Raised in a prominent political family in Delaware, Bishop John Johns graduated from the theological seminary at Princeton University in 1815. Ordained deaconate in the Episcopal Church, Johns began his evangelical ministry in Philadelphia and Maryland, until his election by the Virginia Episcopalians as Assistant Bishop of Virginia in 1842.
Declining the Presidency, and Interim Years
As member of the Board of Visitors of William & Mary, Bishop Johns was offered the presidency of the troubled college in October 1846. Despite an arrangement that confined his teaching duties as the president to the winter, enabling Johns to continue his itinerant ministry, Bishop Johns decided to consult the church convention prior to accepting the post. Many board members hoped to renew the association between the college and church, which became a subject of much debate around campus. The presiding Bishop of Virginia expressed concern that the appointment as president might injure both the college and the church, for Bishop Johns would serve to "array William & Mary against the University of Virginia" by encouraging church followers to attend his institution. Johns declined the election as president, and the board offered the presidency to Francis Hawks. After accepting the presidency, Hawks received a better offer from the University of Louisiana which he took. As the beginning of the term neared and without a president, the board elected Robert Saunders Jr. as president but removed the designation of pro tem.
While finances of the college had improved somewhat, faculty resignations and confusion over hiring practices caused chaos and conflict on the campus. After the particularly tumultuous and short-lived presidency of Saunders, President Benjamin Ewell and the Board of Visitors faced crisis with the sudden departure of two professors. Without time to find new faculty, the College suspended lectures for the year, offering private instruction for a fee. On October 5, 1848, Ewell tendered his resignation, and the Board of Visitors turned again to Bishop Johns. After some negotiations, the diocesan convention approved, provided that Johns accepted no salary from the College, continued his duties as assistant bishop, and taught only courses on moral philosophies with additional lectures on the "evidences of Christianity." The 1849 election of John Johns as the fifteenth president of William & Mary witnessed as return to leadership by clergy.
Election as 15th President
Upon becoming president of William & Mary, John Johns assumed leadership of only twenty-one students. To all observers, William & Mary appeared endangered. During his tenure, the College underwent a series of academic reforms to enlarge the enrollment to eighty-two students by 1854 when Johns resigned the Presidency. Among the changes implemented included measures designed to enlarge the study body including: recruiting new faculty, reviving Phi Beta Kappa, creating a bachelor of philosophy degree, continuing the issuance of proficiency certificates including a new certificate for English or Scientific Course, and offering financial assistance to indigent youths. In addition to the academic changes, Johns and the Board of Visitors sought to strengthen and create rules for campus life. To prevent the "Williamsburg swagger," students lived on campus with a professor in the building, who could issue demerits for immoral behavior, and revived old rules requiring church attendance. The Board of Visitors decreed that grades must be assigned at each recitation, which when combined with examination grades determined a student's class standing. Quarterly reports of standing were issued to parents, beginning at William & Mary the policy of numerical grades. This policy was replaced in the 1930s, when letters were substituted for the numerical system.
In 1854, Bishop Johns tendered his resignation, stating that his service to the College was never meant to last indefinitely. He continued to serve as assistant and then Bishop of Virginia throughout the Civil War. Following the war, he became president and professor at the nearly bankrupt Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria. As President he oversaw the rebuilding of the seminary, and after he died in 1876 his remains were interred on the grounds.
Material in the SCRC
- Letter of Bishop John Johns in regard to presidency of W&M to his wife, Special Collections Research Center, Earl Gregg Swem Library, William & Mary.