The unmistakable visage of Colonel Sanders has experienced a public resurgence courtesy of a new mass-media marketing campaign cooked up by the KFC fast food company. Recent commercials have raised the question as to whether the Colonel’s mantle can be carried adequately by a single actor, thus necessitating a group of famous comedians passing the role from one to another. Sanders’ likeness adorns KFC restaurants around the globe, but most do not know Southern Seminary’s important connection with the Colonel.
The real Harland D. Sanders — commissioned as a Kentucky Colonel by Governor Ruby Lafoon in 1935 — was born in Henryville, Indiana, in 1890 and died Dec. 16, 1980, at the age of 90. Many know the Colonel’s success in perfecting the restaurant franchising business model came late in his life, as he was in his mid-60s when he groomed his goatee, donned his iconic white suit, and began traveling the country to solicit his fried chicken recipe. Sanders perfected his cooking methods in his Corbin, Kentucky, fill-up station, but when the interstate system diverted customers away from his restaurant, he focused his efforts into a franchising strategy. A Salt Lake City, Utah, restaurant became the first to use the “Kentucky Fried Chicken” moniker in 1952; the franchises had grown to over 600 locations when Sanders sold the corporation for $2 million in 1964. Sanders — by then in his 70s — received an additional salary to work as the company’s goodwill ambassador.
Few, however, know the story of Sanders’ conversion to the Christian faith, which came even later in his life. Although he had long attended church, recognized the Bible’s authority, given away much of his money to charities, and even tithed regularly, none of these things acquitted Sanders from his own guilty conscience. Throughout his life, Sanders earned the reputation of having a temper and a penchant for coarse language, a vice which burdened his soul but one which he felt he had no control to remedy. Sanders confessed in his autobiography that his business success never gave him peace with God when his own tongue bore witness against him:
But all this while I knew I wasn’t right with God. It bothered me especially when I’d take the name of the Lord in vain. I did my cussin’ before women or anyplace. … I knew the terrible curse of cussin’ would probably keep me out of heaven when I died.
Sanders was 79 years old when he attended an evangelistic service at the Evangel Tabernacle in Louisville and prayed for Jesus Christ to save him from sin, gaining assurance of his salvation from Romans 10:9. On the day of his conversion, he also received counsel that God would help him clean up his foul speech, and five years later wrote that “when I asked the Lord to help me stop cussin’ … I lost half of my vocabulary.”
At the time of his death, Sanders and his wife Claudia held membership with the First Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) of Shelbyville, Kentucky. At Claudia’s request, Southern Seminary’s Alumni Memorial Chapel hosted Sanders’ funeral service on Dec. 20, 1980. Prior to arriving at the chapel, Sanders’ body lay in state at the state Capitol building in Frankfort and the Kentucky Fried Chicken Inc. offices in Louisville.4 The Colonel’s guest list included 1,200 prestigious friends and dignitaries, including Kentucky Governor John Y. Brown, one of the partners to whom Sanders sold the KFC brand. Pastor James Lee Collins Jr. of the Shelbyville church read New Testament passages on the resurrection and said of Sanders:
Although we have experienced a great loss, the Colonel … would not have us begin this service without joy and praise to God, therefore if the Colonel himself could choose the hymn that we would celebrate his life with, we feel very sure that it would be ‘Joy to the World.’ … The Colonel, as all of us should, gave God the glory for all his success and accomplishments.
In accordance with Sanders’ wish, singer Pat Boone participated in the service and performed renditions of “What a Friend We Have in Jesus” and “He Touched Me.” Additional Scripture readings and the primary meditation were delivered by two of Sanders’ retired pastors, J. Edward Cayce and John S. Chambers.
The audio and official program from Colonel Sanders’ funeral service in Alumni Chapel can be downloaded at http://digital.library.sbts.edu/handle/10392/4916.