John W. P. McKenzie, Methodist minister and president of McKenzie Institute, son of Kenneth and Martha (Witherspoon) McKenzie, was born on April 26, 1806, in Burke County, North Carolina. His religious views were shaped by his mother, who had been attracted by the preaching of Methodist bishop Francis Asbury and had broken with her family's staunch Presbyterianism before her marriage. Young McKenzie received his education at the University of North Carolina and at Dr. Moses Waddel's academy at Willington, South Carolina. After teaching in Georgia for several years, he returned to North Carolina. In 1831 he moved to Maury County, Tennessee, and established a school near Columbia. On September 5, 1835, McKenzie was licensed to preach. The following year he was admitted into the Tennessee Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church and immediately transferred to the new Arkansas Conference, where he was appointed to the Choctaw circuit in Indian Territory. In 1838 he was elected to deacon's orders, received into full connection by the Arkansas Conference, and reappointed to the Choctaw circuit for the third year.
McKenzie was ordained an elder by Bishop James O. Andrew on November 10, 1839, and was appointed to the Sulphur Fork circuit in the Republic of Texas. After starting with seventy-five members scattered over an area 150 miles long and forty miles wide, McKenzie built membership to 302 by November 1841, when poor health forced him to move. His new residence, a 421-acre farm that he called Itinerant's Retreat three miles southwest of Clarksville, also included a school that he started. As enrollment in the school increased, McKenzie added buildings and enlarged the acreage of his plantation to supply room and board for the students. He added a "female department" and a "collegiate department" in 1845. When the school was chartered as McKenzie Institute in 1854, it had nine professors and tutors and more than 300 students. McKenzie maintained close personal relationships with his students, who affectionately called him "Old Master." To develop moral character, students were required to study ethics and the Bible and to attend daily chapel services.
In 1858 McKenzie resumed his status as a Methodist minister and was readmitted to the East Texas Conference, which annually appointed him president of McKenzie Institute. In 1860 he obtained a new charter and deeded the school-by then known as McKenzie Male and Female College-to the East Texas Conference. By the time he closed the school in 1868, some 3,300 students had come under his influence. He claimed that more than 2,000 had been converted to Christianity during that twenty-seven-year period. After serving the Clarksville circuit in 1869, he retired in 1870. He was elected the first president of Marvin College at Waxahachie but served only one year due to illness. McKenzie was a delegate to the Methodist General Conference in 1866 and a reserve delegate in 1870. Emory College awarded him a Doctor of Divinity degree in 1878. He married Matilda Hye Parkes on September 29, 1829, and they had six children. He died at his home near Clarksville on June 20, 1881.