Baptist History Homepage
William Evander Penn:
Texas Baptist evangelist
By J. Michael Linder

      William Evander Penn bears significance in Baptist history as the first to devote his life to full-time evangelism in Texas.

      J. M. Carroll stated, "Prior to 1875 there had never been among Texas Baptists any preacher who gave his entire time to evangelistic work." (1) William Evander Penn was born August 11, 1832, near the village of Old Jefferson in Rutherford County, Tennessee. In the fall of 1847, he was converted in a camp meeting held at Bluff Springs, Tennessee. He recalled attending the camp meeting primarily to have a good time with the other young people.

      At the age of twenty, Penn opened a law office in Lexington, Tennessee. By this time, his musical talents had surfaced, and he was well known among the preachers as a fine singer. In Lexington, Penn met Corilla Francis Sayle, and they were married April 30, 1856.

      In 1869, Penn was named subelector in the Ninth Congressional District. As a politician, he viewed southern democracy as an enemy to the Union, and he bitterly opposed it. (2) After the southern states, including Tennessee, began seceding from the Union, Penn reluctantly offered his services to the Confederacy. He rose to the rank of major, and he was known as Major Penn for the rest of his life.

Sunday School Leader

      After the war, the Penns moved to Jefferson, Texas, in January 1866. They joined First Baptist Church, and he became superintendent of the Sunday School. His eagerness to see the Sunday School grow led him to offer $5 to the person who brought the most visitors one week. Penn also promised a social for those people who attended regularly. His methods were successful, and the church grew from a membership of thirteen when he joined to over four hundred. (3)

      In the early 1870s, Penn succeeded both professionally and financially. His thriving law practice continued to grow, and his fame as a lawyer spread. He attended the Southern Baptist Convention in Mobile, Alabama, in 1873, and invited the convention to meet in Texas the next year. Thus, the first meeting of Southern Baptists in Texas took place in Jefferson.

      Penn's success as a Sunday School leader led to his two-time election as president of the Texas State Sunday School Convention, in 1873 and 1874. (4) The experiences he had as president led Penn to change the direction of his life. One such experience involved J. H. Stribling, pastor of the Baptist church in Tyler. Stribling invited Penn to lead a Sunday School Institute in Tyler. After the close of the Institute, Penn was compelled, much against his will, to conduct services there in Tyler for five weeks. (5) Stribling was emphatic in his belief that Penn was chosen by God to devote his life to full-time evangelistic service.

Evangelist and Church Planter

      Penn finally consented to enter the ministry and was licensed by his church in Jefferson as an evangelist on May 6, 1877. During the next few years, he was active in establising of new churches. In March 1880, the Penns moved from Jefferson to Houston, where he became pastor of the Fifth Ward Baptist Church.

      Also in 1880, Penn conducted a revival in a warehouse in downtown Dallas. During the revival a twenty-year-old lad delivering telegrams wandered into the meeting and was converted. His name was Edgar Young Mullins. Mullins later served as president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (1899-1928), president of the Southern Baptist Convention (1921-24), and president of the Baptist World Alliance (1923-28). (6)

      In 1881, Penn moved to Palestine, Texas, believing it to be more convenient to every part of the state. The church in Palestine met in a dilapidated building far to one side of town. Penn suggested that the people buy a lot on which to erect a new church and that the church be finished with contributions not exceeding a nickel per person. So, the church became known as the "Nickel Church." Penn requested financial help from individuals and churches through the state of Texas by writing letters to Baptist publications. The response was slow and the results meager. After numerous appeals for aid, Penn threatened that he would conduct "no more protracted meetings until the 'Nickel Church' is paid e for." (7) State leaders questioned Penn's method of fund-raising and questioned whether the erection of the church was the responsibility of Baptists throughout the state. Despite the opposition, the "Nickel Church" was completed and dedicated November 6, 1887. Yet the experience disillusioned Penn, and before the church was finished, he left his adopted state of Texas and relocated in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

      During Penn's two decades of evangelistic service, he led gospel crusades in thirteen states: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, and Texas. His ministry also took him to England and Scotland. His ministry is estimated to have resulted in the conversion of 50,000 people. (8)

      Penn maintained an active schedule of meetings, revivals, and conferences to the end of his life. As he finished writing his autobiography in 1892, his health began to fail. He gradually lost weight from 240 to 170 pounds and could only hold meetings as his health would permit. (9) He died on April 29, 1895, and was buried in the Odd Fellows Cemetery of Eureka Springs, Arkansas. His wife, Corilla, died September 23, 1917, and was buried beside him. The Penn home in Eureka Springs, known as the Penn Castle, is still a tourist attraction in that city.

Camp Meeting Preacher

      Beginning in 1875, Penn organized camp meetings and found great pleasure and self-satisfaction in leading these meetings. A skilled orator, he enjoyed preaching to crowds of 5,000 to 6,000 that included a wide spectrum of people ranging from the lawless and disorderly cowboy to the starched shirt-clad townspeople. Penn's early camp meetings were characterized by five and--many times--seven services each day. These meetings were initially housed in churches and town halls. After several years, however, it was difficult to find places large enough to accommodate his congregations, and out of necessity, much of Penn's work was confined entirely to cities and larger towns. He did, however, hold brush arbor meetings in the summers.

      After four years of brush arbor summer meeting, Penn decided in 1879 that a tent would he an asset since it would accommodate more campers while eliminating exposure to inclement weather. He purchased a small tent for $500 with his own resources. (10) Penn continued to conduct camp meetings until July 1892. His last meeting was held in Brownwood, Texas. Ironically, the last camp meeting of Penn's illustrious career occurred in the same state where he, fourteen years earlier, had begun to popularize the Texas camp meeting.


      Music had a place of prominence in Penn's ministry. Although deprived of formal musical training, Penn's innate vocal talent and his strong personality repeatedly placed him in positions of musical leadership. His thunderous bass voice brought accolades from numerous sources. J. M. Carroll stated, "He was the greatest bass singer we ever heard; his singing at his meetings was one of the greatest attractions." (11) The rigors of serving as both preacher and singer, however, proved too great a strain on Penn, and he soon recruited other musicians to assist him in his evangelistic meetings. Vallie C. Hart of Tuscaloosa, Alabama, joined Penn in July 1876, as his first musician. Other prominent musicians who served with Penn included H. A. Sumrell, J. M. Hunt, L. B. Shook, George Robert Cairns, and H. N. Lincoln.

Hymnal Collaborator

      Penn's major accomplishments in the area of gospel song were the Harvest Bells collections. During Hunt's tenure as Penn's musician, Hunt suggested they publish a songbook to be used in the meetings. (12) The result of their labors was Harvest Bells, published in 1882, and Harvest Bells No. 2, published in1884. Hunt served as musical editor of these first two hymnals and was the largest contributor of hymns to these collections. During the short tenure of Lincoln as Penn's musician, the two men produced a third edition, Harvest Bells No. 3 (1887). In all, Penn and his wife compiled seven separate and distinct hymnals between 1882 and 1900. These hymnals were endorsed by many prominent leaders, including B. H. Carroll, pastor of First Baptist Church, Waco, and J. P. Boyce, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, Louisville, Kentucky. Perhaps the most significant endorsement came from B. G. Manard, state missions director for Arkansas, Manard wrote, "If Major Penn has never done anything more than make his contribution to the hymnology of the 19th century, he would have made his life monumental." (13)

      Penn sincerely believed Harvest Bells to be the only hymnal of the day that was distinctly Southern Baptist in thought, doctrine, and regional appeal. He offended some when he asked that churches wanting him to conduct meetings to use Harvest Bells rather than Ira Sankey's Gospel Hymns. Penn suggested that if churches would rather use Gospel Hymns, then perhaps they should call Mr. Moody instead.

Hymn and Tune Writer

      Penn's contributions to the Harvest Bells collections include forty-three hymn texts and sixty-eight hymn tunes. The tunes were melodic in nature, major-key melodies set in simple harmonic structure. They could be quickly taught and easily remembered by the people. His most enduring hymn was "The Sheltering Rock," which appeared in the Baptist Hymnal, 1975.

      Penn's work as a hymn and tune writer occurred during the same time in which Ira Sankey was producing his Gospel Hymns collections. William J. Reynolds observed, however, that the Harvest Bells collections "marked a development of gospel song tradition that paralleled, but was largely unrelated to the work of Ira D. Sankey." (14) Penn was undoubtedly aware of the work of Moody and Sankey. In April 1880, during Penn's time at Fifth Ward Baptist Church in Houston, Moody and Sankey conducted a revival meeting thirty miles away at the St. John Church in Galveston. (15) There is no record, however, that Penn and Sankey ever met face to face.

Reed Organ Player

      Not only did Penn's ministry lead to the production of hymnals, it also led to the acceptance of the use of the organ in worship service. Penn brought to his meetings a portable reed organ, the use of which enhanced the singing of both the congregation and soloists. Deep-seated prejudices against all forms of instrumental music in the churches were common, (16) but as Penn's ministry progressed, the organ became a great attraction. Many of the rural people who attended camp meetings heard an organ played for the first time, and they were delighted with the experience. (17) Penn's utilization of the organ continued throughout his ministry, and he is credited with the acceptance and popularization of the instrument in Texas Baptist churches.


      William Evander Penn was a pioneer in the work of Southern Baptist evangelism during the late-nineteenth century. He made noteworthy contributions to the development of gospel music, to the acceptance and popularization of reed organs in churches, to the use of the Harvest Bells collections that featured Southern Baptist thought and doctrine, and to renewed interest in church music reform in the late nineteenth century.

1. J. M. Carroll, A History of Texas Baptists, ed. J. B. Cranfill (Baptist Standard Publishing Co., 1923), 617.
2. W. E. Penn, The Life and Labors of Major W. E. Penn, The Texas Evangelist (St. Louis: C. B. Woodward Printing and Book Mfg. Co., 1895), 50.
3. George Todd, Semi-Centennial Record (Jefferson, Tex.: First Baptist Church, 1905), 4.
4. Penn, The Life and Labors, 83.
5. Z. N. Morrell, Flowers and Fruits in the wilderness (Dallas: W. G. Scarff and Company, 1888), 400-01.
6. Gaines S. Dobbins, Encyclopedia of Southern Baptists, Vol. 2 (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1958), 930.
7. "Here and There," Texas Baptist Herald, 20 December 1883, 2.
8. "An Address," Texas Baptist Herald, 30 May 1895, 5.
9. "W. E. Penn," Texas Baptist Herald, 9 May 1985, 5.
10. Morrell, Fruits and Flowers, 404.
11. Carroll, A History of Texas Baptists, 623.
12. Penn, Life and Labors, 226.
13. "Harvest Bells," Arkansas Baptist, 20 February 1890, 5.
14. William J. Reynolds, Companion to Baptist Hymnal (Nashville: Broadman Press, 1976), 399.
15. "Here and There," Texas Baptist Herald, 29 April 1880, 2.
16. David W. Music, "Music in Southern Baptist Evangelism," Baptist History and Heritage, 19, no. 1 (January 1984): 37.
17. D. D. Tidwell, "Major Penn's Camp Meetings," D. D. Tidwell Collection, Roberts Library, Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Fort Worth, Tex.

J. Michael Linder is coordinator for performing arts and director of choral activities, North Central Texas College, Gainesville, Texas, 2003.

[From The Free LIbrary; via "Ministry and Music - Seeking the Old Paths" - Scanned and formatted by Jim Duvall.]

More on W. E. Penn
Baptist History Homepage