After Tennessee Governor Bill Lee denied clemency to Donnie Edward Johnson on Tuesday, May 14, 2019, the Riverside Chapel Seventh-day Adventist Church has decided to hold a prayer vigil for Johnson, an Adventist on death row for murdering his wife more than 30 years ago. Johnson, who holds Bible studies inside the prison and started a radio program called "What the Bible Says,” is an elder of Riverside Chapel, and a part of the church’s prison ministry.
“We are praying even at this hour, with the governor saying he has denied clemency, that God will change his decision," said Furman Fordham II, Riverside Chapel pastor. "We are still asking God and hoping, if it is His will, that He would stop this and preserve Don’s life."
The meeting will be held at the church at 6 p.m. (CDT), on May 16, the day Johnson is scheduled to die. This will be the church's second prayer vigil; the first was held on Saturday, May 11, in front of the Tennessee State Capitol in Nashville. "We will be giving individuals an opportunity to express where they are relative to this journey. To pray for Don, to pray for the governor . . . we will be here at 7 when the decision is finally executed or not. If it is execution — we are still hoping it will not be — we will stay on sight so we can mourn, encourage one another in the Lord, and praise God that Don has everlasting life."
Several Adventist Church leaders have asked for mercy for Johnson, with letters hand-delivered to Gov. Lee this week.
In one letter, Ted N.C. Wilson, Seventh-day Adventist Church world president, asked Lee to “prayerfully consider granting mercy to Mr. Johnson by sparing his life so he may continue providing this important spiritual ministry.”
“I am told that [Mr. Johnson] has brought other prisoners to Christ, leading them to make a full surrender to God, and that this is having a positive influence throughout the prison and beyond,” Wilson wrote.
Daniel R. Jackson, president of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America (NAD) also sent a letter, acknowledging the inmate’s crime while writing that Johnson “turned his life around and now serves as a Christian mentor to his fellow prisoners. . . . The multiple lives he helped transform via his prison ministry are only a glimpse into the many potential lives he can touch and help transform.”
Despite the letters of appeal from Adventist church leaders and members, as well as members of other faith communities, Gov. Lee stated that he will not stop the execution, the first of his term, rejecting a plea for mercy from Johnson.
“After a prayerful and deliberate consideration of Don Johnson‘s request for clemency, and after a thorough review of the case, I am upholding the sentence of the State of Tennessee and will not be intervening,” Lee said in a brief statement released shortly before 5:30 p.m. on May 14.
NAD church leaders responded on May 15 with this comment: “Our prayers go out to Donnie Johnson, his family, and all those involved in his case. Mr. Johnson has expressed he has found peace in the decision to deny him clemency and we pray that he will continue to find strength provided by his faith in Jesus Christ.
"The Seventh-day Adventist Church in North America had hoped for a different outcome in the decision regarding clemency. We acknowledge Governor Bill Lee’s prayerful consideration of Mr. Johnson’s case and understand this was a difficult decision.”
Johnson’s clemency attorney, Rev. Charles Fels, responded to Lee’s statement on behalf of Johnson, saying that the inmate “accepts it as God’s will.”
"Don [is in] the death watch cell, right beside the death chamber. . . . He is amazingly experiencing the peace of God, which I think is an obvious miracle and answer to prayer," said Fordham. "We are praying that God, if He does allow him to lay down his life, will have Don do it with no fear, with peace, and so much faith that his death becomes a shining testimony to those who are watching."
"The balancing act is praying with hope and optimism and faith, . . . simultaneously believing that what God does and allows is still for His glory. We are right in the middle of that space," he added.
Fordham shared that he and his congregation will also be praying for Johnson's family. "We do not minimize the horrific murder that he committed. Neither does he," Fordham said. "We recognized there are family members who have not received [sic] forgiveness and they are seeking closure through ‘vengeance justice,’ and we are praying for them too. We are praying that God will heal them.”
Johnson is scheduled to die by lethal injection at 7 p.m. on May 16.
UPDATE 09:30 EDT, May 20, 2019: Adventist and death row inmate Donnie Edward Johnson died at 7:37 p.m. CDT on May 16, 2019; read a full report by the Tennessean.
CLICK HERE to read the NAD’s first report on Johnson’s story and full versions of Jackson’s and Wilson’s letters to Lee.