Editorial Epitaph For Bishop Johnson

            The Witness Mar. 13, 1947:  Centering the editorial page was a quote from Tagore which was dedicated ‘To Bishop Johnson’.  It reads:

            ‘These individuals carry in themselves the deathless life of all humanity.  Their ceaseless life flows like a river of mighty volume of flood, through the green fields and deserts, through the dark caverns of oblivion into the dancing joy of the sunlight, bringing water to the door of the multitudes of men through endless years, healing and allaying thirst and cleansing impurities of the daily dust, and singing with living voice, through the noise of the markets the song of the everlasting life.’

Bill Jr.            By principle, THE WITNESS seldom had editorials signed.  Bp. Johnson. had signed one on the occasion of Dad’s 5lst birthday. Following his friend’s death, Dad (as the Managing Editor) responded with grace, humor and love:

 Bill Sr.                       Irving Johnson was already the Bishop of Colorado when I first met him.  So I knew nothing first hand about the famous South Omaha mission, or of his days as a seminary professor or as an able and beloved rector.  It was in 1919, shortly after the founding of THE WITNESS that he asked me to become the managing editor, filling the place of the Rev. Charles Shutt who had died suddenly.  When I declined for what seemed to me adequate reasons, he said: ‘Well, get the sheet out for a few weeks until I find someone to take over.’  That was the end of the matter.  He never did, nor do I know whether he ever tried. After a few months of intimate association with him I was more than satisfied that he did not.

            He edited the paper by remote control from Denver, or from where he happened to be as he travelled about the country holding missions and preaching, for in those days, and for many years that followed, there was no man in the Church in greater demand.  The arrangements were haphazard.  His job was to write a weekly essay, which he did unfailingly week after week for nearly twenty-five years.  And it can be said that the vast majority of those who took the paper did so only to get his masterpieces.  The rest of the job was mine–news gathering, circulation promotion, advertising solicitation, make-up, finding the cash to pay the bills.

            Bishop Johnson was a conservative, both ecclesiastically and politically, and there were many times, during our long association, when articles a;pp;eared with which he thoroughly disagreed.  Not infrequently we discussed them.  But never once during those many years did he even hint that I should write other than as i pleased.  Never once did he fail to back me up when attacked by a critic, no matter how thoroughly he agreed with the critic.  He was a liberal conservative who genuinely believed in complete freedom of expression.

            As for his own contributions to THE WITNESS, they were characterized by sharp thinking and common sense.  Shams, unrealities, conventionalities made him impatient.  But he dealt with them with his trenchant wit, never with caustic comment.  His large hearted sympathy for people, whatever their ;position or task, lifted his message to a high plane where he challenged his readers to live realistically and constructively for the Kingdom of God.  As he travelled about the country, with railroad trains and stations for his editorial office, and the top of a suitcase for his desk, he saw the foibles and weaknesses of ordinary men.  And good-naturedly and with ready wit, he revealed them to themselves.

            His faith was unfailing.  He believed wholly in God’s power to redeem; he believed thoroughly in the Church as the Body of Christ, even while he was pointing out her failings and weaknesses.

            He was also a man of tremendous intellectual attainment and ability, a side of this great man which many missed because of his humility and complete lack of pretense.  I recall very well being told by one of the great scholars of the Church how he had gone to hear Bishop Johnson lecture on Church history prepared to scoff at this unconventional looking westerner.  He remained to sit at the feet of a man with greater knowledge than he himself possessed.

            Bishop Johnson was always one of the most–perhaps the most–colorful and able men in General Convention.  It was a common saying that if you wanted to know in advance how a debate was to come out, find which side Johnson was on.  He was also an expert on parliamentary procedure, as many will remember who attended the Atlantic City Convention (1934?)  The House of Bishops got themselves into a terrific parliamentary tangle–with amendments, amendments to amendments, and all the rest of it.  Finally the Presiding Bishop gave up, completely at a loss to find a way out of the jam.  So the House went into a Committee of the Whole and Bishop Johnson was called to the platform to straighten them out if he could.  He walked down the aisle, chewing his tongue in characteristic fashion, his hands deep in his pants pocket.  Then, in two minutes, like an expert butcher dressing a chicken, he took the whole procedure apart, carefully labelling each step that had been taken, so that the men at the news desk where I was sitting sat up starry-eyed and began saying: ‘What a guy.’

            And to a great man that I loved there is no better tribute I can pay than to repeat: ‘What a guy.”  I have never known a more able man; I have never known a man with finer Christian instincts and values;  i have never had a more genuine and loyal friend, and i know there are hundreds throughout this nation who are saying the same thing.

            He ran a straight race, unencumbered with things of this world, and he has attained his goal.”

Bill Jr.  Every sermon I ever heard Dad preach at a burial office for a friend, he quoted Tagore.  He chose a quote from this Nobel Prize poet to introduce ‘A BLIND MAN’S GROPING’.  And, thus, he honors his mentor and friend, Bp. Irving Peake Johnson.

            It was said that, on occasion, Bp. Johnson. would show up with his vestments stuffed in his golf bag.  Apocryphal, of course.  But his vestments were usually rumpled (Bishops, you know, don’t have altar guilds away from home!) and his black vest usually carried lingering ashes from his many cigars.  I recall that he did chew on his tongue and, the one time I caddied for him in golf, I remember wondering whether this relaxed him as he addressed the ball.  If it did, it didn’t seem to work very well. Dad was an absolutely terrible golfer — once hitting nine straight drives into a rather small pond — and Johnson was only slightly better.

            And what has that got to do with anything?  To them, when they got together, the important thing was to talk things over, agree to disagree, work as colleagues and hold up to each other one vision with different routes to it.

            I think that, for the rest of his editing years, Dad missed the absentee freedom that Bishop Johnson gave him.  Perhaps under Dr. Fred Grant’s editorial leadership, THE WITNESS was tighter and better, and surely it got more involvement from the editorial board, but Bp. Johnson was, for Dad, the epitome of a good boss and a wise bishop!