Despite William Northen’s success and influence as an educator, agricultural reformer, state legislator, and governor, history has largely ignored his life and work. As governor in the early 1890s, he was ahead of his time. Not only did he advocate such progressive reform measures as prohibition and increased educational funding, he also fought stridently against lynching. Northen also held highly his spiritual duties, serving as president of the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC) for three years and as president of the Georgia Baptist Convention for fourteen years.
William Jonathan Northen was born on July 9, 1835, to Louisa Maria and Peter Northen in Jones County. Peter Northen was a successful planter and educator who traced his lineage to John Northen, an Englishman who immigrated to Virginia in the 1630s. In 1840 Peter moved his family to Penfield, in Greene County, to accept a position at Mercer University. William graduated from Mercer at the age of eighteen and soon earned a position as an instructor at the prestigious Mt. Zion Academy in Hancock County, where the renowned Carlisle Beman was headmaster. Northen subsequently became assistant principal and, when Beman’s health failed, rose to headmaster. While struggling to establish himself as a teacher, Northen boarded at the home of the wealthy and influential Thomas Neel. Neel’s daughter, Martha, and Northen were married in 1860 and later had two children, Thomas and Annie Belle.
Civil War and After
When Georgia entered the Civil War (1861-65), Northen joined his father’s regiment, the Second Battalion, Georgia State Troops, as a private. An educator’s exemption, however, allowed him to opt out of combat duty in 1862. Although no longer required to serve on the battlefield, Northen worked at Confederate hospitals in Atlanta and Milledgeville.
After the war, Northen returned to Hancock County to resume his teaching. In 1874, however, too ill to continue teaching, Northen retired to his 800-acre farm in Hancock County and soon established himself as a leading scientific planter. Combining his teaching acumen with his farming success, Northen helped establish the Hancock County Farmer’s Club, a group that provided ideas and support to local farmers struggling through postwar economic difficulties. Northen’s leading position in the community earned him election to the Georgia General Assembly in 1877-78 and again in 1880-81. In 1884 he was elected to the state senate, where he made educational and agricultural reforms his priorities.
Between 1887 and 1890, Northen served as president of the prestigious State Agricultural Society (SAS). That position propelled him to the forefront of the race to replace John B. Gordon as governor in 1890. After competing with Leonidas F. Livingston, president of the Georgia Farmers’ Alliance, Northen emerged as the only candidate, and his successful campaign was managed by William Y. Atkinson. As governor, Northen pursued progressive legislation by advocating prohibition, railroad reforms, an improved educational system, and reforms in the prison system. He also pushed hard for the passage of antilynching legislation, but it was never achieved. Despite opposition from the influential publisher Thomas E. Watson, who supported the Populist Party’s candidate, William Peek, Northen won a second term in 1892.
During his tenure as governor, Northen also rose to prominence as a leading Baptist. He had joined the church in 1853 and remained a devout Southern Baptist for the rest of his life, holding leadership positions in nearly every church that he joined. He also served as vice president of both the Southern Baptist and Georgia Baptist conventions during his gubernatorial career, as well as president of the SBC’s Home Mission board. In the late 1890s, he was called to the presidency of both the Georgia Baptist and Southern Baptist conventions.
Though out of formal politics by 1894, Northen kept himself in public affairs until the early 1910s. In the years surrounding the turn of the century, he traveled the country delivering speeches on the South’s status with regard to the economy, racial problems, and the church’s role in society. After the Atlanta race riot of 1906, Northen toured the state under the auspices of the Business Men’s Gospel Union, a biracial coalition of influential Christian laymen and clergy, in an effort to establish a network of antilynching leagues that might avert such future disasters as the riot.
Northen also contributed to the history of Georgia by compiling a seven-volume collection of biographical essays, published between 1907 and 1912 as Men of Mark in Georgia. In 1911 he replaced Allen D. Candler as the compiler of state records and contributed to the ongoing publication of the Colonial Records of Georgia series.
Although Northen continued to involve himself in public life, however, his fatigue was becoming evident. Radical racism was gaining strength as his efforts to foster cooperation between the races stalled. Soon after his appearance in 1911 at the Men and Religion Forward Movement convention in New York, Northen retired from public life with “his skirts clear,” believing that he had done his duty for God and for Georgia. He died two years later at the age of seventy-seven and was buried in Atlanta’s Oakland Cemetery.