For nearly a quarter of a century James Hervey Johnson was owner/publisher and editor of The Truth Seeker from 1964 until his death in 1988. Without his fortitude, foresight and fortune, The Truth Seeker would have been discontinued decades ago. Through his efforts as an activist and benefactor, Johnson contributed significantly to freethought in the mid to late twentieth century.

James Hervey Johnson was born in Oregon on August 2, 1901. The Johnson family moved to San Diego, California when he was still a youth. He attended the San Diego Army-Navy Academy and was later a partner with his father in a real estate company. By age 30, he was a self-made millionaire.

Johnson enters politics

He had political aspirations and was elected County Tax Assessor in the 1930s. Johnson was popular with voters and praised by business owners after fulfilling his campaign promise to lower taxes. As the County Tax Assessor, he was credited with an attempt to auction off the San Diego Zoo, including the animals inside, to settle delinquent taxes.

But he fell from grace with the Christian conservative electorate when he advocated taxing church property and apparently made some powerful enemies along the way. His career was further hindered when he was arrested and arraigned on libel charges. Despite a conviction, Johnson held on to his office but lost his job after being charged with 154 felonies involving misuses of public funds and misconduct, for which the rapid conviction was later set aside. He ran for office again in 1938 and made an unsuccessful attempt to run for Congress in 1942. He never held public office again.

As early as the 1930s Johnson began subscribing to The Truth Seeker. He also began submitting articles and corresponding with the editor, Charles Smith. Johnson had been an atheist since he was 16 years old and regarded religion as a primitive superstition. He was determined to “expose religion as against all reason” and in 1949 published his rationalistic views in a book entitled Superior Men. In his effort to enlighten San Diego he opened a bookstore specializing in freethought literature. His annual dinners honoring Thomas Paine and Robert Ingersoll were much anticipated and popular events with freethinkers.

Johnson in 1930

Photos: Johnson delivers a petition to combine San Diego City and County Tax Assessor's office in 1927 (above); Portrait in 1930 (right).

Besides being San Diego’s most outspoken and notorious freethinker, Johnson had some views on health and diet that were unconventional at the time. He was a vegetarian and promoted organic gardening. He was a fitness enthusiast who walked two miles every day and often took long solitary walks about the county and into Mexico. Johnson was opposed to alcohol, drugs and tobacco. He recognized and wrote about the harmful effects of second-hand cigarette smoke in the 1940s.

In 1964 Johnson bought The Truth Seeker Company and moved the venerable publication from New York (where it had been for nearly a century) to San Diego. Charles Smith, who agreed to continue as editor, shipped the office furniture, files, books and invaluable memorabilia west by train. Six months later Smith died of a heart attack and Johnson assumed editorship.

On October 3, 1981 an arsonist set fire to the bookstore and The Truth Seeker publishing office, burning it to the ground. Johnson was 80 years old and barely escaped the inferno that destroyed the entire Truth Seeker Company archives. Undaunted, Johnson continued writing and publishing The Truth Seeker from his rented upstairs apartment across the street. Then, just a few days later, on October 14, 1981, while crossing the street in front of the ruins of his headquarters, Johnson was run over by a car and suffered a broken leg and collar bone. During his recuperation, his property was looted. He eventually received a $50K settlement from the automobile insurance company, but reportedly never fully recovered from the injuries sustained.

Johnson shared his investment strategies by which he had then amassed a large fortune in his book entitled Successful Stock Investing, published in 1984.

James Hervey Johnson died on August 6, 1988, at the age of 87. His estate was placed in a trust to continue The Truth Seeker, expose religion as against reason and to publicize his views on religion and health. A decade after his death, he was still fondly remembered by his friends and associates. Dr. Lillian Starr, the former President of the Freethinkers of Southern California, wrote in a memorial tribute: “In our society today there are very few trustworthy, intellectual and gentle people like James Hervey Johnson.



Editors note: thanks to Roderick Bradford whose 1998 biographical sketch was the basis of this revised biography. Mr. Bradford is now the editor of The Truth Seeker magazine, a writer, freethought historian and documentary film/video producer. He is the author of D.M. Bennett: The Truth Seeker and is an active member of the freethought community

@2019 James Hervey Johnson Charitable Educational Trust