Smile for the Camera – A Noble Life


12th Edition – Smile for the Camera

A Noble Life

James Franklin Willis (1853-1926), who was my greatgrandfather, was raised by a single mother, Amy Collins Willis, after his father died just before he turned three. During the time of western expansion (always moving on toward a better life) he apparently lived his whole life in Fayette County, Alabama.


Frank served his community as a Baptist pastor during a time when pastors mostly supported themselves and their families by working as merchants or farmers. On a genealogical research trip to Fayette County and over to Birmingham, my daughter and I  found the following information in the History of Fayette County Baptist Association – page 60 speaks about Rev. J. Frank Willis:

“At the session of 1894, J. F. Willis was chosen moderator, and served one term.  He was a member of the Mt. Lebanon Church, and while his church was a member of the Association he was a frequent representative, and always took an active part in the business of the Association. He was a strong doctrinal pastor, and very popular with his people.  His pastorates were confined, for the most part, to the churches of the Harmony Grove and Goodwater Association.  In the powers of deduction and deep-thinking in Scriptural quotations, he was rarely excelled in his day.”

From this document we were also able to put together a chronology of some of the church involvement of J.F. Willis:
1887     Importance of gathering the whole church for the study of God’s word? J. F. Willis.  …”The Sunday School Convention of the New River Association for the 5th Sunday in July, 1887, was held at Mt. Lebanon church, beginning on Saturday the 29th of July.  J.B. Huckabee called the meeting to order, and J. F. Willis in behalf of Mt. Lebanon church, delivered an address of welcome…”

1888 – 1892 Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church (pastor)

1890   J.F. Willis was listed as one of eighteen ordained pastors reported at the 20th Anniversary of the Baptist Association that was held Mt. Pleasant Church beginning October 11, 1890.

1891    Rocky Mount Baptist Church (pastor)

1891    At the 21st Anniversary of the Baptist Association held at the Pleasant Hill church on Oct. 10, 1891, J. F. Willis delivered the opening sermon.

1892    Siloam Baptist Church (pastor)

1894    Union Grove Baptist Church (moderator)

1894    In the Alabama Baptist Oct 25, 1894 the former moderator was absent, J.F. Willis was elected and Bro. Zach Savage re-elected as clerk. … To summarize:  J.F. Willis was elected moderator at the 24th Anniversary of the Association that was held at the Salem Church in October 1894.

1895    Bethel Baptist Church (pastor)

1895 – 1897 Mt. Lebanon Baptist Church (pastor)

1897     J.F. Willis preached at the 27th Anniversary Association on Sunday evening.  He was one of four who preached.

1898    In the Alabama Baptist April 21, 1898 issue it says that the fifth Sunday meeting of Yellow Creek Baptist Association was held at the Fellowship church in Lamar County in May 1898.  “The introductory sermon by J. F. Willis; subject, What is the church? For criticism.”

1898 – 1902 Meadow Branch Baptist Church (pastor)

1903 – 1905 Bethel Baptist Church (pastor)

1909 – 1910 Meadow Branch Baptist Church (pastor)

Samford University in Birmingham has historical records of Baptist church minutes where we found the following interesting insights into the way country pastors were paid:

Meadow Branch Church – Sunday, August 29, 1898, J.F. Willis was elected as pastor. His salaries were listed as:

1898 – $12.25 (paid by individual members)

1899 –  1900 – $11.00

1901 – $13.00

J.F. Willis and his wife, Mary Jane [Buckner], had six children; Zelda, Margaretta E., John William, Rufus B., Zedic Hamilton (known as Hamp) and Thomas R. Both J. F. and Mary Jane are buried in the Old Mt. Lebanon Cemetery, where he had served as pastor.