James Toy Williams was born in Clanton, Alabama in 1882, the second of nine children. His parents were poor farmers, and he began to pick cotton in his family’s fields as soon as he was big enough to help. He was homeschooled by his mother until the age of seven, when he started attending a log schoolhouse a mile down the road. The school only met six weeks in the summer and a few months in the winter so the children would have time for their chores at the farm. To attend church, the Williams had to ride eight miles in an ox-driven wagon.
Williams longed to be able to go off to school instead of marrying early and settling down on a farm to start a family like most of the boys in his community did. He prayed that he would be able to find a way to continue his education despite his family’s poverty. Williams’ father either heard his son’s earnest prayers or at least sensed the desire of his heart, because he offered to sign a note for his son to pay a year’s tuition at Clanton High School. After a year in school, Williams taught for eight months to repay the money he had borrowed. He managed to graduate from high school, college, and seminary by alternating a year at school with a year of teaching.
While Williams was a freshman at Howard College, he heard a missionary speak. He said that “somehow or other China got much on my heart” despite his lack of knowledge about that nation. He responded to an appeal by the head of the Foreign Mission Board at the Southern Baptist Convention in 1906 to go to China and preach. Williams finished his education and married a woman who was working as a home missionary, spreading the gospel in rural Alabama. In 1913, he and his wife traveled to China.
When Williams arrived in China, he took on a multitude of duties. Not only did he preach, but he also taught at a seminary, translated Sunday school materials into Chinese, served as mission treasurer, and assisted publication work. Despite the missionary’s desire to devote the majority of his work to preaching the Word, administrative duties consumed a large chunk of time.
Williams saw China as a culturally rich civilization, in many ways superior to the United States. Although he thought the Chinese were too close to heathenism to control their own institutions, he sought ways to harmonize traditional Chinese culture with Christianity. He did not want to wipe out the indigenous customs, only to Christianize them.
In 1921, while home on furlough, Williams wrote his dissertation to complete his doctorate in theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He wrote about the role of social ministries in the conversion of Chinese, arguing for an aggressive plan of education as central to evangelism. He believed that to uneducated Chinese, evangelistic sermons meant very little, since the Christian theological notions of God and sin were totally unknown. He thought that schools were the primary agent of conversion, especially for Chinese women. Williams proposed a kindergarten-through-university system of Christian education, observing that Christian colleges educated political leaders for China, especially in the areas of law, medicine, economics, education, and social work. He also advocated for industrial schools, which dignified labor and provided better jobs, while at the same time undermining the resistance of Chinese intellectuals to manual work. Williams believed social service should have a prominent place in the mission work of China, but he warned that education and social service should be viewed as the means to conversion, not a substitute.
Williams remained in China during the early years of the Second World War and was imprisoned by the Japanese. When he finally returned home in 1942, churches clamored for him to speak to their congregations about his trials and experiences. Williams wrote a manuscript about the sack of Shanghai and his evacuation and imprisonment. After the war ended, the pervasiveness of poverty and hunger in China made Williams chiefly concerned with providing relief funds there.
After the Communist victory in China’s civil war, Williams began hearing reports from Chinese pastors warning him that life under Communism was much worse than life under the Japanese, so he became convinced that continuing his mission work under Communism was impossible. He was forced to leave China in 1952, returning home to Alabama to retire. There, he spent his time writing a book about the experiences of Southern Baptist China missionaries during the Japanese war and the civil war which followed. He called his manuscript, “War, Communism, and Mission in China.”
Williams believed that the closing of China to foreign missionaries led the way to the opening of new mission fields and documented the dispersal of Southern Baptist Convention missionaries to Korea, Taiwan, Macao, Hong Kong, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, Singapore, Malaya, Indonesia, and Hawaii. He correctly foresaw that Christians from these countries would spread the gospel to China in future years. Williams was convinced that despite persecution, Chinese Christians would continue to meet and that Christianity in China could not be stamped out. Although he could not perceive of a time when China would again experience religious freedom, he was confident that the seeds of Christianity spread by the missionaries there had taken root and would weather the storms of Communism.
- Wayne Flynt and Gerald W. Berkley, Taking Christianity to China: Alabama Missionaries in the Middle Kingdom, 1850-1950.