Mysterious, faithful woman in woods becomes Johnson legend

KNOXVILLE– In the 1900’s, faculty and students at Johnson Bible College were well aware of a woman known as Aunt Maggie. Aunt Maggie lived alone off Porterfield Gap Rd. in a small wooden house in the woods. She has earned a significant role in the history of Johnson University.

Booklet by Ruben Ratzlaff.
Booklet by Ruben Ratzlaff.

Former author of the college press, Ruben Ratzlaff, viewed Aunt Maggie as being an inspirational and exemplary woman. He wrote a brief booklet about the life of Aunt Maggie titled Aunt Maggie or A Life Hidden with Christ, which is located in the Johnson library archives.

Aunt Maggie, who is moreover known by the name of Margaret Widner, was the youngest child of three born in Feb. 1867. She was the daughter of former slave Patsy Ann Widner.

Patsy Widner and her three children encountered a frequent visitor at their house in Knoxville named Will Johnson. He came around the children while their mother was off at work, and he physically abused little Maggie.

Patsy returned from work to see her youngest daughter, Maggie, half-dead crawling from underneath the table. She thought for certain that her daughter was half-dead and she knew the cruel act had been made by Will Johnson, a man she already had her suspicions about.

In the early stages of Aunt Maggie’s life, she had experienced severe pain. Her back was full of sores and knots, and there was not an inch of normal flesh remaining on her tiny back.  A fever went throughout her body and led to a life of darkness.

Aunt Maggie on the porch of her house.
Aunt Maggie on the porch of her house.

Aunt Maggie became blind due to all the trauma. She had no idea what she physically looked liked growing up, but she found content in the bare necessities.

She may have lost her vision, but her faith in God and love for life itself grew much stronger. Her blindness was a minor setback; however, it did not prevent her from feeling joy.

In 1898 Maggie married a God-fearing man named John Scruggs and had three children. He would often read scripture to her and they would attend church together. Her married life ended in 1902, leaving her to be a blind widow with no company other than God and her chickens.

For financial support, Aunt Maggie walked two miles from her home to clean at someone’s house. Although blind, she was known as the most efficient wash woman anyone had ever seen. She kept her house tidy at all times as well.

When she was not attending to her chickens or cleaning, Aunt Maggie would sing her favorite gospel songs and find time to worship God alone in the stillness of the woods.

Ruben Ratzlaff stated, “As Johnson Bible College is a monument to prayer, so is Aunt Maggie a monument to faith.”

In 1935, Arvil Hurt, a former JBC student and member of New Hopewell Baptist Church, was on a hike and stopped by to visit Aunt Maggie. His first question to her was, “Do you know the Lord?” In response, Maggie replied, “Yes, sir, and the Lord knows me.”

Soon after, Hurt and other Johnson students began to visit Aunt Maggie often. They built relationships with this strange woman who lived in the woods. They would bring her food, cut wood for her, pray, sing, and worship with her.

It was evident that Aunt Maggie had faith like no other. She always welcomed Johnson students with a radiant smile, even though she could not physically see them. Maggie would often pray for JBC. “Bless the whole school group, far and near; help them to gain, help them to go through, help them to be the people they profess to be,” she once said.

Many that visited her little house in the woods were transformed by her spirit and wisdom. Maggie always had a song on her heart that she wanted to sing. Some songs mentioned were “Prayer Is the Key of Heaven,” “Faith Unlocks the Door,” and “Amazing Grace.”

Maggie was once brought to Johnson as a Thanksgiving guest. Students serenaded her with songs. “I just love to hear them preacher boys sing,” Maggie once said.

In 1951, Aunt Maggie was buried in an unmarked grave in Boyds Creek Cemetery. In response to this, Bob Jones, JBC director of development, took on the initiative to raise funds for a marker. Today at the highest point in Boyds Creek Cemetery, Aunt Maggie has a tombstone that reads, “Aunt Maggie Widener–1870-1951– I was blind but now I see.”

Headstone of Aunt Maggie at Boyds Creek Cemetery.
Headstone of Aunt Maggie at Boyds Creek Cemetery.

Maggie was featured in The Blue and White in Oct. 1987 and The News Sentinel on August 23, 1987

She can also be found today in the upper-level of the Phillips-Welshimer Building on the walls. Aunt Maggie had no idea just how much she impacted the people around her, but her memory will forever be a part of Johnson history. She is remembered for her zest, faith, and contagious enthusiasm about life.

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