Claiming Our Inheritance

You’ve heard the stories of an unsuspecting person or family inheriting a fortune from an unknown relative or eccentric distant aunt. Real estate billionaire Leona Helmsley left $12,000,000 to her pet Gary Weedmandog, Trouble. Ms. Helmsley, sometimes called the “Queen of Mean,” ignored a number of family members, though she did include her brother, who was to look after Trouble.

Sometimes these inheritance stories prove to be downright quirky. Charles Vance Millar, a Canadian lawyer and financial investor (and inveterate jokester) provided in his will a joint lifetime tenancy of his Jamaican vacation house to three men who were enemies of one another. He left $700,000 worth of a brewery stock to seven Protestant ministers involved in the Temperance Movement. But his most well-known joke regarding his inheritance was to a woman who would give birth to the most children during the ten years before his death; it was called “the Great Stork Derby.”

One story that particularly caught my eye was a $2.3 million dollar bequest from the estate of Gensio Morlacci, who worked as a janitor at the University of Great Falls in Great Falls, Montana. “He’s an inspiration to us all for the volume of his work and sacrifice,” observed Eugene McAllister, president of the University. Indeed. I have since tried to be especially nice to our house-keeping staff!

From time to time Johnson University has been the beneficiary of estates of persons who have some relationship to the School or who want to support our mission long after their lives on earth. We honor them, currently over 600 in number, by including them in the Johnson Legacy Society. These gifts significantly enhance our ability to make education affordable to students who want to serve the greater good of the Gospel; I thank God for these donors’ dedication to the cause of Christian higher education and their commitment to the preparation of Christian servants who are committed to extending the kingdom of God among all nations. May their tribe increase.

In addition to the benefit of these bequests, I have come to understand another legacy perhaps even more valuable than that of dollars—the example of previous leaders of the School. Each of the previous epochs of the University’s history left a unique legacy that has become a part of our inheritance of Johnson University today. The president, administration, faculty, and staff during each of those periods faced unique challenges, which, when addressed, added another important layer to that legacy.


The year of the School’s founding, 1893, was a year of contrasts. On the positive side, the Great Northern Railroad was completed connecting the west and east coasts, making communication easier and facilitating economic growth along its path. Henry Ford developed the first gasoline engine. The World’s Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago’s World Fair, opened, celebrating the 400th anniversary of Columbus’ “discovery” of America. The Fair drew 26 million visitors to see the 46 national pavilions and other attractions. The first college basketball game was played between Geneva College (a Christian institution) and New Brighton YMCA; Geneva won 3-0.

Yet, many of these positive developments had little perceivable effect on the countryside around Knoxville. Although the Civil War had ended 28 years before, the bitter divisions between many anti-secessionists and pro-Confederacy residents helped maintain the poverty conditions of many. Perhaps the most daunting challenge of the period was the “Panic of 1893,” the worst economic depression in United States history. Over 600 banks closed, 15,000 businesses failed, unemployment rose to double-digits, and soup kitchens were common sights. Farm prices plummeted, followed by a march of farm workers on Washington. President Grover Cleveland borrowed $65 million from banker J.P. Morgan “to support the gold standard.” The country had never experienced such disruption and uncertainty. Sound familiar? The Depression became the occasion for the transformation away from a mostly agricultural to an industrial economy.


Seen against this background, Ashley Johnson’s resolve in 1893 to start a residential college without strong financial backing becomes all the more dramatic. After establishing a “Correspondence Bible College,” he became convinced that many people in the region were not prepared to do independent study. He settled on his maternal family’s dairy farm seven miles south of Knoxville as a site for a residential school. No more than a handful of persons provided any kind of encouragement for the project. In fact, most friends and acquaintances tried to discourage him from starting such a college. But his controlling vision, a place where “the poor young man” desiring to preach the Gospel could receive preparation for that task, prevailed. Willing to risk his reputation and his financial resources, he followed this vision with hard work, fervent prayer, and a faith that God would honor his promises.

Serious obstacles threatened to impede Johnson’s vision. The greatest of those was the fire of 1904 that destroyed the main building on campus, a catastrophe that he feared might permanently close the School. Another was a debilitating illness that took him away from campus to Chicago and to Baltimore seeking medical attention. But his laser-like focus on mission could not be deterred.


He demonstrated what Jim Collins calls “the hedgehog concept.” Unlike the fox, who can do many things, the hedgehog does only one thing well. Johnson followed two of Collins’ principles of successful organization: find out (1) what you are deeply passionate about, and (2) what you can be the best at in the world. He created a college with a strong liberal arts education and with a Bible core for poor young men committed to ministry and willing to work; it was the best, even unique, of its kind. His strong legacy was a determined purpose that drove him through discouragement, physical disability, and circumstantial adversity, standing at times alone with that vision. Furthermore, he demonstrated a unique entrepreneurial spirit. He soon found he had a penchant for writing books and journal articles that people wanted to buy. He wrote 17 books and started several magazines, producing revenue that helped greatly in financially underwriting the needs of the College


Emma Johnson became president upon the death of her husband in January 1925. This event proved unusual for two reasons. First, she was a Canadian by birth and a woman of elegant bearing working in Appalachia, a region generally suspicious of outsiders and even more so of any one thought to “put on airs.” Second, the dramatic assumption of the leadership of the College by a woman in 1925 can hardly be overstated. She was not the first woman college president in the United States; that distinction falls to Frances Willard, who became president of Evanston College for Ladies in Illinois. But if not the first, she was surely among the first to become president of a predominantly male college. Even today when a college appoints a woman president, she makes news. I became president of Johnson on July 1, 2007, the same date as Drew Gilpin Faust was inaugurated as the first woman president of Harvard University. It took Johnson only 32 years to have a woman president; Harvard took 371 years! To see Emma Johnson’s role as a college president in context, remember that women did not even have the right to vote in the U.S. until the passage of the 19th Amendment to the constitution five years earlier in 1920.

Though initially skeptical about the founding of the residential school, Emma had worked alongside of her husband during his presidency and earlier with the Correspondence Bible College. In fact, Ashley had been ill much of the last 10 years of his 32-year presidency, and Emma assumed many of the presidential responsibilities during that period. By the time she officially became president, she had experience with the financial side of the College, serving as treasurer, as well as the registrar. She had also taught Bible classes since the founding of the Correspondence Bible College. The cancer that had occasioned surgery in 1923 returned with a vengeance, bringing about her death in May 1927.


Emma Johnson’s legacy continued her husband’s singular passion for providing a residential education to poor young men especially from the South. That passion brought her from her home country and relative comfort to live in an alien land. It steeled her to venture where women had not traditionally gone in order to see that purpose realized. She was a pioneer for women leaders long before it was fashionable. She has gifted those who follow her with a wonderful legacy.


One week before her death, Emma Johnson named the 21-year-old Alva Ross Brown as her successor, a choice that, in its own, was even more dramatic than her own role as a woman president. Brown was a graduate of Johnson and the University of Michigan and had been like a son to the Johnsons, serving as an office assistant during his college days. He faced great odds as president. The founders of the College were gone; he had no leadership experience; he did not initially have the confidence of the faculty, students, or trustees; and he was not a preacher. He was 21 years old, younger than some of the students! Some students did not return after the announcement of his appointment. Alumni support, already declining in Ashley Johnson’s latter days, deteriorated further. He was a “bookish” type, not always in touch with the world of business and finance. The last few years of the Johnsons’ presidency had left debt that he had to face early on. And then the greatest challenge, 29 months after he became president, the Great Depression began in October 1929 and continued throughout most of the rest of his presidency. He died in March 1941, ten months before the beginning of the U.S. entrance into World War II. He was 35 years old.


Brown’s legacy must be seen in the context of his times and in light of the externally imposed constraints. In spite of the appalling economic conditions of the country, Brown was able to increase the academic standing of the school, transitioning a major emphasis from the Academy to the College. In time he was able to overcome the negative reactions to his youthful age, partly through increasing the academic qualifications of the faculty and the confidence of the alumni by restoring the role of the Alumni Association. In his 14 years as president, 155 persons were graduated compared to the 200 during Ashley Johnson’s years as president.


R. M. Bell became president in October 1941. He was the first president not named by his predecessor, but rather was chosen by the Board of Trustees. Bell enrolled in the Johnson Academy in 1910 and was graduated in 1918, having interrupted his education by starting churches in Alabama and later in Canada. While in Winnipeg, he enrolled at the University of Manitoba and studied economics and history, a decision that proved to have a major consequence for Johnson years later. The experience created in him a passionate interest in finance and economics, which found greater fulfillment a decade later when he graduated with an M.A. in economics from the University of Tennessee. He started the degree while teaching at Johnson and continued it after accepting an offer from UTK to teach economics, where he taught for 17 years until he moved back to the Johnson campus as president in 1941.

Like each of his predecessors, Bell took over the leadership of a college that faced great challenges. First, he had to deal with a debt of $50,000, an amount in 1941 equivalent to $814,188 today. Part of the permanent fund established by the Johnsons for faculty salaries had been lost in the stock market crash of 1929, and most of the rest of it had been used to pay operational expenses. Faculty salaries had been in arrears for eight years. The buildings suffered from deferred maintenance. By the end of the next year Bell had raised enough money through direct-mail appeals to pay off the past-due part of the debt. He brought to the presidency his experience and knowledge of economics to set the College on a firm financial basis. He paid heed to the maxim to watch the pennies and nickels, and the dollars will take care of themselves. Fred Craddock tells of a work assignment during his student days given by Bell. Craddock and some other students were to remove and save nails from a building recently razed. After one hour, Bell returned, counted the nails, and concluded that he could buy that many nails cheaper than what he was paying the students; he gave them alternate work for the rest of the day.


Bell attended to his other goals of adequate physical facilities, an improved faculty, and a commitment to world evangelism with the same quiet determinism that drove his concerns about finance. By the end of his presidency, five new buildings had been constructed, many existing ones renovated, several new faculty added, and College involvement in evangelistic efforts increased. He re-engaged the alumni by the creation of the advisory “Council of Seventy.” He, like Ashley Johnson, was quite entrepreneurial, leveraging his own financial resources and ultimately those of the College in ways beneficial to the financial needs of the community. He left this great legacy: at his death, the College was in the finest condition in its history.


In February 1969 the Board of Trustees chose Professor David L. Eubanks as the fifth president of Johnson. Eubanks, a native of Maryville, Tennessee, and a 1957 graduate, had taught with distinction for 12 years when tapped as president. He served for more than 38 years in this role, retiring in June 2007, the first Johnson president to retire from office and the second longest serving college president in the U.S. The average tenure for college presidents is fewer than eight years. By any standard his presidency was remarkable. He and Margaret lived on campus more than a half century, including 51 years of married life. Thus, they knew every student who matriculated during those years and formed a bond that helped to create a loyal alumni base for the College.

While Eubanks did not face the dire economic challenges of earlier days, the School still had meager resources and needed to effect changes to meet the challenges of the last third of the twentieth century and the first part of the twenty-first century. In his inaugural address, entitled “Where does Johnson Bible College Go from Here,” he affirmed the historic purpose of the School to educate preachers. That purpose meant that the teaching of the Bible and the emphasis on the liberal arts would continue to dominate the curriculum and that the School would hold fast to the principles of its Restoration Movement roots. But he also signaled a new day had dawned. While he honored the work and heritage of his predecessors, he could not imitate who they were. He saw the school changing by providing more options for women students and an expanded curriculum “to carry out the Great Commission more effectively.” Thus, the school must see numerical growth to accomplish that purpose. And grow it did.


Eubanks’ achievements during his presidency became the envy of his contemporaries. His accomplishments include the following: the physical expansion of the campus, now recognized as a jewel in East Tennessee; the successful completion of several financial campaigns; a quadrupling of the number of students; an expansion of the number of academic programs, including those targeting women students; a career of careful financial management leading to permanent funds designed to help needy students. He undertook these while demonstrating the character of a caring, Southern gentleman passionate about preaching the Gospel. He became a pastor to the extended Johnson family.


These five presidents leave us quite an inheritance, barely touched upon here. We are the children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren privileged by that legacy. We should appreciate and enjoy the fruit of their labors. But, we must not forget that the real purpose for inheritance in the biblical record was never an end in itself; it was always a means to an end. Like many inheritances today (e.g., the Great Stork Derby), God’s promised inheritance came with strings attached.

From Genesis to Revelation the inheritance was a means to make aright his creation messed up in the Garden of Eden. That purpose of the inheritance, however, sometimes gets lost in the midst of all the other trappings. But this purpose became clear early in Genesis: "Now the Lord said to Abram, ‘Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you. And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing’” (Genesis 12:1-2). Abram’s blessing was not an end in itself, but rather a means to “bless” others.

Although initially the inheritance was seen narrowly to mean the descendants of Abram, the ultimate purpose of God intended that the inheritance extend to the entire world. The Servant in Isaiah receives this direction: “It is too small a thing for you to be my servant, to restore the tribes of Jacob and bring back those of Israel I have kept. I will also make you a light for the Gentiles,that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth(Isaiah 49:5, 6). Whoever the Servant may have been in Isaiah, we now understand that Jesus became the heir of God’s promised inheritance (Hebrews 1:1, 2). He became the Servant of God extending God’s favored inheritance to all peoples.

Paul makes this point clear in Ephesians. Three times in the first chapter (vss. 11, 14, 18), he mentions “inheritance.” First, the Jews have been predestined to the inheritance (1:11); their predestination was to bring all nations to be the people of God (1:18), evidenced by the Holy Spirit, which is but a sample of the full restoration of God’s creation (1:14). Now that Jew and Gentile shared the inheritance, they were together to take the message of restoration to the whole world. Together, they made up the church, proof that God was making all things new. It was “through the church [that] the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly accordance with the eternal purpose that he has carried out in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Eph. 3:10, 11). The promised, predestined inheritance was not an end in itself but a means to end.
We, too, share “the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints” (Eph. 1:18)—the saints, Jew and Gentile, and the saints of our predecessors at Johnson. Our task is to leverage the inheritance they have left us to proclaim the Gospel until we see that final inheritance of a new heaven and new earth. Then, we will inhabit that new land of our promised inheritance to live eternally in God’s presence.

For more information about the history of Johnson University, see Above Every Other Desire: A Centennial History of Johnson Bible College 1893-1993 (by L. Thomas "Tommy" Smith, Jr.), and Standing on the Promises: The Story of Ashley S. Johnson’s Remarkable Life of Faith and Prayer (by Alva Ross Brown).

Posted: 12/24/2013 9:45:48 AM


Opinions expressed are those of the contributors and do not necessarily represent those of Johnson University.