God has a message that He want to get out to a dying world. He wants to tell the world about His great love and His soon return. Throughout the Bible there are examples of God using willing people or animals and objects to get His message out. He used ravens to encourage Elijah and remind him that He cared about him. He used a donkey to warn Balaam. He used a servant girl to lead Namaan to healing and he used a star to guide the shepherds to Jesus. Jesus told his disciples that if the gospel did not get carried out by them, the rocks would do the work for Him. There will always be something or someone willing to do the work of the Master. Such was the case in a cell on death row in Nashville, Tennessee.
2 Timothy 2:20-22 Contemporary English Version (CEV) says, “In a large house some dishes are made of gold or silver, while others are made of wood or clay. Some of these are special, and others are not. That’s also how it is with people. The ones who stop doing evil and make themselves pure will become special. Their lives will be holy and pleasing to their Master, and they will be able to do all kinds of good deeds. Run from temptations that capture young people. Always do the right thing. Be faithful, loving, and easy to get along with. Worship with people whose hearts are pure.
This Bible verse may well describe the experience of Elder Don Johnson after his conversion while serving time for murdering his wife, Connie Johnson in 1984. He served his time on death row in the Riverbend Maximum Security Institute in Nashville, TN.
Twenty-five years ago, the late Jimmie Pitt, a member of the Riverside Chapel Seventh-day Adventist Church was the Director of the Prison Ministry Department. A consistent team went to the Riverbend Prison on a weekly basis to minister to the inmates. It was during one of these Prison Ministry sessions that Jimmie Pitt made contact with Don Johnson and signed him up for Bible Studies. Mr. Johnson became an avid student of the Bible, ultimately accepting Christ as his Savior and becoming baptized.
Don Johnson, however, did not “hide it under a bushel”! Another Bible verse befitting Mr. Johnson is Acts 22:15 CEV, “You must tell everyone what you have seen and heard.” When the Prison Ministry team would come to visit Mr. Johnson would have a list of people for them to visit or during chapel they would obtain special permission so that everyone that wanted to attend would be able to attend the studies in the chapel at the invitation of Don Johnson.
So great was Don Johnson’s work for the Lord that Jimmie Pitt brought a recommendation before the church to ordain him as an Elder. It was felt that conferring upon him this title and responsibility would give him a better platform, more freedom and credibility in the eyes of the chaplain if he were authorized by a church. For example, being recognized as an Elder would allow him to give Communion in the absence of any other church presence. So great and thought of was the work of Elder Johnson that retired Chaplain, Jerry Welborn, went on record saying, “If they had allowed him to hire an assistant chaplain, he would have hired Don Johnson.”
Elder Johnson was totally dedicated to ministry and committed to sharing God’s message. From the confines of prison, he had his own radio broadcast. Every Sunday on WNAH 1360 at 11:30 a.m. his program, “What the Bible Says” would be aired. Several people were paying for the airtime and Elder Johnson would record his messages and Bible Studies then mail them out for the program. He ultimately recorded 125 episodes that aired in the 1990’s. In the 2000’s they continued playing the old episodes.
After some years passed, Riverside Chapel planted a new church, the New Hope Seventh-day Adventist Church in Chapmansboro, Tennessee. There some of the original prison ministry members attend and Elder Johnson held membership in the New Hope SDA Church. Pastor Ron Forté is the pastor.
Valiant efforts from those who believed in the work and witness of Elder Don Johnson for a stay of execution were presented to the governor of Tennessee, Bill Lee. These efforts included but were not limited to prayer vigils, letters from Elder Ted Wilson, President of the World Church of Seventh-day Adventists and Elder Dan Jackson, President of the North American Division of Seventh-day Adventists; church members; the students at F. H. Jenkins Preparatory School; inmates and the daughter of the of Mrs. Connie Johnson, the victim whom he murdered. However, the stay was denied and Elder Donnie Edward Johnson was executed by lethal injection on May 16, 2019. It was reported that Elder Johnson was singing during his actual execution – “Blessed Assurance”, “Soon and Very Soon” and “They Will Know We are Christians”. His formal last words were a prayer of forgiveness for himself and for those participating in his execution.
Inmates who are on Death-row are given $20.00 towards their last meal. When Elder Johnson received his money, he requested the money be used to feed a homeless person. Sabbath, May 27, 2019, Riverside Chapel SDA Church had their first Don Johnson Memorial Community Service Day. In his honor, Riverside Chapel prepared food and sent their buses out into the community to bring in the homeless for a meal. They also prepared, “To-go” plates for the member to take with them to hand out to any homeless person(s) they saw on their way home. This is slated to be an annual event.
Pastor Furman Fordham is the Senior Pastor of the Riverside Seventh-day Adventist Church and provided the interview for this article. When asked what he would say in closing about the life of Elder Don Johnson, he replied, “I was just amazed at how much peace someone had who knew that they were scheduled to die… He was not wavering in his faith.”
If you would like to read more in-depth information on the ministry and the influence of Elder Donnie E. Johnson, visit the link provided.
Submitted by Jill Edmond