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JOHNSON, WILLIAM, businessman, civil servant, and Sunday school superintendent; b. 28 Sept. 1842 in Antrim (Northern Ireland), eldest son of William Johnson, a merchant, and Mary Bennett; m. 28 Nov. 1867 Mary Louise Jones Lyon in Belleville, Ont., and they had three sons and three daughters; d. there 12 Oct. 1912.

William Johnson’s forebears had fought for William III in Ireland in 1689–90 and had been rewarded with land grants at Oldstone, near Antrim. With this heritage, it was natural for William, at 18, to join the Orange lodge in Belfast, where he had gone to complete his education. At age 21 he immigrated to Belleville, bringing with him letters of introduction to Mackenzie Bowell, publisher of the Intelligencer, an ardent Orangeman, and a fellow Methodist. Bowell provided Johnson with accommodation and a newspaper job. As soon as he had arrived in Belleville he had joined the 15th Battalion Volunteer Militia Infantry, and he was active in resisting the Fenian raids in 1866. For three years Johnson lived in St Catharines, where he became a Sunday school superintendent, but he soon returned to Belleville. By 1871 he had opened a shop there selling hats, furs, and men’s clothing; within a few years he was joined in this business by his brother John Wesley.

Probably through Bowell’s influence as minister of customs, the federal government appointed Johnson a district inspector of weights and measures in 1879 and a gas inspector the following year; in 1895 he also became an inspector of electric lighting. Although he was faithful and efficient in this work till his death in 1912, his importance derives from his avocations.

A natural leader, Johnson rose through the ranks of the Orange lodge to become provincial grand master for Ontario East in 1883–87. When the lodge obtained a federal charter in 1890, both Johnson and Bowell were among the incorporators. Four times Johnson represented the Canadian lodge at worldwide grand councils, in Londonderry (Northern Ireland), Edinburgh, Ottawa, and Toronto. His frequent speeches were given, his obituary in the Daily Intelligencer would note, with “a great deal of wit and yet earnestness and Celtic fire.” Even his commercial ability was turned to the lodge: by 1896 he had established a company that manufactured Orange regalia.

Greater fame came from Johnson’s role as superintendent of the Sunday school of Bridge Street Methodist Church in Belleville, and in the wider Christian education movement. Established in 1822, the Belleville Sunday school had grown under the energetic leadership of local merchant Billa Flint*, who had been a scholar at the first such school in the province, begun in Elizabethtown (Brockville) by the Reverend William Smart*.

By the time the Belleville congregation had moved to its new stone church on Bridge Street in 1865, Johnson was deeply involved. He succeeded to the superintendent’s role in 1874. The previous year a new series of Sunday school publications known as the International Lessons had appeared, produced jointly by Protestant denominations in England, the United States, and Canada. Johnson immediately employed these materials and other advanced ideas. He recruited and trained a team of loyal teachers, and set out to increase the number of scholars, with rewards for children who brought others. In 1880 Johnson persuaded reluctant trustees to remodel the large church basement on the Akron plan, named for its origin in a Methodist church in Akron, Ohio. By this plan, classrooms with folding doors were arranged in a semicircle radiating from a central podium. In this arrangement all could participate in the general session and then the doors could be closed for class lessons, with a minimum of movement.

The students were divided into departments by age. Adult Bible classes drew large numbers of men and women. A “Cradle Roll” department enrolled newborn infants and provided literature and support to parents. A “Home Department” ministered to the elderly and to those physically unable to attend church. “Sunday School for every member and every member in Sunday School” became more than a slogan. With a remarkable memory for names, Johnson greeted each of the scholars at the church door. Attendance grew rapidly in spite of the creation of five other Sunday schools from that at Bridge Street. Attendance averaged between 300 and 500, with membership peaking at 1,083 in 1897. Such participation, phenomenal in a town of fewer than 10,000 people, made Bridge Street the largest Sunday school in Canada.

Johnson gave leadership in the Sunday school movement not only in Belleville but also at the national and international levels. Elected president of the Sunday School Association of Canada in 1876, he further served the Methodist Church as a delegate between 1886 and 1902 to five quadrennial general conferences, where he sat on committees on statistics, Sunday schools, and youth work. In 1904 he was a delegate to the fourth World Sunday School Convention in Jerusalem. Johnson did not live to see his denomination enter church union in 1925, but he rejoiced at the 99 per cent yes vote of the Bridge Street congregation just seven months before his death in 1912. As recording steward for its board, he supervised the voting procedures.

In addition to his church work, Johnson served Belleville for 37 years as a member of its Board of Education, five of them as chairman (1882–86). His two brothers were more politically inclined: John, his one-time business partner and a principal of the Ontario Business College in Belleville, served terms as mayor and as an mla; James was editor of two Conservative newspapers, the Kingston News and the Ottawa Citizen.

Although William Johnson was not a creator of new ideas, he effectively implemented those of others. While clinging to many conservative ideals, he was progressive in the field of Christian education and set clear goals, which he pursued ardently. He represents the crossover between those Christians who stressed conversion and those who focused on educating children in Christian values [see Henry Flesher Bland*]. He had been an eager supporter of evangelistic work among youth, and had espoused the four Belleville missions, in 1888, 1894, 1902, and 1908, of the Methodist evangelistic team of Hugh Thomas Crossley* and John Edwin Hunter. Johnson was an exceptional example of the thousands of volunteer leaders in many denominations who gave the Sunday school movement tremendous momentum, significantly influencing generations of youth and adults.

J. William Lamb

[In addition to receiving lengthy obituaries in the Daily Intelligencer (Belleville, Ont.), 14 Oct. 1912, and the Christian Guardian (Toronto), 4 Dec. 1912, William Johnson was featured in the Canadian Epworth Era (Toronto), January 1907. Details of his Irish background were obtained by the author from the Reverend Eric Gallagher of Lisburn, Northern Ireland. The fullest account of Johnson’s life appears in J. W. Lamb, Bridging the years: a history of Bridge Street United/Methodist Church, Belleville, 1815–1990 (Winfield, B.C., 1990).  j.w.l.]

AO, RG 22-340, no.4342; RG 80-27-2, 18: 159. NA, RG 31, C1, 1871, Belleville, div.1: 70 (mfm. at AO). Can., Parl., Sessional papers, 1896, no.16a; 1913, no.30. Cyclopædia of Canadian biog. (Rose and Charlesworth), vol.1. Directories, Belleville, 1877, 1896; Ont., 1871.

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Cite This Article

J. William Lamb, “JOHNSON, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed September 22, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/johnson_william_14E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/johnson_william_14E.html
Author of Article:   J. William Lamb
Title of Article:   JOHNSON, WILLIAM
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 14
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1998
Year of revision:   1998
Access Date:   September 22, 2023