About Johnson University

History of Johnson University, 1893-2018

Open day and night to the poor young man who desires
above every other desire to preach the Gospel of Christ.
- Ashley S. Johnson

Johnson University was founded as the School of the Evangelists on May 12, 1893, by Ashley and Emma Johnson. Ashley Johnson was a native of East Tennessee and had built a successful career as an evangelist, teacher, and author. He met and married Emma Elizabeth Strawn in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada in 1884 and the couple returned to the Knoxville area the following year. Based on his experience as state evangelist for the South Carolina chapter of the American Christian Missionary Society, he established the Correspondence Bible College (“a course of study by mail”) in 1886 to satisfy what he considered the one great need of the cause of Christ—more laborers for the field. The CBC enrolled more than 3,000 students from 1884-1912. 

Built on the encouragement of their students for “a more permanent school,” the Johnsons purchased the Jacob Kimberlin farm (Ashley’s great-grandfather) on “The Heights” overlooking the French Broad River in south Knox County, built “a fine southern home”—the White House—and began to take in students. The cornerstone of the first Main Building was laid in May 1893 with approximately 40 students enrolled in the first academic year. In response to several years of growth in enrollment and continuous improvement in the academic program, the name of the institution was changed to Johnson Bible College in 1909 to honor the founders. Even in the face of extreme adversity (the Main Building was destroyed by fire in 1904), the Johnsons laid the foundation for the success of the school. Ashley S. Johnson served as president from 1893-1925, succeeded by Emma E. Johnson who served for two years. Emma had been a full partner in the work from its inception and became the first female president of a primary male or co-educational college in the history of the United States.

The college was led through the Depression years by President Alva Ross Brown, a “Renaissance man” who significantly improved the academic program and physical facilities in spite of severe financial difficulties. Upon his death in 1941, he was succeeded by Dr. Robert M. Bell, a trustee and former economics professor at the University of Tennessee. Dr. Bell restored the financial stability of the college and led the school through a period of steady growth. Under his leadership, Johnson became co-educational with the official admittance of female students (there had been a small number of female students from the inception of the college, mostly professors’ family members, wives of male students, or students from the community). 

Upon the death of President Bell in February 1968, Dr. David L. Eubanks became the fifth president. He would serve for 38 years with remarkable success in the growth of facilities, academic programs, financial stability and growth, and alumni support. He led the successful efforts that resulted in accreditation by the Accrediting Association of Bible Colleges (now called the Association for Biblical Higher Education) in 1970 and regional accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) in 1979. Numerous major building projects were completed under Dr. Eubanks’ leadership.

Dr. Eubanks retired in 2007 and was succeeded by Dr. Gary E. Weedman, who served for 11 years and led Johnson through another season of expansion. Reflecting a re-articulation of the mission statement and a reaffirmation of the historic commitment to education grounded in both biblical studies and the humanities, the college was reorganized into a university structure with eight schools and renamed Johnson University in 2011. In July 2013, Johnson University acquired the campus of Florida Christian College in Kissimmee, Florida and merged its resources within the Johnson University system, which now includes the Tennessee and Florida campuses, fully online programs, and ExtendEd sites in Phoenix, Indianapolis, Orlando, and downtown Knoxville. Dr. L. Thomas Smith Jr. was appointed president-elect in June 2017 and succeeded the retiring President Weedman on July 1, 2018.