John Reynolds Francis was born to John and Nancy Francis of New Hope, Cayuga County, New York in 1832. His father was a blacksmith and his mother died when he was only six years old. By the age of 17, he was teaching school near his home. Later he tutored the family of a plantation owner in Virginia and then taught in Kansas for a short time. When he was fired from a school for his religious beliefs as a Universalist, he took a position in a printing office. By the end of the year, he oversaw the entire newspaper.
As a newspaper editor he moved to Kansas where he worked for the Olathe Mirror. Because of its anti-slavery policy, ruffians went after him and the newspaper from Missouri. Francis was captured and almost killed by Captain Quantrill’s Raiders before escaping. They destroyed the Mirror office and Francis joined a cavalry company, working for General McKean. After the Civil War he was elected chief clerk of the House of Representatives in the first Kansas Legislature and spent two years as secretary of the Senate.
In 1869 he moved to Chicago to become an editorial writer and then associate editor for the Religio-Philosophical Journal and was eventually fired by Col. Bundy, the editor, because he “always abused the Bible and superlatives.” He married Louisa C. Marriott in 1887 and founded his own paper, The Progressive Thinker, in 1889.
The Progressive Thinker was the pre-eminent Spiritualist journal from the mid-1890s on, acting for a time as the unofficial publication of the National Spiritualists Association. The journal combined traditional reform beliefs with Spiritualism, exposing of fraudulent mediums and taking regular contributions on New Thought and occultism.
Francis was a collector of books, with “books in every room and in every available place.” He was interested in both the material and spiritual worlds. He also followed closely all the scientific discoveries of the time, including radium, electricity and wireless telegraphy. His best-known works were A Search After God and a three-volume set of The Encyclopedia of Death and Life in the Spirit World.
Mrs. Francis, who was also on the staff of The Progressive Thinker wrote in his Memorial in 1910, “For more than a quarter century it was my privilege to give him such humble assistance as I might in this life-work. Together we discussed the many plans that came to his fertile brain, together we wrought for the success of those plans. Now that he has entered upon a wider field of effort, I am grateful that I for so many years was able to lighten his burden; and it is with feelings of heartfelt thankfulness that I am able to record the many kindly tributes of those who loved and labored with him.”