Early 1864 saw the Confederate Army of Tennessee under Gen. Joseph Johnston in winter quarters preparing to sashay around the state’s mountain passes when the spring campaign opened and the marching feet of tens of thousands under the command of Gen. William T. Sherman would sweep into Georgia.
Outnumbered, poorly equipped, discouraged, and yet resisting and determined, fighting Southerners temporarily “on hold” until warmer, dryer weather emerged welcomed random chaplains who left parishioners for the battlefield and arrived ready to dish out plentiful doses of reassurance, soothing words, and baptismal waters while bringing a sense of sanity in the midst of the anxiety of the world gone mad around them.
Jarvis Gibson Johnson and friend Marshall J. Wellborn—a lawyer turned preacher in his sunset years—left homes in Hamilton, Georgia for Whitfield County to “labor for the spiritual benefit of the soldiers,” according to the March 11, 1864 edition of the Christian Index. A Harris County native born to Isaac and Susannah Embry Johnson, the younger of this duo was clearly one of the “good guys.” He was born into a Baptist family in 1832, worked on his father’s farm, was licensed to preach soon after baptism in 1852, and joined the 1856 class of preparatory studies in the Mercer University Theological Seminary in Penfield. Graduating with distinction in 1859, Johnson was ordained in December to assume the role of pastor to the Baptists at Hamilton. “His relations as a pastor were borne by him with uncommon modesty, disinterestedness and fidelity,” wrote Georgia Baptist historian Jesse Campbell. “He maintained with meekness, yet with great firmness, the strictest discipline … His personal piety was of a high order. For his devotedness to prayer and the study of the scriptures, for his tender and persevering attention to the poor and dependent, for his courageous vindication of the claims of the gospel and of the right of all men to enjoy unrestricted access to it, the name of Jarvis Johnson will be ever held in sweet remembrance.”
A man of abundant labor in a pervasive harvest, Johnson was compelled toward the wounded and dying. Almost a year earlier, a discourse by Johnson on the propriety of government-paid chaplains was published in the May 18, 1863 Index; in it he systematically objected to the practice and explained why churches should take that role. The historic Baptist distinctive of church and state separation bound his sentiments together. “I am conscientiously opposed to the civil authorities having any thing to do with appointing or supporting chaplains,” he wrote. “ … the government should give its approbation to the preaching of the gospel to the soldiers; but, at the same time, leave the furnishing of the army with chaplains and their support to the churches. … Let the Baptists of the Confederate States open wide their hearts and purses, and let men be selected of the right stamp—godly men—to go forth as missionaries ….”
Earnest and convicted, Johnson ministered man-to-man until illness forced him home. There “he suffered greatly from inflammation of the stomach and bowels, for weeks before death came to his relief.” Ever the diligent believer, Johnson was upheld by “unwavering faith” and “the most entire submission to the will of God.” Said Campbell: “He had a word for every one who approached him; nor did he cease to plead for Christ until he ceased to breathe.”
This day, a Sunday, while Georgia Baptist leaders in the midst of their annual convention worship in Atlanta churches, Johnson breaths his last. Afterward he is buried in the family graveyard “in the midst of a very large concourse of people,” according to his obituary in the June 3 Christian Index. “Few, if any, who knew him, doubted his preparedness for death.”
Wellborn soon takes the mantle of the Hamilton church and serves it until his death a decade later.
Sources: Christian Index, March 11, 1864; May 18, 1864, June 3, 1864; J. G. Johnson and M. J. Wellborn biographical files, Mercer University Tarver Library Special Collections, Macon, GA
Note: This entry is authored by Arlette Copeland of Mercer University’s Jack Tarver Library’s Special Collection.