Dr. Charles Thigpen reflects on his history with the first president of Welch College, the flagship school of the National Association of Free Will Baptists.
Building a Team
It was February of 1948 when my wife and I first met Dr. L. C. Johnson. We had received a telegram from him, asking if we would consider teaching positions at Free Will Baptist Bible College (“FWBBC”) (now Welch College) in Nashville, Tennessee. This was a newly-formed school that Johnson had been asked to head in 1942. I called Dr. Johnson, telling him that we would pray about the matter. Since we were ministering in Tuscaloosa, Alabama at the time, he asked us to meet him in Birmingham, where he would tell us more about the positions and the College.
We were both very impressed with Dr. Johnson. He was a tall, handsome person—and a great communicator, very kind, and friendly. He was, by all accounts, a southern gentleman. Like us, he had attended Bob Jones University, which contributed to our kinship. He told us that the College needed two professors for the fall semester—one in speech and English, and the other in Bible, Christian education, and psychology.
Ultimately, we asked him more questions than he asked us! We knew nothing about “Free Will Baptists.” We had thought that “Baptists were Baptists,” until he explained that Free Will Baptists were not Calvinist, but Arminian. They believed in the total inspiration of the Bible and that each local church was “autonomous” (ran its own business). I well remember saying to my wife, as we drove from Birmingham back to Tuscaloosa, “We are really more Free Will Baptists than we are Southern Methodists.”
After much prayer and soul-searching, we joined the college faculty in the fall of 1948. Though there was no pressure for us to become Free Will Baptists, we felt that we should nevertheless, since we were, in belief and practice, already Free Will Baptists anyway.
Building a College
Working at the College, we learned much about the denomination. In 1911, most of the Freewill Baptists in the North had joined the Northern Baptists . Years later in 1935, the Free Will Baptists from the East and the West met in Nashville and formed the National Association of Free Will Baptists. Having lost colleges in the 1911 merger, it was clear from the very beginning that they wanted a college where their young people could again be trained. Finally, the National Association’s Board of Education bought the 3609 Richland Avenue building in Nashville and persuaded Dr. L. C. Johnson to serve as President.
After serving for three years, he stepped aside, Reverend L. R. Ennis succeeding him. However, he resigned after just two years. Dr. Johnson having pastored in the meantime, the Board persuaded him to return as President in the fall of 1947. Because many of the graduates of this (at the time) two-year college continued on to other colleges to complete their degrees, efforts were made to find colleges that would accept our students’ already-earned credits.
Peabody College in Nashville (then considered the leading teacher’s college in the South) agreed to accept every credit a student had earned at FWBBC. Then, in the fall of 1949, the College added a third year of studies. With this third year in place, Peabody’s Registrar now saw no reason why a graduate of our three-year program could not graduate from Peabody in a year (or at the most a year and a summer). This opinion would later be shared by the University of Tennessee’s Registrar too.
In May of 1951, five students graduated from FWBBC with bachelor degrees. This marked the first time in decades that students had graduated from a Free Will Baptist College. The enrollment continued to climb as Johnson envisioned the College as more than a “Bible institute,” but as an opportunity for a well-rounded education that included many areas of study.
Lessons from Johnson
During that same year of 1951, The Lumen, the College’s annual yearbook, dedicated its publication to Dr. L. C. Johnson, saying:
All of us admire and appreciate the ‘all-round’ personality, or the one who is an accomplished person in diversified fields. We seldom see that person, however, whom we consider outstanding in more than one or two phases of work. Our President, Rev. L. C. Johnson, is a unique personality of many outstanding abilities. For the consistent and practical way that he has unfolded to us the Scriptures, for the wise way that he has counseled all of us, for the many interesting subjects that he has taught us, and for the capable and dignified, yet humble way, that he has directed the administrative affairs of the school–we gratefully dedicate the 1951 publication of THE LUMEN, to our faithful President, the Reverend L. C. Johnson.
In addition to his Presidential duties, Dr. Johnson taught several courses, including Arminian Theology  and Free Will Baptist Doctrine. He also spoke to the faculty and students nearly every day (Tuesday-Friday) in chapel. A very serious student of the Bible, he had a unique way of presenting truth to his audience.
Then, in the late-1970’s, the College published a book entitled Gleanings, which were excerpts from Dr. Johnson’s chapel messages. It was my privilege to write the introduction:
Someone has said that ‘a man is his message.’ This is true concerning the author of the present volume. It has been my privilege to know the writer and work closely with him for approximately twenty-five years. In this time, I have observed his life at close range under many different circumstances. Dr. L. C. Johnson is a man of unswerving loyalty to the teachings of God’s Word. He is truly a ‘man of one book’–and that book is the Bible. His heart is tender, his touch is gentle, but his devotion to principle is firm and unwavering. While others may be willing to take the ‘short look’, and do that which expediency demands; Dr Johnson has consistently taken the ‘long look’ and done that which is right–that which is consistent with the teachings of God’s Word. These ‘sermons in miniature’, are selections from chapel messages….Dr. Johnson is a careful thinker with a wisdom born of a rich experience with God. Most of these excerpts show the speaker’s commitment to a very practical Christianity. Though Dr. Johnson has an understanding of Biblical truths and theological concepts possessed by few men among us, yet these gleanings show that he also has a devotion to ‘down to earth’ Christian living which is the practical outworking of the grace of God in a life.
Here are some further excerpts from Gleanings:
If you sleep in chapel, you will sleep through life…There is no difference between your walk and your character. You are what you do. You are always impure before you commit an impure act. You are impure in your heart and mind, then you just act it out. But a man of integrity will do right…I believe that in every Christian’s experience, there is a time of testing. I don’t think that any Christian is exempted. It isn’t that God needs to know what you are or what you will do. He already knows. But God wants you to know. It’s important for you to know what you are…Paul said, ‘I have learned, in whatsoever state I am, therewith to be content’ (Phil. 4:11). Now that is a greater victory than building great buildings. That’s a greater victory than accomplishing great goals. The greatest, most important goal in a Christian’s life, is to learn to accept God’s will, be content and satisfied, without grumbling or complaining, knowing that his life is in God’s hands, and that He will care of him.
The Late L.C. Johnson (February 3, 1914 – June 26, 2002)
By 1979 Johnson retired from the burgeoning college and became chancellor during the early years of my tenure as President (1979-90). Though retired, he continued to influence the denomination. Having served previously as Moderator (1947-48), he would address the denomination’s body again at the 1985 Convention in Nashville. One of the many details of that message was an emphasis on the need for Free Will Baptist churches in urban areas—something that many evangelicals have begun to stress only recently. Johnson also emphasized the necessity of Christian higher education: “Education of the right kind activates the latent powers of the human personalities and gives it direction to useful purposes” . This was certainly felt in his ministry at the college.
All in all, Dr. Johnson has been invaluable to the Free Will Baptist denomination. In conclusion, I’ll share a memorable quotation from Gleanings that represents Johnson’s heartbeat:
Have you said within yourself, ‘I’m going to do the job God has given me to do?’ I’ll tell you, every man like that amounts to something. You don’t have to be smart. It’s strange that God does not require brilliance. He’s said that not many mighty are called. But God takes the ordinary man; just the ordinary man, if he’s a man of commitment and a man of courage .
 This difference of spelling (freewill v. free will) is another characteristic that separated the those in the North from those in the South.
 It is worth noting that Leroy Forlines and Robert Picirilli were students in some of those earliest classes in Arminian Theology.
 “Remembering the Past,” sermon in Free Will Baptist Convention Sermons: 1935-2010 (Nashville: Executive Office, 2011), 346-355.
 Some of the information included during the editorial process was collected from “L.C. Johnston: 20th-century Visionary,” in Contact (October 2002): 4-8. Additional quotations were taken from The Lumen and Gleanings, two volumes possessed by the Welch College library.
About the Author: Dr. Charles A. Thigpen was a long-time faculty member and administrator at Welch College, in addition to serving as President in the 1980s. He and his wife live in south Georgia where they continue to serve churches as they have their entire ministry. More can be read about the Thigpens’ fruitful ministry by reading Jackson Watts’ article in ONE Magazine.