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Sylvester Johnson

Sylvester Johnson
Sylvester Johnson, Professor and Director of the Center for Humanities

Department of Religion and Culture
010A Liberal Art and Human Sciences Building
200 Stanger Street
Blacksburg, VA 24061
540-231-9120 |

Sylvester A. Johnson, the founding director of the Virginia Tech Center for Humanities, is a nationally recognized humanities scholar specializing in the study of technology, race, religion, and national security. He is also associate vice provost for public interest technology at Virginia Tech and executive director of the university’s Tech for Humanity initiative.

His award-winning scholarship is advancing new approaches to understanding the human condition and social institutions of power in an age of intelligent machines and other forms of technology innovation.

From 2014 to 2017, Johnson led a 20-member team of humanists and technologists at Northwestern University to develop a successful proof-of-concept for a machine learning system that could assist in scholarly research of an early English corpus using named-entity recognition and topic-modeling. In 2017, he joined the faculty of Virginia Tech, where he advances research at the intersection of humanity and technology.

Johnson, who holds a faculty appointment in the Department of Religion and Culture, has authored The Myth of Ham in Nineteenth-Century American Christianity, a study of race and religious hatred that won the American Academy of Religion’s Best First Book award; and African American Religions, 1500-2000, an award-winning interpretation of five centuries of democracy, colonialism, and freedom in the Atlantic world. Johnson has also co-edited The FBI and Religion: Faith and National Security Before and After 9/11. A founding co-editor of the Journal of Africana Religions, he has published more than 70 scholarly articles, essays, and reviews.

Johnson is currently writing a book on human identity in the age of intelligent machines and human-machine symbiosis. He is also producing a digital scholarly edition of an early English history of global religions.

  • African American Religions
  • Humanity in the Age of Intelligent Machines
  • Artificial Intelligence
  • PhD and MA, Contemporary Religious Thought, Union Theological Seminary
  • MPhil, Systematic Theology, Union Theological Seminary
  • BA, Chemistry and Education, Florida A&M University
  • Assistant Vice Provost for Humanities, Virginia Tech
  • Executive Director, Tech for Humanity, Virginia Tech
  • Director, Center for Humanities, College of Liberal Arts and Human Sciences
  • 2019 — Gubernatorial Appointee to the Board, Virginia Humanities
  • 2005 — American Academy of Religion Best First-Book Award (History of Religions)


Johnson, Sylvester A. and Steven Weitzman. The FBI and Religion: Faith and National Security Before and After 9/11. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2017.

Johnson, Sylvester A. African American Religions, 1500–2000: Colonialism, Democracy, and Freedom. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015.

Johnson, Sylvester A. The Myth of Ham in Nineteenth-Century American Christianity: Race, Heathens, and the People of God. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2004.

  • 2015 — Faculty Research Grant, “Samuel Purchas” Scholarly Edition Digital Humanities Project, The Graduate School, Northwestern University, $5,000
  • 2015 — Weinberg College Grant for Undergraduate Research Assistance, “Samuel Purchas”
  • Scholarly Edition Digital Humanities Project, $3,000
  • 2014 — Grant Award, “Samuel Purchas” Scholarly Edition Digital Humanities Project, Northwestern University Alumnae Board, $2,785
  • 2014 — Grant Award for Race-Ethnicity-Diaspora Lecture Series, Academic Enrichment Committee, Northwestern University Alumnae Board, $4,500
  • 2013 — Arthur Vining Davis Digital Humanities Summer Faculty Workshop Fellow, Northwestern University, $5,000
  • 2012 — Co-Principal Investigator with Tracy Leavelle, Grant Proposal for Research Seminar Series on Religion and US Empire, Kripke Center for the Study of Religion and Society, Creighton University ($34,660 awarded)
  • 2008 — Faculty Summer Research Fellowship, Indiana University ($8,000 awarded)
  • 2007 — Faculty Summer Research Fellowship, Indiana University ($8,000 awarded)
  • 2005 to 2006 — Seminar Fellow, Young Scholars in American Religion, Center for the Study of Religion and American Culture, Indiana University-Purdue University, Indianapolis
  • 2005 — Faculty Research Award, Florida A&M University ($5,000 awarded)
  • 2000 — Daniel Day Williams Fellowship for Excellence in Theological Studies, Union Theological Seminary
  • 1995 to 2000 — Presidential Fellow, Union Theological Seminary
  • 1991 to 1995 — Presidential Scholars Fellow, Florida A&M University