Williams, born in Utica, New York, went to China with the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions (ABCFM) in 1833 as a printer for the Canton mission press. There he worked closely with Elijah Coleman Bridgman on The Chinese Repository and produced several monographs on the Chinese language. From 1845 to 1848 he was in the United States, where he married Sarah Walworth and gave the lectures that developed into The Middle Kingdom (2 vols., 1848). This remained for decades the standard English-language work on China.
Williams had learned some Japanese in the late 1830s in all attempts to return some shipwrecked Japanese sailors to Japan, and in 1853 and 1854 he accompanied the Perry expedition to Japan as interpreter. His Journal of the Perry Expedition to Japan, 1853-1854, was published much later (1910). In 1856 he became secretary-interpreter of the U.S. legation to China. In 1858, having resigned from the ABCFM in 1857, he accompanied the legation to Tientsin (Tianjin), where he helped to fashion the Treaty of Tientsin. From 1860 to 1862 he was in the United States but returned in 1862 to the U.S. legation in Peking, where he remained until 1876, several times acting as head of legation. During this time he also wrote his most important language reference work, A Syllabic Dictionary of the Chinese Language (1874).
In 1877 Williams retired to New Haven, Connecticut, where he was appointed professor of Chinese language and literature at Yale University. With the help of his son, Frederick Wells Williams, he substantially revised The Middle Kingdom (2 vols., 1883), modifying many disparaging judgments of his early missionary days. He also spoke against restrictions on Chinese immigration.
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.
- Martin R. Ring, “Anson Burlingame, S. Wells Williams, and China, 1861-1870: A Great Era in Chinese-American Relations” (Ph.D. diss., Tulane Univ., 1972); Frederick Wells Williams, The Life and Letters of Samuel Wells Williams (1889). The Williams family papers are in Sterling Memorial Library, Yale Univ.