Johnson Chapel was the fourth building to be constructed on the campus of Amherst College, following South College, North College and the first President’s House. Work on Johnson Chapel, which was constructed by builder Hiram Johnson, began in 1826 and the building was dedicated on February 28, 1827. It was named Johnson Chapel in honor of Adam Johnson of Pelham, whose bequest funded its construction. In addition to the chapel, the building originally contained a museum, library, laboratory and recitation rooms. Johnson Chapel was renovated in 1863 (at a cost equal to that of its original construction) and again in the 1920s. The Chapel, whose front had been on the west side, was extended forty feet to the east in 1933, with a new main facade now facing the Freshman Quad. When Johnson Chapel was first built, there was a legal dispute over Adam Johnson’s will. As related in Parmeneter’s History of Pelham, Mass. (1898):
[Johnson] was somewhat incapacitated for the heavy farm work by lameness, which was probably the cause of his retiring from the labors of the farm. […] It is believed that he had other money or property than that received for his farm, and having no family and but few near relatives, save perhaps a sister and one brother; when more than 70 years old and in declining health the matter of the disposition of his property became a question for consideration. Amherst College had but recently been incorporated and had erected but one building, (South College) and was in sore need of a chapel. The era of rich men and liberal donors to the struggling college had not arrived, and some of the trustees and friends of the college presented the great need of a chapel to Mr. Johnson for his consideration; and either at first, or later, the proposition to have the proposed new chapel known as “Johnson Chapel,” in case he should decide to bequeath his property to the trustees for use in erecting the much needed building, was added, as an inducement or appeal which they hoped would be effectual in influencing Mr. Johnson to make his will as they desired to have him. The trustees were successful. Samuel F. Dickinson, Esq., of Amherst, who had made frequent calls upon Mr. Johnson to present the needs of the college, was called upon to write the will which bequeathed the accumulations of a lifetime to the trustees of Amherst College. There was but a few thousand dollars but it was probably the largest bequest the college had received up to that time.
The total inventory under the will was $6,559.12. Of this sum $4,000 was donated for the use of “The Collegiate Charity Institution in Amherst.” The will was executed on the 6th of February, 1823, but the final decision that the will should stand was not made by the court until 1826, owing to the strong and persistent attempt to have the will set aside, which was made by Thomas Johnson, the testator’s brother, on the ground that undue influence had been brought to bear upon the testator, who, as Thomas claimed, was in a weakened and unfit condition of mind to dispose of his property. In 1827, Thomas Johnson, who was a poor man living in Greenfield, having been cut off by his brother Adam with a paltry legacy of $12, issued a pamphlet of twenty-four pages, entitled “The Last Will and Testament of Thomas Johnson of Greenfield, County of Franklin, in favour of the Trustees of Amherst College.”
In this last will Thomas bequeathed the trustees a good generous piece of his mind concerning the covetous tactics he believed had been employed in getting possession of his brother Adam’s property. The pamphlet abounds in Scripture quotations which he believed applicable to the Amherst trustees,
According to Tyler’s History of Amherst College during its first half century, 1821-1871 (1873):
But the old chapel, laboratory and lecture room, and room for every other use, in the upper story of North College, could not long accommodate the growing number of students, even for morning and evening prayers, still less the congregation for Sabbath worship. The subject of a new chapel came before the Board of Trustees at their first meeting under the charter. They were encouraged to consider the subject and form some plans in respect to it, by a legacy of some four thousand dollars or more which Adam Johnson of Pelham had left to the College for the express purpose of erecting such a building. But his will had been disallowed by the Judge of Probate, and an appeal from his decision was now pending in the Supreme Court. At this time, therefore, they only voted, that in case the will should be established, the Prudential Committee be instructed to proceed with all convenient despatch in the erection of a chapel building. They furthermore authorized that committee to borrow any further sum of money which they might deem requisite for that purpose, not exceeding six thousand dollars. “At the annual meeting in August, 1825, the call for a chapel and other public accommodations had become too urgent to be postponed without sacrificing the interests of the College. In this emergency, the Trustees could not hesitate. They saw but one course, and they promptly empowered the Prudential Committee to contract for the erection of a chapel building,” [quotation from Dr. Humphrey’s dedication sermon] and also a third College edifice, if they deemed it expedient; at the same time authorizing them to borrow such sums of money, as might be necessary therefor, of the Charity Fund, of banks, or of individuals.
The work on the chapel was commenced early in the spring of 1826, and so far completed in the course of the season that on the 28th of February, 1827, it was dedicated. […] Meanwhile the decision of the Judge of Probate had been reversed, and the will of Adam Johnson established by the Supreme Court.
In a footnote to the above, Tyler writes:
Much handle was made of this will in the speeches of the opposition in the Legislature. And I have before me a pamphlet written in the same spirit by a brother of the testator, entitled, “The Last Will and Testament of Thomas Johnson, of Greenfield, County of Franklin, in favor of the Trustees of Amberst College,” in which he (the brother) bequeaths to the said Trustees nothing but woes and maledictions. It must be admitted that Adam Johnson was not such a man as would have been likely to be among the founders of Amherst College. The desire of a childless old man to perpetuate his name seems to have been his chief inducement to make the bequest, and his motive was doubtless skillfully pressed by Col. Graves and Esq. Dickinson. But the verdict of the Supreme Court exculpates them from the charge of any improper or undue influence.