of Virginia by its newly elected Bishop, William Meade, who had requested an assistant to avoid the long interregnums after the deaths of his two prececessors, as well as handle episcopal duties in the vast diocese (which then included the entire state). Rt.Rev. Johns thus became the first bishop consecrated in the Commonwealth of Virginia. His consecrators included Bishops Alexander Viets Griswold (V Presiding Bishop as well as bishop of the Eastern Diocese), William Meade (third bishop of Virginia), and Levi Ives (second bishop of North Carolina).
Like Bishop Meade, John Johns famously rode "circuit" throughout his diocese of nearly 70,000 square miles (180,000 km2). Their efforts led to revitalization of the formerly established church in the Commonwealth, which had for several years previously failed to send even a delegate to the Episcopal Church's General Conventions. For example, Cameron Parish had split off Shelbourne Parish (St. James Church, Leesburg, Virginia) around the time of the American Revolutionary War, and in 1840 split off Meade Parish in Upperville, Virginia, leading Bishop Johns to consecrate Emmanuel Church on July 21, 1842, and the new church managed to reutilize some bricks and other elements from the ruins of Old Lower Southwark Church in Surry County (Lawne's Creek Parish) and Newport Parish Church in Isle of Wight County. In 1850, the area around Aldie continued to grow, so a new parish was attached to Meade in 1850, which split off into Emmanuel Episcopal Church, Middleburg, Virginia (Johns Parish) in 1852. In 1853, Bishop Johns confirmed Robert E. Lee in the Episcopal Church.
Presidency at the College of William and Mary
From 1849 until 1854, in addition to his episcopal duties, Johns served as the fifteenth president of the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Virginia. In 1849, the finances of the college had been improved somewhat, but remained in a state of upheaval over national and college politics. “[A]fter the death of President Dew (1846), the College experienced such a terrible conflict caused by a student delivering . . . a challenge to a duel over a row growing out of some bitterness over a faculty election, that at first the student was dismissed, and then, the whole faculty was ‘fired’ and 'the students left because there were no classes.'" For almost a year and a half prior to Bishop Johns' selection, the college had been closed with the exception of one professor giving instructing students at his home.
According to Bishop Meade, the college in 1845 "by arrangement with the Episcopal Church of Virginia, . . . secured the services of Bishop Johns of Virginia. During the five years of his continuance. . . he so diligently and wisely conducted the management of the College as to produce a regular increase of the number of students until they had nearly reached the maximum of former years, established a better discipline than perhaps ever before had prevailed." During this time, Johns refused all remuneration for his collegiate position.
Bishop of Virginia
Shortly before the American Civil War, 1861–1865, Bishop Meade announced his retirement and in 1862, a diocesan convention formally elected Rt.Rev. Johns as Virginia's fourth bishop. The diocese then included the entire (seceded) state, although proposals to split off portions had been made for during the previous two decades, and ultimately led to creation of the dioceses of West Virginia (1877), Southern Virginia (1892), and Southwestern Virginia (1919).
After Virginia seceded, Bishop Johns became active in the Episcopal Church in the Confederate States of America. He participated in the only consecration by bishops in that church, of Richard Hooker Wilmer to the Diocese of Alabama, held on March 6, 1862 in Richmond. The Confederate Bishops' first pastoral letter declared that slaves were a sacred trust."  Bishop Johns spent many long weeks riding through the battlefields and visiting the soldiers in camp—-baptizing, confirming, and preaching. At the age of 70, Bishop Johns rode like a raider—with the great personal risk of his life—to reach the battlefields’ wounded and dying. Bishop Johns regularly preached at Libby Prison during the War . . . "with special reference to those inmates who had been commended to [his] attention by their friends in the North." Historians speculate as to whether or not Bishop Johns baptized and confirmed Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
By 1866, Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria was left "wasted and impoverished by war". All the funds of the seminary in Virginia bank stocks were completely destroyed in the war. After the war, Bishop Johns became president and also professor of pastoral theology at the Seminary and with some funds bequeathed by his cousin, he began rebuilding the seminary.
Bishop Johns was twice named the “savior” of the church in Virginia. According to The Rev. Dr. G. MacLaren Brydon, D.D., Historiographer of the Diocese of Virginia, writing in 1957 said that Bishop Johns "was enabled upon two different occasions to save the Episcopal Church and the Diocese of Virginia from great calamity." First, he brought the diocese of war-wrecked Virginia “back into the fellowship of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States,” and second, "was in the years 1873-75 at the time when the . . . radical element [formed] a Reformed Episcopal Church, [B]ecause of his influence the majority of the clergy and people would go with him . . . . John Johns stood firm as a rock . . . [and in Virginia] the movement stopped right there. . . [T]he stand taken by Bishop Johns had saved the Church."
Death and Legacy
After serving as a bishop for 34 years, Bishop Johns died in 1876. He was recorded as having whispered as his dying words, "guide me—wash me—clothe me—help me under the shadow of Thy wings." Bishop Johns was interred on the newly established cemetery of the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria.
Johns Memorial Episcopal Church, located in Farmville, Virginia and now in the Diocese of Southern Virginia, stands today as a living memorial to pioneering work of Bishop John Johns. Furthermore, as mentioned earlier, Johns Parish in Middleburg is named after this bishop His ancestral home, Sudley, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.
- Don W. Massey, The Episcopal Churches of the Diocese of Virginia (Diocese Church Histories Publishers, Keswick, VA, 1989) p. 122
- Don W. Massey, The Episcopal Churches of the Diocese of Virginia (Diocese Church Histories Publishers, Keswick, VA, 1989) at p. XI
- David L. Holmes, A Brief History of the Episcopal Church (Valley Forge, PA, Trinity Press International, 1993), p. 82
Wood, John Sumner; The Virginia Bishop: A Yankee Hero of the Confederacy (Richmond, Virginia, Garrett & Massie, Inc., 1961)
- College of William and Mary
- Episcopal Diocese of Virginia
- Johns Memorial Episcopal Church
- Rev John Johns at Find A Grave
|Episcopal Church (USA) titles|
|Bishop of Virginia
Francis McNeece Whittle