God Builds Uncommon Legacy Through ‘Common Man Scholar’

By Mary Margaret Flook and Jeff Robinson


It wasn’t anybody’s dream job.

The job description was to teach and serve as an academic administrator at a two-year college that had around 350 students — to use the term loosely — a few decaying buildings, and $3 million of debt. That was 1992, and the odds of then North Greenville Junior College still existing in 1993 were slim.

The bottom-line task was this: Join an administrative team to save a school that was so near death, even firm evangelical believers in the doctrine of resurrection could not envision it living 12 months more.

Yet, Walter Johnson took the position, choosing to trust the Lord in the face of staggering odds. President Jimmy Epting, also relatively new, charged Johnson with mission impossible: Turn North Greenville into a four-year university with a strong Christian studies program and a curriculum built upon an inerrant, inspired, authoritative Bible.

Build it, and we pray students will come.

“The situation was dire,” Johnson said. “They had massive debt. Every building on campus needed heavy work or to be replaced. As for the student population, it’d gotten to where they would let just about anybody in just to keep the doors open. Many of the students probably shouldn’t have been in college, and there were even some who may or may not have been Christians. The school was desperate.

“Where God’s hand points, His providence provides,” he said.

Indeed.

Johnson and his family

Fast-forward 32 years and Johnson is retiring from the position that once seemed likely to evaporate after mere months. North Greenville has become a thriving, four-year Christian university with an enrollment of 2,125 students, top-notch athletic facilities that are home to championship teams, and an endowment that has climbed north of $40 million. NGU now has a second campus in Greer.

Still, Johnson recalls those early days, those days of uncertainty, with a certain amount of fondness, as he saw the Lord bring NGU from death to life. Johnson remains amazed at the role God used him to play along the way.

“They didn’t do a nationwide search to find somebody,” Johnson said. “They did a neighborhood search. They needed somebody that knew the pastors in the area.

“At that time, a big-name scholar wouldn’t have helped them any. They needed somebody that pastors in the area had confidence in, and I was in the area, so I was the person. I knew the area, I knew the pastors, I knew the president, I knew where the landmines were. I didn’t want it, but I knew I was the right person who could do it.”

In those early days, he was a reluctant participant — not as a teacher, but as an administrator.

“I jokingly tell people that I didn’t climb a ladder of success somewhere administratively,” he said. “I was more like an ant on the ground and a mushroom grew up around me. I didn’t look for it, but the Lord put me there for that time.

“I enjoyed the classroom. I loved the teaching, and I did the administration because somebody needed to, and I was probably the right person there to do it. It wasn’t that I didn’t love doing it; I just loved pastoring.”

One of Johnson’s major contributions — and one of the central factors in NGU’s transformation into a thriving four-year school — was the addition of a Christian Studies degree program not long after Johnson started.

Previously, NGU had only one two-year major. Once Johnson developed a full four-year degree Christian Studies program and the school hired theologically conservative faculty members who held to biblical inerrancy, NGU took off like a rocket. Today, students can choose from more than 60 majors.

But Johnson didn’t seek his position at NGU. In God’s providence, it found him.

A SON OF GREENVILLE

Johnson receiving an Honorary Doctor of Divine Letters from NGU President Gene Fant.

One of the greatest blessings of his career at NGU, Johnson said, was its location; Johnson is a Greenville native and in his 70 years of life, he has only lived outside Greenville County for six years: a pair of two-year stints to complete his M.Div. and then Ph.D. at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary, and two years of study at the University of South Carolina in Columbia. Johnson met his beloved wife, Deanna, while at NOBTS, and they were married in 1980. Over time, they had two daughters and a son, all of whom attended NGU.

Johnson grew up just off Augusta Road as the third of four brothers, the youngest of whom tragically died in an automobile crash in 1977. Johnson has been blessed to minister for more than six decades mere miles from where he grew up.

“I was always happy to get back to Greenville the three times I was gone for a short time,” he said. “I grew up a South Carolina Baptist in this county, and it added an extra dimension to the joy and fulfillment of teaching all those years at North Greenville. My brother went to North Greenville. I grew up with so many connections to the school. I’m very happy to have seen the Lord working in a university right in my own home county.”

A PASTOR AT HEART

The local church has always occupied first place in Johnson’s heart and mind. As NGU arose from its near-death experience, the school intentionally hired faculty who were both gifted scholars and devoted churchmen. Professors at NGU post-1992 were called to prioritize students in the classroom and the local church in the community.

This isn’t surprising, as Johnson grew up in a Christian home where church attendance was assumed.

During his childhood years, Johnson’s family belonged to Pendleton Street Baptist Church. In middle school, they joined Washington Avenue Baptist Church. A North Greenville graduate served as pastor at Washington Avenue, and he influenced Johnson profoundly, teaching him to ground his theology and his worldview in Scripture. His parents also loved God’s Word and trained Johnson to do the same, giving him an immovable foundation for the future.

Thus, Johnson’s divine call to the pastorate — one Johnson assumed would consume the rest of his life — was not surprising either.

Before joining the NGU faculty, Johnson served as pastor of First Baptist Church of Landrum for seven years and pastored for a total of 11 years. During his time at NGU, he has served in 23 interim pastorates and is finishing another this spring.

“I loved pastoring and always thought I would spend my life as the pastor of a local church,” he said.

“When God called me to ministry and when I went to seminary, my dream was to lead a decent-sized church, maybe 200-300 people, to preach God’s Word faithfully to them and shepherd them. Being a professor and administrator at a college was not in my plan. But it was in God’s plan.”

TEACHING THEOLOGY AND ITS HANDMAIDEN

During his growing-up years, Johnson lived near the school he would attend for his bachelor’s degree: Furman University. He recalls watching the Furman football team play scrimmage games at Manly Field on the old Furman campus.

The seeds for teaching Bible and theology were sown during Johnson’s undergrad years at Furman, where he fell in love with philosophy, often called the “handmaiden of theology.” Johnson holds a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from Furman.

“Everything is philosophically driven,” Johnson said. “And if you don’t understand that, you’re not going to understand everything that is going on in the world today with things like wokeness and critical theory. Philosophy fit very well with theology. They go hand-in-hand.”

“The Bible is 100 percent truth, but there are some things that are true that aren’t in the Bible. God didn’t give us the Bible to keep us from thinking. He gave us the Bible as a basis to think from.”

With a tiny but growing faculty in those first years at NGU, Johnson taught widely across the spectrum of Christian studies, everything from homiletics to hermeneutics, Baptist history to Bible overview. Johnson estimates that he taught Old Testament and New Testament survey classes “at least 70 times.”

But as NGU hired scholars to teach in their specialized areas, Johnson was then able to focus on the areas of his academic expertise — classes like apologetics, intro to philosophy, postmodernism, and systematic theology.

MASSIVE IMPACT OF ‘THE COMMON MAN SCHOLAR’

Johnson says he will miss the classroom and the students. Seeing the lights come on when students have life-changing encounters with God’s truth in Scripture and in understanding the world He made have been deeply gratifying, Johnson said.

“To have students come back years later or write to you and say, ‘Your class transformed my life.’ I love to see that,” he said.

Proverbs 27:2 says, “Let another praise you, and not your own mouth; a stranger, and not your own lips.” The mention of Johnson’s name to his former students and friends in ministry brings forth a strong illustration of Solomon’s words. His impact on students — and current and future church leaders in South Carolina and beyond — is broad and deep.

Travis Kerns, who serves as the associational missions strategist for Three Rivers Baptist Association in the Greenville area, studied under Johnson from 1995-1999. Kerns says Johnson’s impact on him is inestimable. A love for Scripture and deep humility poured out of Johnson, Kerns said.

“Seeing Christ in him is not something that took any work at all,” Kerns said. “It just came out of him all the time. It was natural.”

Kerns taught for several years at Boyce College in Louisville, Ky. He said Johnson was his model for teaching and loving students well.

“He was always mindful of his students and their spiritual condition,” Kerns said. “I saw the fruit of the Spirit in him on a regular basis.”

Josh Powell serves as senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Taylors. Early on, Powell wasn’t doing well in his college studies. Johnson admonished Powell to take his studies more seriously and to see God’s glory at stake in his coursework.

“Dr. Johnson was one who encouraged me to understand my studies as an act of worship and that they should be done like everything else to the glory of God,” Powell said.

“He has not only been a mentor, but he has been more recently an encourager and a cheerleader for me in my ministry always ready to support me with any question, always ready to encourage me at any point, and willing to answer the phone every time I call.”

When Powell attends meetings with South Carolina Baptists, the room is full of men and women whom Johnson mentored.

“He made theology come to life through his everyday wisdom and application,” Powell said. “And that’s what made him so special. He can take some deep things and make them understandable for us in his dark corner northern Greenville County kind of way.”

Powell described him as the “common man scholar.”

“He could have gone anywhere. He could have been hired at just about any higher institution. I know several institutions that tried to hire him, but he was just so dedicated to North Greenville and our students.”

Rachel Davidson was a student in Johnson’s final systematic theology. When he entered the room to administer the final exam, students greeted their retiring professor with a standing ovation worthy of Elvis Presley.

“Dr. Johnson shows a genuine love for the Scriptures during his lectures and in his daily walk with the Lord,” Davidson said. “He knows Scripture well and is faithful to communicate them with joy. His example leads me to be more dedicated to loving God’s Word.”

GOD DID IT ALL

Johnson gave the commencement address at NGU’s 2024 graduation on May 3 at Younts Stadium — NGU’s 5,000-seat football stadium built in 2005, a facility that could hardly be imagined at the school in 1992 (NGU’s home games were previously played at Eastside High School). Johnson said only the grace of God can explain his decades of influential ministry. NGU awarded Johnson an Honorary Doctor of Divine Letters. In front of him sat a throng of eager NGU graduates, proof that God still raises the dead.

A fireworks display followed NGU’s graduation. Johnson’s son remarked to his dad, “When we first came here, a fireworks display like that would’ve blown the annual budget.”

By God’s grace and through the work of Johnson and others, that isn’t true anymore. True to form, Johnson, in his distinctively northern Greenville way of speaking, said he had a lot of help and is grateful for those whom he worked with at NGU. “If you ever see a turtle up on a table, you’ll know it did not get there by itself.”

“It has been a great ride. I am thankful for it. And if I had the opportunity, I’d do it all over again.”