June 25: [James Weldon Johnson], Poet, 1938

Welcome to the Holy Women, Holy Men blog! We invite you to read about this commemoration, use the collect and lessons in prayer, whether individually or in corporate worship, and then tell us what you think. For more information about this project, click here.

from Twentieth Century Negro Literature http://www.gutenberg.org/etext/18772. Pub. 1902.

About this commemoration

James Weldon Johnson was born in 1871 in Jacksonville, Florida. His parents stimulated his academic interests and he was encouraged to study literature and music. Johnson enrolled at Atlanta University with the expressed intention that the education he received there would be used to further the interests of the black people. He never reneged on that commitment. In the summer after his freshman year, Johnson taught the children of former slaves. Of that experience he wrote, “In all of my experience there has been no period so brief that has meant so much in my education for life as the three months I spent in the backwoods of Georgia.” After graduation, he became the principal of the largest high school in Jacksonville, during which time he was paid half of what his white counterparts were paid even though the school excelled under his leadership.

In 1900, he collaborated with his brother, Rosamond, a composer, to create “Lift Ev’ry Voice and Sing.” Written in celebration of President Lincoln’s birthday, the song, still popular today, has become known as the “African American National Anthem.” Due to the success of their collaboration, Johnson moved to New York in 1901 to join his brother and together they attained success as lyricist and composer for Broadway.

In 1906, Johnson was invited to work for the diplomatic corps and became U.S. Consul to Venezuela and later Nicaragua.  During his Nicaraguan tenure, Johnson was a voice of reason and reconciliation in a time of civil unrest and turmoil. His ability to bring together people of differing viewpoints toward a common vision served Johnson well in the 1920’s when he became an organizer for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Johnson was a prolific poet and anthologist. He edited The Book of American Negro Poetry (1922), a major contribution to the history of African-American literature. His book of poetry God’s Trombones (1927), seven biblical stories rendered into verse, was influenced by his impressions of the rural South.

James Weldon Johnson died in 1938.


I  Eternal God, we give thanks for the gifts that thou didst bestow upon thy servant James Weldon Johnson: a heart and voice to praise thy Name in verse. As he gave us powerful words to glorify you, may we also speak with joy and boldness to banish hatred from thy creation, in the Name of Jesus Christ; who with thee and the Holy Spirit liveth and reigneth, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

II   Eternal God, we give thanks for the gifts that you gave your servant James Weldon Johnson: a heart and voice to praise your Name in verse. As he gave us powerful words to glorify you, may we also speak with joy and boldness to banish hatred from your creation, in the Name of Jesus Christ; who with you and the Holy Spirit lives and reigns, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

Psalm 46:1–8


Sirach (Ecclesiasticus) 39:1–11

Ephesians 6:10–18

Luke 1:57–75

Preface of the Epiphany

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

20 thoughts on “June 25: [James Weldon Johnson], Poet, 1938

  1. Bio: He needs a ‘Who he is’ and ‘Why he is important’ statement.

    Note: Paragraph 3 spells out NAACP and then abbreviates it. This is different from Thurgood Marshall’s commemoration as previously noted. HWHM should be consistent, one way or the other.

    And yet again this bio uses ‘black’ and ‘African-American’ interchangeably. HWHM needs to choose which adjective to utilize and use it consistently.

  2. This man had a wonderfully baptized imagination and the contents of “Trombones” is clear and enduring evidence of his gifts. To hear Hal Holbrook recite the “Ceation” piece was my intro. to
    Johnson. I have gone back, repeatedly, to “Trombones” and have been fed by what he did there. I recall (from somewhere) that much of what is in this collection was based on his listening to the preachers of the Afro-American tradition. Strong pieces of the oral tradition are
    captured in this collect and we are richer for it. “Go Down Death” is another wonderous piece in
    the collection (my favoite). How might his work as reconciler be added to the heading of his
    biography ?? VERY glad he has been added to the calendar !!

    • Michael Hartney’s comments on black/African-American and NAACP again show that the Standing Commission/editors of HWHM needs to write a style book for the HWHM editiors, and to make it available for future proposers of additions to the book.If writing a style book is a burden, then look to established ones: say, The Chigago Manuel of Style, style books used by NYTimes or WPost.

    • I admit I know nothing about Johnson other than what is given here. Based solely on the HWHM bio, he appears to have been a many-talented individual and a monumental figure in the early civil rights movement. However, there is little indication in the bio that his accomplishments were driven or underpinned by his Christian faith (as was the case with Dr. King, for example). Given Richard Lewis’s comments and greater knowledge of the man, I suspect that I am wrong. If that be the case, the bio needs a major re-write to describe how Johnson’s spirituality drove his accomplishments.

      • John: this was my thought as well. Coming out of the Black/black/African-American church tradition (O Cynthia, where is thy style book?) doesn’t actually translate to faith– it can as well be a cultural environment. I cannot tell from this rather secular biography whether he even had a Christian faith. The Collect says “As he gave us powerful words to glorify you” but does that simply mean he was a powerful poet? Here in Dayton, local poet and writer Paul Lawrence Dunbar (the only black schoolmate of Wilbur & Orville Wright) is an important literary figure– but I know of no reason to call him “Holy.” Same here: was Johnson Holy, other than being blessed by God with voice and imagination? (Hollywood proves those do not always translate into sanctity!)

        Richard Lewis: I wonder if you could unpack your phrase “a wonderfully baptized imagination” for us? That might help!

  3. Born in Jacksonville , FL on 17 June 1871
    Died in Maine (accident) 26 June 1938
    Buried in Brooklyn, NY
    My reference (previous post) was not to the Collect but the collection (Trombones), Sorry
    Appointed to Counsolar Service by Theo, Rooseveldt

  4. The blog on Johnson gave me information I heretofore did not know. How interesting. It would have been unusual for a black man during those times not to be a Christian. Why question it, assume it!

    Lift Every Voice and Sing is used in most Black Episcopal Churches, and is revered for the contents therein.

  5. Re John Morrell’s comment – Si si! When i graduated from high school, my favorite English teacher gave me a little paperback titled 5 Minutes a Day to Perfect Spelling. Obviously I ignored it!

    needs to write” instead of “need to write” result of recasting sentence on the fly.

  6. I had never heard of him before. but the bio sounds like he would be a good addition to our calendar. The readings are very well chosen.

  7. I agree. The biography as written does not explain why this man is proposed for inclusion in
    Holy Women, Holy Men. May I suggest a website with some the Mr. Johnson’s poems. Just read
    one or two or more if there is time and then it becomes abundantly clear why he was proposed.
    I suggest that the biography be written so that the strength, insight, wonder and delight of his
    poetry might carry over into his biography.


  8. Suzanne, thanks for the link. I just read a couple of Johnson’s poems and now see why he is a worthy addition to the calendar. The biography needs a major re-write. “Strength, insight, wonder and delight” are frequently lacking in much of the dead-handed committee-speak of SCLM. Just because a committee produced the King James Bible does not, unfortunately, mean that all Anglican committees produce striking prose.

  9. I will brag about a probably-above-average previous familiarity with James Weldon Johnson for an Old Midwestern White Guy. Looking back, I think much of my public school education was quite progressive for its day. I loved, and still love, “The Creation.” Admittedly, “I’m lonely — I’ll make me a world” isn’t very good theology, but it’s wonderful poetry.

  10. I believe that JWJ was , personally, an agnostic. Nevertheless, his collection in “Trombones” and in the two books of Negro Spirituals provide materials which enrich us as Christians in a variety of ways.
    Being able to devote the time and careful attention to preservation work (the spirtuals) indicates an awareness of his heritage and the value he assigned to it . The baptised imagination I noted earlier is in reading of the poems, esp. “Trombones”. Perhaps he was a ” Witness” who never quite
    grew into a believer. Read thru the intro to “Trombones”, it may give reason enough for inclusion on the
    calenadr. If not, that’s OK because the materials are still in print , 80+ years later.

  11. Since he died on June 26th, his commemoration could be shared on that date with Isabel Hapgood.

    I suggest that the subtitle be shown as “Lyricist and Poet, 1938”.

    Line 1, first paragraph: substitute “on June 17,” for “in”.

    Line 3, fourth paragraph: delete the hyphen in “African-American” to conform to the usage shown in the second paragraph.

    Final paragraph: substitute “in June 26, 1938, in Wiscasset, Maine.” for “in 1938”.

  12. For the past 13 years on Wednesday mornings, I have been preaching about the “saints” from Holy Women & Holy Men, plus other sources (eg All Saints by Robert Ellsberg).HWHM reminds us of some distinguished people. But I question whether they belong in the calendar of the Episcopal Church. Why Wiiliam Dubois? Why James Weldon Johnson? Why Samson Occum? Those who not Episcopalians should be commemorated in the calendars of their denominations. Do we need Constance & her companions (yes!) as well as James Chisholm (no!)? Am glad you included Adelaide Teague Case whom we will remember tomorrow. Thank you for your work, Hugh Stevenson, Kenwood CA

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