William B. Johnson was born on June 13, 1782 on Johns Island, S.C. to Joseph and Mary (Bullein) Johnson. When young he was educated by his mother and after moving to Georgetown, S.C., he began the study of law under the direction of private teachers. In December 1803, Johnson married Henrietta Hornby. Johnson had intended to become a lawyer, but was converted during a Baptist revival in 1804. Johnson received honorary degrees from Brown University; A.M. in 1814 and D.D. in 1833.
In 1806, Johnson accepted a call to become pastor of the Euhaw Baptist Church of St. Luke’s Parish near Beaufort, South Carolina. In 1809, while serving as chaplain of South Carolina College, he was responsible for the organization of First Baptist Church in Columbia.
Johnson was also principal of the Greenville Female Academy, and in 1831 played a role in the establishment of the First Baptist Church of Greenville. In 1830, he moved to Edgefield to become principal of Edgefield Female Academy and pastor of Edgefield Baptist Church.
Johnson’s influence is best documented by his leadership positions in various Baptist institutions. Dr. Johnson attended the organizational meeting of the General Baptist Missionary Convention, the Triennial Convention in 1814. He was one of nine men who formed the South Carolina Baptist Convention in 1821. Succeeding Richard Furman as president of the convention and serving for 27 years (1825-52), Johnson helped found the school that became Furman University, and served on the Board of Trustees.
Johnson became the last southern president of the General Baptist Missionary Convention between 1841 and 1844. As tensions grew between the northern and southern Baptists over the issue of slavery, he attempted to avoid a split, but in 1845, he was asked to become the first president of the breakaway Southern Baptist Convention, serving until 1851.
Towards the end of his life, he was chancellor of Johnson Female University, Anderson, S.C. (1853-58), a woman’s college named in his honor. The school was forced to close during the Civil War and did not reopen. When Johnson’s health began to fail in 1858, he moved back to Greenville, S. C. to live with his daughter and her husband. He died on October 2, 1862.