1871  — 1927

John Elias Williams

Cora Lilian Caldwell Williams (1867-1963)

Presbyterian missionary devoted to higher education who contributed to the development of the University of Nanking.

Williams, John Elias, Presbyterian educator in China. Born and raised in Ohio, Williams was a coal miner in his teenage years but later graduated from Marietta College, Ohio, and Auburn Seminary, New York. He applied to the Presbyterian Board of Missions and was assigned to China. He married Cora Lilian Caldwell, daughter of missionaries, on August 8, 1899, and sailed with her to China that same month. They raised four children.

After language study, Williams served for several years as principal of the Presbyterian Academy in Nanking, a boys’ school. Later, after a year of teaching at Waseda University, Tokyo, he felt called to a career in higher education. He returned in 1907 to Nanking, where he helped to open Union College, formed by the union of several mission schools. Through his and others’ efforts, funds were raised in the United States, the campus expanded, and Union College became Nanking University, a top-ranked institution with colleges of arts and science, agriculture, and forestry. Williams served as acting dean of the college of arts and science and as vice president. He was a staunch advocate of interchurch cooperation.

On March 24, 1927, Williams was shot and killed by a marauding Chinese soldier on the campus of Nanking University. He had served the Presbyterian Church, USA, in China for 28 years. According to a resolution of the Board of Managers of the university, Williams was remembered for “his unfailing insistence on the positive emphasis in higher education work of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ.”


This article is reprinted from Biographical Dictionary of Christian Missions, Macmillan Reference USA, copyright (c) 1998 Gerald H. Anderson, by permission of The Gale Group; Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., Grand Rapids, Michigan. All rights reserved.


  • Arthur Judson Brown, One Hundred Years: A History of the Foreign Missionary Work of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. (1950); “In Remembrance: John E. Williams,” Chinese Recorder (1927); William R. Wheeler, John E. Williams of Nanking (1937).

About the Author

Donald E. MacInnis

Formerly Director of the China Program, National Council of Churches in the USA, Coordinator for China Research of the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers, Maryknoll, New York, USA