One of my favorite undeservedly obscure cultural heroes is the Baptist minister Vernon Johns, a University of Chicago divinity grad who preceded Martin Luther King at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church. (You may have caught the 1994 TV movie about him, starring James Earl Jones, on the tube recently.)
What Johns lacked in fame and influence he made up for by being incredibly awesome:
* He was in rural eastern Virginia to illiterate small farmers who didn’t have the money to send him to school, so he read while farming, retaining almost everything he read thanks to a photographic memory, and developing an impressively extensive canonical education (heavy in the Romantic poets, it seems) behind a plow.
* Attended the Virginia Seminary in Lynchburg, was kicked out for rebelliousness.
* Talked his way into Oberlin’s seminary by meeting the dean’s challenge to read books in Latin, German, and Greek.
* Was accused of cheating by the future president of the University of Chicago, Robert Hutchins, after he replaced Hutchins as the academic star of the seminary, because how could a hick from the middle of nowhere with such a checkered educational history actually be smarter than everyone else?
* Punched Robert Hutchins in the face.
* Became lifelong friends with Hutchins, was further educated at the U. of C. (after a stint at Lynchburg’s Court Street Baptist Church) when Hutchins was president.
* Would walk out of Dexter Ave. when its extremely conservative organist refused to play the spirituals he requested.
* Had a famously prickly relationship with the middle-class congregation of the church, because he was a Booker T. Washington fan who would pester the academics and professionals in the pews about their lack of involvement in industry and labor, and then would sell vegetables and meat from his farm outside the church immediately after services to emphasize his point.
* Resigned multiple times from the church, sometimes in the middle of services. Eventually his resignation was accepted, and he was succeeded by the more politically adept Martin Luther King, Jr.
As Taylor Branch put it in the first volume of his history of King, Parting the Waters, where I first learned about Johns: he represented “both the highest and the lowest, the most learned and most common, the most glorious reflection of their intellectual tastes and the most obnoxious challenge to their dignity” (p. 19). Just endlessely fascinating.
His sermon “Transfigured Moments” was the first by a black preacher in the annual “Best Sermons” series. Unfortunately, it seems not many other examples of his writing are available–as you might expect of someone with a photographic memory whose primary medium was public speech. But historian Ralph Luker is apparently working on a critical edition of his writings.