Willis Jefferson King, Black Methodist bishop, college professor, and author, son of Anderson William and Emma (Blackshear) King, was born at Rose Hill, Texas, on October 1, 1886. He graduated from Wiley College in Marshall with an A.B. in 1910 and from Boston University with an S.T.B. in 1913 and a Ph.D. in 1921. Both schools awarded him honorary doctorates (Wiley, 1944; Boston, 1933), as did the University of Liberia (1950). Wiley College named its administration building for him. His scholarship led to his selection as the Black students' representative at the World's Student and Christian Federation in Peking, China, and as a Fellow of the Julius Rosenwald Fund for Research at Oxford University. The American School of Oriental Research sponsored his study in Palestine. He served as professor of Old Testament and Christian sociology at Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta, Georgia (1918–30), as president of Samuel Huston (now Huston-Tillotson) College in Austin (1930–32), and as trustee (1956) and president of Gammon (1932–44). Among other writings King published The Negro in American Life (1926), Christian Bases of World Order (1943), and History of the Methodist Church Mission in Liberia (1951); he also contributed to Personalism in Theology (1943) and History of American Methodism (1964).
King entered the Texas Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, North, as a deacon in 1908 and became an elder in 1913. He was pastor of Texas churches at Greenville (1908–10), St. Paul in Galveston (1915–17), and Trinity in Houston (1918), as well as Fourth Church in Boston, Massachusetts (1912–15). After his decade (1908–18) of pastorates and quarter of a century in academia (1918–44), the Central Jurisdiction of the Methodist Church elected him bishop in 1944. Bishop King presided over the Liberia Conference from 1944 to 1956 and the New Orleans Area (two conferences in Texas, two in Mississippi, and one in Louisiana) from 1956 until his retirement in 1960. He was noted for his sense of humor (he chided ministers that they had missed several good chances to conclude their talks), direct leadership style, concerns for international and race relations, devotion to developing new and rural churches and Black colleges, and work for better trained Black ministers.
The bishop was chosen delegate to the Conference on Life and Work (1937), to the Missionary Convocation, Leopoldville, Belgian Congo (1946), and to the World Methodist Council (1961). He was decorated with the Order Star of African Redemption and the Knight Commander Order of Pioneers (Liberia). In 1975 he was honored as the oldest living United Methodist bishop when the Council of Bishops met in New Orleans. He married Parmela J. Kelly on June 4, 1913, and they had three girls. After Mrs. King's death in February 1943, King married Emma C. Arnold of Atlanta, Georgia, on June 28, 1944. He remained in New Orleans after his retirement and died there on June 17, 1976, just twelve days before his wife died. They were buried in her family's cemetery plot in Atlanta, Georgia.