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About John Johns
John Johns (July 1796 – April 4, 1876) was the fourth Episcopal bishop of Virginia.
Early life and education
Born into a prominent political family in New Castle, Delaware, John Johns was born in 1796. He was the son of Chief Justice Kensey Johns, and grandson of Governor Nicholas Van Dyke of Delaware.
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. By 1820, Johns was ordained to the Priesthood by Bishop Kemp. Johns, at the age of 32, narrowly lost the election for Bishop of Maryland by three votes.
Consecration to the episcopacy
In 1842, John Johns was consecrated bishop and named Assistant Bishop of Virginia by Bishop William Meade. Johns was the first bishop to be consecrated in the Commonwealth of Virginia. His consecrators included Bishop William Meade (third bishop of Virginia), Bishop John Henry Hobart (third bishop of New York), and Bishop Levi S. Ives (second bishop of North Carolina). In 1853, Bishop Johns confirmed Robert E. Lee in the Episcopal Church.
Presidency at the College of William and Mary
During the years of 1849-1854, 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 it was in a state of upheaval over the 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 the selection of Bishop Johns, the college had been closed with the exception of one professor giving lectures to his 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, he refused all remuneration that accompanied this post.
Bishop of Virginia
During the American Civil War, 1861–1865, John Johns was elected as the fourth bishop of Virginia. At that time, the diocese included the current dioceses of West Virginia, Southern Virginia, and Southwest Virginia. To cover his episcopal territory, John Johns famously rode "circuit" throughout his diocese of nearly 70,000 square miles (180,000 km2).
There has been some historical speculation as to whether or not Bishop Johns baptized and confirmed Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
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."
By 1866, Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria was left "wasted and impoverished by war". All the funds of the seminary being 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 the rebuilding of the seminary.
Influence and later life
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."
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 grounds of the Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria.
Johns Memorial Episcopal Church, located in Farmville, Virginia, stands today as a living memorial to pioneering work of Bishop John Johns. His ancestral home, Sudley, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973.