William F. and Martha Killen

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Killen, William Francis (1836–1894)

By Kevin L. Morgan

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Kevin L. Morgan is a Seventh-day Adventist pastor, researcher, and book editor. He has a B.A. in theology and a Master’s degree in homiletics from Southern Adventist University. He studied history at Appalachian State University and has written and contributed to several books on the Sabbath, Ellen White’s literary productions, and Adventist history; he has also written articles published in Ministry and at Academia.edu; he has edited books on various topics.

First Published: January 29, 2020

William Francis Killen, a plantation owner, former Confederate soldier, lawyer, tax assessor, and Houston County, Georgia, school superintendent, was born July 16, 1836, in Perry, Georgia.1 With his connections, some might have thought him an unlikely candidate to become a Seventh-day Adventist minister. Yet, it was through his conversion and witness that the Seventh-day Adventist Church gained some of its earliest adherents in the American South among both the black and white races.

Killen accepted the seventh day as the Sabbath in 1877 after hearing evangelist Charles O. Taylor (1817-1905) “talk privately” on the subject and reading the literature that Taylor left with him. In a letter to the Review, Killen wrote:

Bro. Taylor left with me a few tracts and papers, old numbers of the Review and Signs. I have read them all with a great deal of interest, and am anxious to know more about these great subjects…I have been a missionary Baptist for twenty years, and if I have been keeping a day for the Lord’s Sabbath which is not the Sabbath, I pray God that from this time I may obey him.2

A few weeks later, Killen reported to Taylor that he had “kept three Sabbaths” and, having shared the message with those nearest to him, was eager to preach it:

Before I got through reading ‘The Three [Angels’] Messages,’ God opened my eyes, and I was in a great hurry to obey him. My wife and children, and my mother-in-law [Zelpha Lane], all cheerfully keep the Sabbath with me, and I have no trouble in getting my laborers (colored people) to keep it…. I trust that God will yet open the way for me, and grant me what I have been a long time praying for, that is, to be a humble, faithful preacher of the pure gospel of the Son of God. Dear Bro. Taylor, I am with you, mind and soul. I have counted the cost, and do not intend to look back.3

Killen, in his roles as “collector, assessor, and school commissioner,” took every opportunity to speak to those he encountered about “present truth” and provide literature to all who would accept it. He arranged for Taylor to speak at a series of five well-attended meetings held in the Spring of 1878 at the county courthouse in Perry. Taylor observed that the “freedmen improved the opportunity of attending, as the meeting was in the court-house,” apparently a venue at which they did not face restrictions.4

Some of the “colored people” whom Killen referred to as “my laborers” (see above) had been his slaves prior to the abolition of slavery in 1865. They now worked on the land he owned as sharecroppers and possibly in other varieties of labor arrangements. According to Arthur W. Spalding, Killen brought many of these “plantation laborers” into the church.5 Some of them shared his last name, including Edmund Killen, whom Taylor described as a “colored minister” who worked the “land on shares” and, by March 1878, had begun “keeping the Sabbath.”6 Three years later, in 1881, W. F. Killen, who had been ordained to ministry the previous year,7 reported in the Review that he had just baptized the wife of “[t]he colored man, Edmund Killen” and that the latter “is holding on firmly to the truth.” W. F. Killen expressed hope that Edmund Killen might be “licensed to preach the truth among those of his race” for he was “certainly doing a good work among them.”8 Spalding affirms that Edmund Killen’s preaching resulted in “a number of adherents.”9

Four of Killen’s sons and two or three of his daughters entered the colporteur work. Two of the sons became ministers and passed on their faith to the next generation.10 Will L. Killen, who became state agent for North Carolina, commented on the results of book sales and Bible readings in 1893: “The colored people are taking hold more rapidly than the whites. About fifteen of them have begun keeping the Sabbath.”11

William F. Killen continued his labors as a self-supporting minister until his death on December 14, 1894, in Gainesville, Georgia.12

Sources

Corliss, J. O. “The Work in the South.” ARH, December 16, 1880.

Georgia. Houston County. 1880 United States Census. Digital images. Ancestry.com, May 21, 2019, https://ancestry.com.

Killen, W. F. “Georgia.” ARH, August 30, 1881.

Killen, Will L. “North Carolina.” ARH, May 2, 1893.

“Letters from the Southern Field.” ARH, October 25, 1877.

“Personals.” ARH, December 25, 1894.

Reynolds, Louis. B. We Have Tomorrow: The Story of American Seventh-day Adventists With an African Heritage. Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1984.

Spalding, Arthur W. “Lights and Shades in the Black Belt.” Unpublished manuscript, ca. 1915. General Conference Archives, Silver Spring, Maryland. Accessed April 7, 2019, http://documents.adventistarchives.org/Books/LSBB.pdf.

Spalding, Arthur W. Origin and History of Seventh-day Adventists. Vol. 2. Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1961-1962.

Taylor, C. O. “Reynolds, GA,” ARH, January 3, 1878.

Taylor, C. O. “Reynolds, GA,” ARH, March 14, 1878.

Taylor, C. O. “Reynolds, GA,” ARH, April 18, 1878.

“Will of John Killen, 11 Feb. 1869, Houston County, GA.” USGenWeb Archives Project. Accessed February 10, 2015, http://files.usgwarchives.net/ga/houston/wills/k4500002.txt.

“William F. Killen,” U. S., Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles, 1861-1865. Accessed May 21, 2019. https://ancestry.com.

Notes

  1. Killen inherited the “Chastain Place” plantation from his father, John Killen. See “Will of John Killen, 11 Feb. 1869, Houston County, GA,” USGenWeb Archives Project, accessed February 10, 2015, http://files.usgwarchives.net/ga/houston/wills/k4500002.txt. He served in Company A, Georgia Co. A, 14th Light Artillery Battery; see “William F. Killen,” U. S., Civil War Soldier Records and Profiles, 1861-1865, accessed May 21, 2019, https://ancestry.com. He is identified as the Houston County, Georgia, school superintendent in the 1880 United States census, Houston County, Georgia, enumeration district 030, roll 152, FHL microfilm T9, page 342d, digital image, “Killen, William F.,” Ancestry.com, accessed May 21, 2019, https://ancestry.com.

  2. “Letters from the Southern Field,” ARH, October 25, 1877, 135.

  3. C. O. Taylor, “Reynolds, GA,” ARH, January 3, 1878, 7-8. Killen had five sons and three daughters, according to a letter to the editor from his daughter Eva in Youth's Instructor, April 9, 1879, 60.

  4. C. O. Taylor, “Reynolds, GA,” ARH, April 18, 1878, 127.

  5. Louis B. Reynolds, We Have Tomorrow: The Story of American Seventh-day Adventists with an African Heritage (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1984), 50; Arthur W. Spalding, “Lights and Shades in the Black Belt,” unpublished manuscript, ca. 1915, 138, General Conference Archives, Silver Spring, Maryland, accessed April 7, 2019, http://documents.adventistarchives.org/Books/LSBB.pdf.

  6. C. O. Taylor, “Reynolds, GA,” ARH, March 14, 1878, 86.

  7. J. O. Corliss, “The Work in the South,” ARH, December 16, 1880, 397.

  8. W. F. Killen, “Georgia,” ARH, August 30, 1881, 155. On the same page in the 1880 U.S. Census as William F. Killen (age 43)—with his wife Martha [Ann Permelia] and their children Charles S., Eva, William F., Jr. (actually “William Lane”), Robert, Herbert, Susie, Mattie, and John—is Edmund Killen (age 39)—with his wife Leah and their children Mattie, Madison, Eddie, Leah, Rachel, and Annie.

  9. Arthur W. Spalding, Origin and History of Seventh-day Adventists, vol. 2 (Washington, DC: Review and Herald Publishing Association, 1961-1962), 343.

  10. Spalding, Origin and History of Seventh-day Adventists, vol. 2, 182.

  11. Will L. Killen, “North Carolina,” ARH, May 2, 1893, 283.

  12. “Personals,” ARH, December 25, 1894, 816.

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Morgan, Kevin L. "Killen, William Francis (1836–1894)." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. January 29, 2020. Accessed April 19, 2024. https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=9CGB.

Morgan, Kevin L. "Killen, William Francis (1836–1894)." Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. January 29, 2020. Date of access April 19, 2024, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=9CGB.

Morgan, Kevin L. (2020, January 29). Killen, William Francis (1836–1894). Encyclopedia of Seventh-day Adventists. Retrieved April 19, 2024, https://encyclopedia.adventist.org/article?id=9CGB.