Reference Entry

Foy(e), William Ellis

H. H. Price

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Foy(e), William Ellis

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Freewill Baptist (FWB) minister and the first visionary of the Seventh Day Adventist (SDA) denomination, was born in Augusta, Maine, according to his death certificate. The same document lists his occupation as preacher, but does not mention the names of his parents. Foy's tombstone gives his age as seventy-four years.Foy's early religious experiences were a devotional breakthrough that played an important role in the founding of the SDA denomination; but his personal history is elusive. According to J. N. Loughborough, a chronicler of the SDA, the Foy recorded as having visions died or disappeared after his 1845 publication, The Christian Experience of William E. Foy: Together with the Two Visions He Received in the Months of Jan. and Feb. 1842. The Unknown Prophet, a biography on Foy by Delbert W. Baker, instead argues that Foy later became a Freewill Baptist minister in New England. Baker's book is primarily about Foy's visions, which came before those of Ellen Gould Harmon White, also from Maine, who is recognized as an early Seventh Day Adventist prophetess.Foy's central role in the founding of the SDA adds to the theory that the denomination has roots in the religious practices of Africa and black Americans. The writer and minister Charles Edward Dudley, Sr. has written several books on this theory, which has, however, proved controversial within the SDA denomination.Genealogical research indicates that there were families named both Foy and Foye in early nineteenth century Maine; but Douglas A. Hall, compiler of early black Mainers' genealogies, has found no documentation of William Foy's parents, unless they were listed as white. Hall notes that William was the first name of the firstborn of the early white Foys in Maine. A number of black Foys in the Augusta area in the nineteenth century were known to have been farmers, barbers, and restaurant owners. According to his 1845 pamphlet, Christian Experience, William E. Foy was accepted into membership of Augusta's Freewill Baptist Church in 1835. In Maine's Visible Black History (2006) historian Anthony Douin notes that African Americans named Foye attended this church, a seat for abolitionists. The predominantly white congregation was a church home to many black people of the time, including the lay preacher John Eason.Foy moved to Boston via Portland, Maine, in the late 1830s, perhaps to study for the ministry. He lived in the Beacon Hill neighborhood, where black thinkers, activists, and writers were fomenting a movement that would end slavery. The other movement that involved Foy was the Millerites, who predicted the Second Advent of Christ. When that Second Coming did not materialize, resulting in the Great Disappointment in 1844, many Millerites helped found the Seventh Day Adventists (SDA). Foy's recorded visions took place in 1842 in two churches in that neighborhood, the second one lasting for twelve hours in front of a black congregation of one thousand people at the Methodist Episcopal May Street Church. The church's minister was the Rev. Samuel Snowden (c.1770–1850), who was the first known ordained black minister in Maine.Foy then went on the public speaking circuit, alternating with earning a living by working with his hands. He returned to Maine, where a young Ellen Harmon (White) heard him speak and where Foy's Christian Experience was published in Portland by the Pearson brothers, who soon became Seventh Day Adventists. A few years later, while White was giving a talk about her visions, Foy jumped up and shouted that he had had one like it. He exclaimed, “The baton has passed.” Ronald L. Numbers, a biographer of White, has written that the SDA membership believed that God chose her as a replacement for Foy.In the late 1840s, William Foy/Foye disappears from the recorded history of the SDA and, assuming he is the same person, began a fifty-year career as a Freewill Baptist (FWB) minister, most of it in Maine. Tracking him through the early FWB churches is challenging, because their ministers moved the church records with them. In the 30 June 1847 issue of the Morning Star, a William E. Foye's name is included in a long list of supporters of “Protest and Declaration of Sentiment of Freewill Baptist ministers upon the subject of slavery.”Another notice appears in the New Bedford, Massachusetts, Mercury, 16 August 1850: “Whereas my wife, Ann A. Foy, has left my bed and board, without just provocation on my part, I therefore forbid all persons harboring or trusting her on my account, as I shall pay no debts of her contracting after this [date]. New Bedford, August 8, 1850 WILLIAM E. FOY.”Ellen White remembered Ann Foy as being very anxious about her husband's speaking in public. Baker reported that Ann had died sometime before 1850. Whatever became of Ann Foy, a William E. Foye married Caroline H. Griffin (c.1823–1856) in Augusta, Maine, on 17 August 1851. To muddy the waters, a Wm. E. Foye is also listed as Caroline Griffin's spouse in the 1850 census.Foy then appears sporadically in Maine records, appearing in the Downeast section of the state as a “colored evangelist” who organized a church of twenty-five members on Mount Desert Island. He later moved to Plantation number 7 (Sullivan) where he held services in schoolhouses and halls. Robert L. Potter documented Elder Foy's thirty years in Sullivan. Foy conducted several land transactions, built houses, had at least one poem published, and participated in local affairs, and was feted annually, but is not listed as a voter. He married Precentia W. Rose of Portland in 1873. William Foy died in Sullivan, Maine, twenty years later.Foy may have descendants through his and Caroline's son Or(r)in Foy(e), born c.1853, if he is the Orrin Foy who married Bessie Roberts (c.1878–1920) and lived on Dyer Island, Maine. They had twelve or thirteen children. There are varying simultaneous records on black Orrin Foys, but it is unlikely these were two separate people. The father of the “baker's dozen” died five days after Bessie and their last child died in childbirth, 10 June 1920.“Rev. William E. Foye” is etched on his tombstone in Sullivan and his seven year-old daughter Laura is buried beside him. Seventh Day Adventist history tours stop at Foy's grave site and list it in their travel guide. Although Foy's history is elusive, there is substantial evidence that the Free Will Baptist elder buried in Sullivan is likely the visionary honored by the SDA as one of their founders.

Reference Entry.  1213 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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