By Grace Thornton
The Alabama Baptist
James Johnson said the question rang in his ears like the shot heard round the world.
He had lived through getting wounded twice in World War II. It was miraculous, he said. But less than a decade later doctors were saying he only had six months to live.
“I got really sick,” Johnson said. “After the doctors told me that I went to a doctor who was a good friend to get another opinion.”
That doctor’s opinion was the same — it didn’t look good. But he had something extra to verbalize — a question. He asked if Johnson had ever made God a promise he hadn’t followed through with.
“And I said, ‘Yes, sir. I promised God I’d preach,’” Johnson said.
That promise went way back, way before the war, “back when this ol’ boy was 11 years old,” he said. “I was saved that year, then at 12, I felt the Lord would be with me to preach.”
He told his pastor about his decision and grew up with intentions of following through, but then the war came and in 1943 he was drafted.
“I served for four years and was wounded twice. I got the Bronze Star for special service,” he said. “And I kind of forgot about preaching.”
When Johnson got back from the war he thought about his promise again, but he didn’t pursue it too much. He got married, joined a Birmingham-area church and went to school for electronic engineering.
He started his own business and all was going well — until he became sick and his doctor asked him that question.
“That was in 1956,” Johnson said. “I went back to my church and asked [for] forgiveness.”
And that set him on a course of ministry which started with teaching a junior boys training union class and kept going through a number of pastorates and theological training.
Johnson started attending Howard College in Birmingham (now Samford University). He eventually obtained his master’s degree at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Fort Worth, Texas, while working as the electronic engineer for the seminary’s radio station.
And his road eventually brought him, his wife Mary and their four children back to Alabama, where he served nearly two decades as pastor of Tharptown Baptist Church, Russellville. Along the way he earned his doctorate. In 1978 he received a call to serve a church in Huntsville, then in 1985 he accepted the pastorate of Sunny Home Baptist Church, Haleyville, where he stayed until he retired in 1989.
“I don’t feel worthy to have been asked by my Lord to serve that long,” Johnson said.
But in reality it’s even longer — “retirement” isn’t really an accurate way to describe the years since 1989. He hasn’t really ever stopped preaching, or at least teaching.
In 2000, the year his first wife passed away, he began serving as pastor of Cherry Hill Baptist Church, Russellville, in Franklin Baptist Association, where he’s been ever since. He had to step down from preaching full time in 2014 when he started experiencing health issues, but he’s still actively involved. He’s now their pastor emeritus and for years he’s led Wednesday night Bible study as often as he can.
Church member Patsy Bobo said Johnson’s Bible studies are a work of engineering themselves. He writes them, prints out a student book to accompany them, assembles them and distributes them to church members. He’s done more of those studies than he can count and along the way he’s shared them with other preachers who are interested in using them too.
“He’s an amazing man,” Bobo said. “He’s a man of service and he’s been constant all these years. It’s unbelievable how he has kept going even when he’s had health issues.”
When illness has kept Johnson away, “it’s like a huge vacuum” in the church, Bobo said.
But Johnson says he just feels like he’s living the testimony God graciously gave him.
He and his wife, Gladys — a “gem” whom he married at Cherry Hill Baptist in 2008 — are “still active and we go when we can,” Johnson said. “I can’t preach much anymore, but if Jason (Thorn, the current pastor), needs me to preach for him, I can do it — as long as I cut it short.”
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