Born in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1909, John Glanville Gill earned a B.A. at the University of Wisconsin (where he convinced Alexander Meiklejohn to delay his departure so he could study with him in the Experimental College that Meiklejohn had founded), an S.T.B. at Union Theological Seminary in New York City, where he studied under Reinhold Niebuhr, and his Ph.D. at Harvard University for research on Alton's martyr for the abolition of slavery, Elijah Parish Lovejoy. As a scholar studying pre-Civil War history in Alton, Illinois, John Gill moved to Alton in 1944 to serve as minister of its First Unitarian Church and to carry out field research on his subject. Elijah Parish Lovejoy had been transformed a century earlier from a moderate newspaper editor who wanted to "hear both sides" into a martyr for freedom of the press and the abolition of slavery. Like Lovejoy a century earlier, John Glanville Gill was also transformed from a scholar into a civil rights activist by what he experienced in Alton.
Like many other Illinois communities in the aftermath of World War II, Alton openly flouted state law by maintaining segregated public schools below the high school level. African-Americans who wanted to watch a movie at the old Grand Theater were relegated to seats in the balcony. Downtown stores refused to allow blacks to try on clothes before purchasing them. Black families could not dine at the lunch counter of Kresge's Variety Store.
Gill found these violations of civil rights unacceptable. He initiated discussion groups in an attempt to improve race relations. In 1946, Gill delivered the keynote address at the 18th annual Lincoln-Douglas Dinner at the old Booker T. Washington Center. Gill realized that Alton's ministers could play a critical role in transforming the community. He joined the Alton Council of Churches, which sponsored an annual training institute for religious leaders at Shurtleff College. Gill served as Dean of this institute in 1947.
Led by John Gill, Alton's civil rights activists mounted a major challenge to Alton's segregated schools in 1950, attempting to enroll 175 African-American children at five all-white grade schools and two all-white junior high schools. Gill organized fellow ministers to help supervise the demonstration and protect the children. Local racists were enraged and staged a Ku Klux Klan burning of crosses at Salu Park and Riverfront Park. Gill refused to be intimidated and spoke against segregation of the public schools from his pulpit. He was also one of eighteen ministers who signed a statement published in The Alton Telegraph that condemned racism.
In 1947, three years after moving to Alton, Gill earned his Ph.D. at Harvard for his thesis entitled "The Issues Involved in the Death of the Rev. Elijah P. Lovejoy, Alton, 1837." That work evolved into the book, Tide Without Turning: Elijah P. Lovejoy and Freedom of the Press, the first biography of the martyr Elijah Parish Lovejoy. John Gill had come to Alton in 1944 at the age of 35 – exactly the age of Lovejoy when he was martyred a century before. As Alton's new Unitarian Minister, Gill was inspired to carry forward Lovejoy's legacy. Gill struggled to integrate the public schools in Alton. Mob action and Ku Klux Klan burnings were staged to frighten Gill and other civic leaders. The congregation of the First Unitarian Church decided that Gill was too controversial. A quorum met in 1950 and voted by 46 to 25 not to renew his contract as minister. Alton's desegregation struggle and Gill's dismissal were the topic of an article in the January 22, 1951, issue of Time magazine. Nearly a half century later, the Lovejoy scholar Rev. Robert Tabscott organized a Service of Recognition for Gill, which was held on February 20, 1995, at the First Unitarian Church of Alton to right the injustice of Gill's dismissal so many years before.
An the writer with The Alton Telegraph wrote, "Merton Dillon and Paul Simon wrote Lovejoy biographies in the 1960s, but Gill's Tide Without Turning: Elijah Lovejoy and Freedom of the Press remains the definitive work on the martyred newspaper editor. Only Gill who, like Lovejoy, had also endured persecution while fighting for dignity and freedom in the River Bend could have written such a book."
Gill died in 1979 in Washington, D.C.