“The whole church to take the whole Gospel to the whole world.” In 1974 John Stott drafted that statement, which became known as the “Lausanne Covenant,” at the first Lausanne Congress on World Evangelism organized by Billy Graham. This covenant has guided many in the evangelical movement since then.
The School of the Evangelists
More than 80 years before the 1974 Lausanne Congress, Ashley Johnson anticipated the Lausanne Covenant. He believed that the Gospel could, as he put it, “take the whole world in spite of all odds against it.” Thus, he established the School of the Evangelists in 1893.
The Johnsons saw the condition of the churches in the South following the Civil War as the most pressing need in the 1890s. People were not adequately prepared to take the Gospel even to their own regions. But the Johnsons were also concerned, even in the 1890s, about world evangelism. As the newest technological invention—the radio—became popular in the United States, Johnson saw the potential for this technology to be used for the sake of the Gospel. He said,
If we had owned a radio station we could have brought all of this to the doors of our friends who have radio receivers and uncounted throngs of others. I am very anxious to reach all parts of the United States and Canada and even the lands beyond the sea….
His overriding purpose for the School of the Evangelists was to prepare students who through the power of the Gospel could extend the kingdom of God among all nations.
From the first day, the school focused on three areas of development: character and social formation that came from living in community; spiritual formation that came from a substantive study of the Scriptures and a life of prayer; and world view formation that came from a substantial study of the arts and sciences. Such an education was not an end in itself—not knowledge simply for the sake of knowledge. Rather, the Johnsons believed that this kind of education could better prepare persons to assist the Gospel “to take the whole world.” The Great Commission determined the nature of the education.
I thought it strange at first that the earliest curriculum of the school included no “practical” ministry courses. Rather, the Bible courses and a strong list of arts and sciences courses were the entire curriculum. A decade later a course in homiletics and one in practical theology appeared in the curriculum. But not until the 1950s did practical ministry courses begin to multiply significantly. I now understand the wisdom of the Johnsons’ philosophy of education. They knew that the means of promoting the Gospel represented in the “ministry” courses could change through the years. They also knew that the need to understand the Bible and the culture would never change. The uniqueness of the School of the Evangelists was the combination of a substantive study of the Bible and of the arts and sciences intended to prepare persons to extend the kingdom of God wherever they went and whatever they did.
Johnson Bible College
In 1909 one hundred nineteen students, believing that the name, “School of the Evangelists,” had become a barrier to the purpose of their education, wrote to President Ashley Johnson, “Our courses of study are equal to…any of our colleges or universities, and…being the only institution wearing the name of ‘School,’ we believe that the word ‘College’ should be included in the name.” The petition went on to say “As you and Sister Johnson have given your lives unselfishly to the cause, and by your sacrifice and self-denial have made it possible for us to enjoy the privileges and opportunities that are now ours, the name of our College should also include your name.” The students were persuasive, and the “School of the Evangelists” became “Johnson Bible College.”
No college with Johnson’s purpose and educational philosophy existed in 1909. In fact, no college had the name “Bible College” in 1909. Moody Bible Institute was so named in 1900, but it was a diploma-granting school then, not a degree-granting college. Missionary Training Institute (later called Nyack College) was begun in 1883 to train women and men as foreign missionaries; the focus was upon teaching the Bible and practical skills in cross-cultural evangelism. Johnson Bible College was in a league of its own, both in terms of its name and its unique curriculum. Following designation as a “college,” the school realized other changes in following years. The Johnsons transferred ownership of the property and control of the College to the Board of Trustees in 1922. The Academy (high school), which had existed from the beginning, was dissolved, allowing more attention to the development of the College. Women were admitted with equal status in 1948 with new programs especially targeting them. In 1951 Myrtle Hall, a residence for women, was constructed. Accreditations by the Association for Biblical Higher Education (1970) and the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (1979) were achieved. Major curricular revisions came in 1978 and 1999, adding new programs, new “ministries,” as options for students.
On February 22, 2011, the Board of Trustees voted to change the name to “Johnson University.” This decision was the culmination of a two-year discussion by the Board, the administration, the faculty, and a focus group of alumni and friends. In these discussions we focused upon our historic purpose and identity, confirming our commitment to be a Great Commission institution, and revised our mission statement (found elsewhere in this publication) accordingly. The purpose of the process was mission clarification; one result of the process was a name change.
We see similar reasons for the name change today as did those students in 1909. The name no longer communicates to many the unique character of our school. Unlike 1909, when no other “Bible college” existed, now over 1,400 exist. Of that number, approximately 115 are accredited by the Association for Biblical Higher Education and approximately 25 by regional associations. Almost none of the rest have a philosophy of education, a comparable curriculum, or such a qualified faculty. Thus, when most people hear the words, “Bible college,” they do not think of the kind of institution we are. Many think of a small, ill-funded, narrowly focused school that struggles for survival.
That’s not true for those of us with a long history with Johnson. We know the purpose, the history, the philosophy of education. We have difficulty understanding how it is that “Bible college” does not elicit the same warm feelings that we have when we hear it. But it is true. As hallowed as “Johnson Bible College” is to those of us with a long history with the school, it has become a barrier for many in the same way that “School of the Evangelists” was in 1909.
Furthermore, the name “Johnson Bible College” creates a barrier for many of our students who want to go into closed or “creative access” countries. Many students want to go to those countries in order “to extend the kingdom of God among all nations.” They can’t go as traditional missionaries but must go as teachers, social workers, health care workers, or workers involved in non-profit aid organizations. To be accepted in these capacities, however, they must present credentials, including evidence of a college education. Of course, to have “Bible” listed in the degree becomes a significant barrier to gaining entrance to these countries. The opportunities our students have to enter these countries did not exist even ten or more years ago. At a recent dinner of thirteen students at our house, the discussion turned to ministry in foreign countries. Before the topic changed, we had discussed working in eighteen countries: China, Costa Rica, Cuba, Egypt, England, Ethiopia, Guinea (West Africa), Israel, Japan, Jordan, Kenya, Myanmar, Nicaragua, Papua New Guinea, Syria, Thailand, Turkey, and Zimbabwe! Students have a vision for the world as at no other time in history. We don’t want the name of their institution to be a barrier to their Great Commission goal.
So, this name change presents a real quandary for us all. On the one hand, it presents an undeniable barrier to our mission. Yet on the other hand, we who have known the school for many years have such positive feelings about the name. And those who know the history of higher education in the U.S. fear that faithful institutions will follow the lead of early schools that “left their first love” and their Christian commitment. What will people think? Are we headed down the “slippery slope?”
I’m aware—acutely aware—of those feelings. This name has become holy ground with so many of us—surely for me. It hurts to think of giving it up. And so, I had been hesitant to carry this issue forward with these strong conflicting feelings. One morning, though, I happened to be reading from Mark 7:1-13. Six times Jesus uses the word “tradition” in contrast to the commandment of God. For example, in 7:9: “He also said to them, ‘You neatly reject the commandment of God in order to keep your tradition.’” It became that day a powerful sermon to me. I committed that day to see if the Johnson community would understand the principle in the same way I did—that the Great Commission trumped even our hallowed name. I am pleased to say that a strong majority have said “Yes!” to the command of God in the Great Commission, albeit with a sense of pain at abandoning an old friend—the name “Johnson Bible College.” Saying goodbye to this institutional name, we say a resounding “Yes!” to the Great Commission.
Gary E. Weedman