Longtime Zion Hill Baptist pastor Johnson dies at age 71

By W. WINSTON SKINNER
winston@newnan.com
Rev. W. J. Johnson, a longtime Newnan pastor, died unexpectedly on Sunday – leaving many friends to mourn his loss and a church family seeking solace.
Not only was Johnson pastor of Zion Hill Baptist Church on Pinson Street in Newnan, he was active in the community – and had a reputation for reaching across racial boundaries to create opportunities for shared ministry.
“We’ve lost a great leader,” said Dr. Gene Tyre, longtime pastor of First Baptist Church of Newnan. “He was a spiritual giant among us. He served with great humility and integrity and compassion.”
“We’re in a state of shock,” said Kathy Gay, whose family has been a part of the Zion Hill congregation throughout Johnson’s tenure. “Rev. Johnson has been with us 39 years.”
Johnson, 71, died Sunday at Piedmont Newnan Hospital. Willie Josephus Johnson was a native Cowetan – born Oct. 30, 1942, to Washington Johnson Sr. and Amanda Lovelace Johnson. He was the sixth of 10 children.
Johnson made a decision to follow Christ as a child and joined St. Smyrna Baptist Church, where he was a member for many years. A talented singer, he sang with his church choir, local quartet groups and other church choirs.

He was also a soloist and had an opportunity to audition for a professional group in the early 1960s, but he chose not to go, family members said.

Johnson accepted a call to the ministry in July 1967. St. Smyrna was packed as he delivered his first sermon the evening of the fourth Sunday in October that year. Rev. Johnson was ordained on June 28, 1970.

Johnson was youth church pastor at St. Smyrna from 1967-1969. He served four years as pastor of Sunnyside Baptist Church in Greenville, Ga., starting in 1970. Johnson was pastor of Zion Hill Baptist Church near Luthersville, Ga., from 1972-1976.

He became pastor of Zion Hill Baptist in Newnan in 1973. He was active in the Western Union Missionary Baptist Association and its auxiliaries.

He became dean of the Western Union Congress of Christian Education and received his National Lifetime Certification with the Nashville Publishing Board. Johnson also was certified by the Western Union Congress of Christian Education.

Johnson served as second vice president of the Fourth District to the General Missionary Baptist Convention of Georgia. He became vice moderator of Western Union Association in 1980 and had been moderator of the association since 1990.

Kathy Gay noted that the associational moderator is the person the church would normally consult in the sudden loss of a pastor.

When Franklin Graham announced plans to conduct a crusade in Coweta County several years ago, Johnson and Tyre were among those working to make sure the evangelistic outreach would go to the entire community.

“He was a good friend,” Tyre said. “He was a person who wanted the best for all citizens of our community. He reached across racial lines and showed his love for all people.”

Johnson organized the Coweta County Mass Choir in 1982 and launched the Believers-Against-Drugs Crusade in 1992. He worked with juvenile court and court services workers. Johnson served as chaplain of the Newnan High School basketball team, and Tyre remembered him having a special concern for young people.

Johnson graduated from Central High School in Newnan in 1961. He later matriculated at Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta and studied psychology at West Georgia College. Johnson held a bachelor of arts degree in theology and a master of divinity degree from Immanuel Baptist College and Seminary.

Before he became a pastor, Johnson was a commercial builder. He worked with Beers Construction Company in a supervisory capacity for many years. He also took a major role in building several area churches – including the current Zion Hill facility.

The current building was completed in 1976, and Johnson joined the church’s men in making the new church building a reality. He also led the congregation to make improvements to the church over the years – as well a providing a steady, calm spiritual leadership.

Having been led to the Zion Hill family in 1973, he found the building in dire need of repairs. Notes his niece, Santanita Bonner, Rev. Johnson “being led of the Lord, counted up the cost and began the plans for a new edifice.”

“Groundbreaking services were held in 1974 and Pastor Johnson took a leave from his public job to begin the new building and we marched into the new building in April 1976,” Bonner said. “He, later, sacrificed his public employment to become a full-time pastor.”

“He moved the church forward in so many ways,” said Gay.

After beginning his studies at Immanuel Seminary and College, Johnson did a restructuring of the Church Sunday school, he set up 10 classes, began a Wednesday night Bible study, and a class for the deacons, Bonner shared. He organized a Combined Choir, and under his leadership were started the Youth Ministry, UCCA Club, a Male Chorus, Outreach and Evangelism Ministry. Over the years he conducted neighborhood worship services which involved Coweta County Correctional Institution Choir, a counseling team, organized a Teacher’s Workshop, and other workshops for the church. “Our church has been involved with the General Missionary Baptist State Convention of Georgia Choir, with Crusade 92 choir, Christmas caroling around the Court Square in Newnan, and he’s ordained several deacons, and several ministers,” Bonner said.

Rev. Johnson “again saw the need for expansion of our current edifice and once again began an addition on our building,” Bonner said. “We recently added several classrooms to our upstairs and downstairs areas, new ladies’ and men’s rooms, a choir room, finance/office rooms, a new front entrance, and a sound room, and a remodeled pastor’s study.”

“The new addition was dedicated to the Lord in April 2002. God continues to give the spiritual increase,” Bonner said.

Gay noted Johnson had experienced some health problems in recent years but that he also “preached the Sunday before” his death.

“He’s meant so much to us – just being there,” Gay said. “He was just like family.”

The funeral will be Friday at 6 p.m. at Zion Hill Baptist Church. Viewing will begin today at 11 a.m. at Sellers Smith Funeral Home in Newnan. The remains will lie in state at the church on Friday from 10 a.m. until the service hour.

Burial will be Saturday at 11 a.m. in Eastview Cemetery. A meal will follow at Zion Hill at 11:30 a.m.

Johnson and his wife, Ida, were married 51 years. She has made her own impact in the community, not only as a pastor’s wife, but as director of the county’s Tommy Thompson Senior Center on Hospital Road in Newnan. The Johnsons have two grown sons and two grown daughters, as well as god children, grandchildren and great grandchildren.

Tyre reflected on Johnson’s years of ministry – and the continuing impact of his life. “He was such an encourager,” he said. “His ministry was one of encouragement – helping people in difficult times know that life could be better.”



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