James Steptoe Johnson, Civil War soldier and Episcopal bishop, was born at Church Hill, Mississippi, sixteen miles from Natchez, on June 9, 1843, the youngest child of James Steptoe and Louisa Newman (Covington) Johnston. The elder Johnston was a cotton planter and attorney. Johnston's mother died when he was three years old, and his stepmother, Ruth Ann (Woods) Johnston, reared him. As a boy he attended the local Episcopal church, which served people of all denominations in the area and thus taught him the Christian interdenominationalism that he espoused passionately as an adult. On more than one occasion, as bishop, he wrote to the pope encouraging unification.
For prank-playing he was expelled from Presbyterian Oakland College in Mississippi, and the following year he left the University of Virginia to enlist at Harper's Ferry. He served as a private in John Bell Hood's division (1861–62) and as second lieutenant in James Ewell Brown (Jeb) Stuart's cavalry (1862–65); he saw action at the Seven Days battles before Richmond, the second battle of Manassas, and at Sharpsburg or Antietam Creek. Union troops captured Johnston while he was on home leave in 1863 and held him prisoner for a year. Twenty-five years later, upon arriving at his frontier bishopric in West Texas, he claimed his Civil War experience as a qualification for the undertaking.
He returned home after the war, married a childhood friend, Mary M. Green, and read law until 1867, when he assumed charge of his father's plantation; a leaf disease destroyed his cotton crop the first year. In 1868 Johnston began to read for the ministry; he was ordained to the diaconate in 1869 and to the priesthood in 1871. His parishes included St. James Church, Port Gibson, Mississippi, 1870–76; Ascension Church, Mount Sterling, Kentucky, 1876–80; and Trinity Church, Mobile, Alabama, 1880–88. In Alabama Mrs. Johnston and the youngest of their six children died. In 1888 Johnston, who had not completed college or attended seminary, became the second bishop of the missionary district of Western Texas. His consecration was held at his parish in Mobile on June 6, 1888, and in the same year the University of the South awarded him an honorary doctor of divinity degree.
He faced hard financial and physical conditions in his Texas jurisdiction of more than 100,000 square miles; his difficulties were exacerbated by a severe drought for the first seven years of his bishopric. Regularly touring his territory by stagecoach or hired team and hack from his San Antonio headquarters, the bishop stressed two themes-stewardship and education. He deplored his district's dependency on Board of Missions funds and on private support from easterners and continually admonished his flock to be responsible for itself. Finally, in October 1904, under more favorable economic conditions, the General Convention in Boston admitted the Western District of Texas, at its application, into financially self-sufficient status as a diocese. Immediately the clergy of the new Diocese of West Texas unanimously elected Johnston as its first bishop.
Johnston realized another goal, the development of church schools to train future lay leaders, through the expansion of St. Mary's Hall in San Antonio and the establishment of two other San Antonio schools. In 1893 he established West Texas Military Academy, the future Texas Military Institute, where the first graduating class included Douglas MacArthur. In 1895 he admitted to the district, at their request, a congregation of black Methodists as St. Philip's Church, and the following year began a day school there to teach industrial arts. In 1907 St. Philip's became a boarding school and, later, St. Philip's College.
After 1904 recurring droughts and swings in the economy made the financial chores of the new diocese too burdensome for one administrator. In 1911 Johnston asked for a bishop coadjutor to share the work. When the request was granted two years later, he retired to Kerrville, and in 1916 resigned after forty-five years in the priesthood and twenty-eight as a bishop. He died at his home in San Antonio on November 4, 1924, and was buried from St. Mark's Church, San Antonio.