The Honorable William Miller Francis was born in Ballymena, County Antrim, Ireland in 1810, the son of Andrew and Elizabeth Francis, who arrived in Baltimore in 1828. After a brief stay in Maryland, in 1830 William left Baltimore for Ohio County, Virginia; eventually moving to Lackawanna Township, Mercer County by 1837. He traveled as an early member of the American Bible Society, providing missionary service throughout Maryland and Pennsylvania. William studied for the ministry at Lafayette College, leaving in his junior year due to poor health. Despite infirmity, the pastor’s superior academic achievement and commitment to the church resulted in the attainment of a Master of Arts degree. In October 1838, he married Ellen Junkin of Mercer County, the couple moving to New Wilmington where William started a mercantile business. After a brief career in retailing, Francis purchased a local farm, building a permanent home on the present site of the Westminster College campus. He eventually deserted merchandising pursuits and farming for a position on the Westminster College faculty.
Elected to the Pennsylvania Senate in October 1857, Francis received the Speaker’s gavel in 1860. He was as an ardent abolitionist, backed the sale of the state canal system, favored the Free Banking Bill, and opposed the tonnage tax repeal. Speaker Francis voted high-tariff, recommended Pennsylvania’s attendance at the 1861 Washington Peace Conference, and led a Senate campaign, urging Congress to “rise above mere party consideration,” stressing the avoidance of civil conflict at all costs.
After leaving Harrisburg, the Union-Republican led an effort to raise troops in Lawrence County, rallying enlistments before an April 24, 1861 Union meeting at New Castle. Francis then commanded a recruiting program in coordination with his church’s effort to raise a “Covenanter” regiment. The group became New Wilmington’s Roundhead Regiment. A compassionate man, Governor Curtin appointed Senator Francis “Special Relief Commissioner for the State’s Sick and Wounded Soldiers.” Throughout his life, the Honorable William Francis served as an elder and major contributor to the organization of the Neshannock Presbyterian Church and became a moving force behind the development of Westminster College. He criticized the public school movement, encouraging the formation of presbytery-sponsored common schools and academies, objecting to the state system as conglomerations of “godless institutions.”
Noting the serious side of the honorable Speaker, one particular story concerning a dinner invitation that William extended to James Pinkerton, the church choirmaster, offers an amusing background to his otherwise rigid personality. As Ellen Francis served fresh baked bread, the dinner guest criticized the loaf as having so many holes “that you could read the Lord’s prayer through it.” The senator groused at the comment and brought charges of discourtesy against Pinkerton before the church session. While the presbytery regarded the claim as frivolous, Francis never forgave the choirmaster for insulting his wife’s bread. Although completely blind by 1874, William Francis continued to serve the church as a bible teacher. From 1883 forward, Francis spent most of his days with his children in New Athens, Ohio, where he passed away on December 13, 1894.
Hubert Rex Johnson, A History of the Neshannock Presbyterian Church
(Washington, DC: National Capitol Press, 1925), 375-376; also
: Passenger Arrivals at the Port of Baltimore, 1820-1834: From Customs Passenger Lists
, ed. Michael H. Tepper, tr. Elizabeth P. Bentley (Baltimore: Baltimore Genealogical Publishing Co., 1982), 183.
Pennsylvania Cenus, 1840, 1850, 1860; also
: Virginia Census, Ohio County, 1830; also
: Aaron C. Hazen, 20th Century History of New Castle and Lawrence County, Pennsylvania and representative citizens
(Chicago: Richmond Arnold, 1908) 42, 83, 371; also
: Cemeteries of Lawrence County, Pennsylvania
, Book I, Mahoning Township, comp. Dwight Edward Copper (Apollo, Pennsylvania: Closson Press, 1994), 12; also
: Lawrence County, Pennsylvania, Soldiers: Revolutionary War, War of 1812, Civil War
, comp. Paul W. Myers (Apollo, Pennsylvania: Closson Press). Johnson, 376.