As a young fundamentalist preacher in the rural South, Williams' initial motivation was the spiritual salvation of his parishioners, or in his words, to “save their never-dying, ever-precious souls from the devil’s hell eternal.” This motivation later evolved into a quest for social justice for the poor throughout society, leading to confrontations with white supremacists and lifelong charges of Communist activities. As Williams put it, “I’ve been run out of the best communities, fired from the best churches, and flogged by the best citizens of the South.”
Williams was born in rural Weakley County, Tennessee. His parents, Jess and Minnie Bell Williams, were sharecroppers and members of the fundamentalist Cumberland Presbyterian Church. Williams enlisted in the army in 1916. He became a drill sergeant and trainer of draftees, re-enlisting in 1919. After leaving the army in 1921 he entered Bethel College, a small Cumberland Presbyterian seminary. While studying for the ministry he became an accomplished evangelical preacher. At Bethel he met Joyce King, a missionary student from Mississippi, whom he married in 1922. After graduating from Bethel in 1924, Williams gained his first pastorate at a Presbyterian church in Auburntown, Tennessee.
In 1927, Williams read Harry Emerson Fosdick’s Modern Use of the Bible. Fosdick interpreted the Bible as a militant social text, de-emphasizing a literalist interpretation and advocating societal progress and change. Williams credited this book as a turning point in his life. Williams was also influenced by seminars held by Dr. Alva W. Taylor at the Vanderbilt School of Religion. Taylor was a noted social activist and proponent of the Social Gospel, a movement that applied Christian ethics to social problems. At Vanderbilt the concept of Jesus as the “Son of Man” made a profound impression on Williams. Referring to Dr. Taylor, Williams said, “He cleared the debris of theological crap and let Him rise among us as a challenging human leader.”
In 1930, the Presbytery assigned Williams to a small church located in Paris, Arkansas. The church community consisted of poor miners, sharecroppers, and a few black families. Williams was determined to organize local miners, and through his efforts the congregation grew rapidly. However, church and community leaders were opposed to the influx of impoverished workers from surrounding areas, and were shocked by the prospect of mixed race services. As a result, the Presbytery removed Williams from the church.
In 1935, Williams was assigned to a church in Fort Smith, Arkansas. Here Williams and eight others were arrested for organizing a hunger march for unemployed workers. He was fined one hundred dollars, served ninety days in jail, and was tried for heresy by the Presbytery.