Vernon Johns (April 22, 1892 – June 11, 1965) is considered by some as the father of the American Civil Rights Movement, having laid the foundation on which Martin Luther King, Jr. and others would build. Johns was a courageous and vocal opponent of segregation. In 1926, he was the first African-American to have his work published in Best Sermons of the Year; this was a personal triumph for Johns as he had repeatedly submitted sermons for consideration in previous years. He was Dr. King’s predecessor as pastor at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama from 1947 to 1952, and a mentor of Ralph Abernathy, Wyatt Walker, and many others in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.
Johns was irritated that theological liberals failed to include any works by blacks in their annual book of best sermons. He sent the theologians in charge of the book several sermons by Mordecai Johnson (president of Howard University) and Howard Thurman (an internationally known mystic theologian). These were rejected. Johns sat down and wrote out his own sermon, “Transfigured Moments.”
The publication of the article came about this way (Powell 1995:13). “I wrote to the publishers of the collection telling them that since catholicity was their aim, they might consider including sermons from some black theologians. Negroes had developed their own concepts of theology and religion which in many ways differed from those of white theologians.” Johns contacted three of the black theologians and told them to submit. They did but all three were rejected.” I received another communication from the publishers asking me to submit others, but there was a deadline to meet which allowed little time to go through the process again. I was on a train when I read this latest communication and realizing how little time I had, I wrote my sermon on the back of the publisher’s letter and submitted that.”
Powell’s version of the story is borne out by letters between Johns and Mordecai Johnson and Johns and Joseph Fort Newton. Vernon Johns on March 8, 1926 wrote to Dr. Mordecai W. Johnson in Charleston, West Virginia:
“My dear Bro. Johnson: I have been asked by Dr. Joseph Fort Newton, editor of the annual volume of Best Sermons, to collect a score of sermon manuscripts from the ablest colored preachers. From this collection, Dr. Newton will select one or two sermons for the 1926 Anthology. I am sure you feel the importance of having the Negro Pulpit reflected in a volume which is widely read by leaders of religious thought. Will you kindly mail me two manuscripts to go into this collection? Hoping for an early and favorable reply, I remain, yours very cordially, Vernon Johns.”
Mordecai Johnson (Howard University archives) wrote Johns a letter, April 1, 1926: “I thank you heartily for your recent letter requesting that I mail you two manuscripts as possible materials for Doctor Joseph Forte Newton’s Best Sermon for 1926. If it is possible for me to submit the manuscripts after June the first, I shall be glad. I should like to do a good piece of work, if possible. With cordial regards, I am sincerely yours, MWJ/MP.”
On April 5, 1926, Dr. Joseph Fort Newton wrote Vernon Johns a letter saying that “It will be a little difficult to hold the book of ‘Best Sermons’ open until June 1st, but I shall try to do so, awaiting the sermon by Rev. Johnson. The tables of contents is usually announced early in May, as the publishers wish to have it ready by the time their salesmen go out to the great book conferences which are held early in the summer. Please ask Mr. Johnson to do his best to get the manuscript to me a little earlier, if possible. Thanking you for your co-operation, I am, yours fraternally, Joseph Fort Newton.”
In 1926 Johns’s sermon became the first work by a black published in Best Sermons. This essay came to be studied by black theology students for the next generation. In his introduction to the essay, the editor Butler wrote that “Mr. Johns is the first colored preacher to appear in Best Sermons, and it is both an honor and a joy to bid him welcome, alike for his race and his genius.” Butler also mentioned John’s plans for a forthcoming book Human Possibilities (which he never completed). On May 21, 1926 Johns filled out a form for Oberlin’s alumni files. His home address was 61 Monroe Street, Lynchburg, Virginia. He reported that he was still pastor of Court Street Baptist Church, Lynchburg. He said he was working on a manuscript for a book entitled Human Possibilities. He says it was yet to be published, but it had an introduction written by Dr. E. W. Lyman.