(b. John’s Island, S. C., June 13, 1782; d. Greenville, S. C., Oct. 2, 1862). South Carolina Baptist leader and first president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Son of Joseph and Mary (Bullein) Johnson, he was taught at his boyhood home in Georgetown, S.C., by his mother and by private tutors. He came under the influence of William Staughton (1770-1829), John Waldo (1762-1826), Edmund Botsford (c. 1744-1819), Oliver Hart (1723-95), and Richard Furman (1755-1825). Johnson received the A.M. degree from Brown University in 1814. He studied law, expecting to make it his profession, but was converted during a revival at Beaufort, S.C., in 1804, and thereafter devoted his life to Christian service. He was pastor of churches at Edgefield, S.C., and at Euhaw near Beaufort; and founded churches at Greenville, S.C., and Columbia, where he was chaplain of South Carolina College. At Anderson, S.C., as chancellor of Johnson Female University (1853-58), he pioneered in higher education for women.
Johnson was in Savannah when Luther Rice (1783-1836) enlisted his interest in foreign missions, and Rice accepted Johnson’s proposal to hold the first meeting of American Baptists in Philadelphia to form a general convention. Johnson, the only man who attended initial meeting of both the General Baptist Missionary Convention (1814) and the Southern Baptist Convention (1845), was also the only man who served as president of each; he had a large part in the framing of constitutions for the two bodies. Johnson was the last southern president of the general convention (1841-44), and justified the confidence placed in him by his able leadership in reconciling opposing forces and thus delaying disruption of the convention. When separation became inevitable in 1845, Baptists of the South and Southwest turned to Johnson for counsel, and as first president of the Southern Baptist Convention (1845-51), he led in shaping its far-reaching program.
From 1817 until his death, Johnson remained in South Carolina and was one of nine men who formed the South Carolina State Baptist Convention in 1821. Succeeding Richard Furman as president of the convention and serving for 27 years (1825-52), Johnson realized one of Furman’s fondest dreams in helping found the school which became Furman University, out of which grew Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Johnson, author of The Gospel Developed, contributed to religious and secular publications. He married Henrietta Hornby in 1803, and among their eight children who reached maturity, a son, Francis C. Johnson, became a Southern Baptist missionary to China in 1846.
Legendre, Raymond John. "William Bullein Johnson: pastor, educator, and missions promoter," 1995.
Woodson, Hortense. Giant in the land: A biography of William Bullein Johnson, 1950.
Archival sources in Southern Baptist Historical Library and Archives
Southern Baptist Convention. Foreign Mission Board. Historical Files, 1845-1986. AR. 551-8.