William Evander Penn, Baptist evangelist, was born to George Douglas and Telitha (Patterson) Penn in Rutherford County, Tennessee, on August 11, 1832. He began his education at age ten and joined the Beachgrove Baptist Church on October 3, 1847. He attended one term each at the Male Academy in Trenton, Tennessee, and at Union University in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. He read law at the firm of Williams and Wright and was admitted to the bar. Penn opened his law office in Lexington, Tennessee, about 1852. He married Corrilla Frances Sayle on April 30, 1856. They adopted two girls and a boy. One of the girls died as a child. Captain Penn was assigned to Andrew N. Wilson's Regiment, Sixteenth Tennessee Cavalry, in the Confederate Army, and was captured on February 18, 1864, in Hardiman County, Tennessee. He was in a group that was exchanged for captured Union soldiers on April 7, 1865, after which he was assigned to a regiment and promoted to major. After the Confederate surrender, Penn signed his parole at Shreveport, Louisiana, on June 21, 1865.
He and his family moved in January 1866 to Jefferson, Texas, where he opened a law office. The Penns joined the Baptist church at Jefferson, and later Penn was ordained a deacon. In January 1872 he was elected Sunday school superintendent of Jefferson Church. He attended the Texas Baptist Sunday School and Colportage Convention and was elected president in 1873 and 1874. At a Sunday school institute in July 1875 Rev. James H. Stribling, pastor at the Baptist church at Tyler, Texas, asked Penn to preach a revival there. He was later licensed to preach by the Baptist church at Jefferson. On December 4, 1880, at Broadway Baptist Church, Galveston, reverends W. W. Keep, J. M. C. Breaker, C. C. Pope, and W. O. Bailey ordained him.
Penn wrote hymns and published Harvest Bells, a hymnal with J. M. Hunt in 1881. A second edition was published in 1886, and H. M. Lincoln and Penn published a third in 1887. Penn has been called the "Texas Evangelist," but he also led revivals in other states and in Scotland and England. The Penns moved to Eureka Springs, Arkansas, about 1887. Penn's health began to decline in 1892. He wrote the autobiographical part of The Life and Labors of Major W. E. Penn in 1892, but the book was not published until 1896, after his death. He died at his home on April 29, 1895, and was buried in Eureka Springs Cemetery, Eureka Springs, Arkansas.