History of the Progressive Church

The Progressive Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Inc. was founded in 1944 by the late Bishop Joseph D. Williams, Sr.  The Lord used the illness of the late Sister Helen L. Washington to show forth His power in the initial establishment of the work.  Sister Washington was sick unto death with cancer and her family requested that her aunt, the late Sister Bessie Williams (wife of Bishop Williams) come visit her niece in anticipation of her certain death.  Sister Williams had just completed a seven day fast that the Lord had impressed upon her to go through. She came to Columbia, South Carolina to visit her niece. After visiting for about three weeks, she asked her husband, Bishop Williams, to come and pray for her niece.  When Bishop Williams arrived in Columbia, he went to the hospital and prayed for Sister Washington who was very sick and in bed.  He told her that he wanted her to get up the next morning and eat her breakfast.  The next morning when he came back to the hospital, Sister Washington was sitting on the side of the bed eating breakfast. God had miraculously delivered her through the power of prayer!  Bishop Williams shared God’s plan of salvation with her and she was baptized in the name of Jesus Christ for the remission of sins on March 31, 1944. Eight days later, God filled her with the gift of the Holy Ghost, evidenced by speaking in other tongues. The Lord was about to do a great thing in South Carolina through this one convert!

Bishop Williams returned to Cleveland, Ohio, and remained there for about three months.  He was pastor of the Pilgrim Church of Christ in Cleveland, which he founded under the leadership of the late Bishop R.C. Lawson, founder of the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, Inc.  Having been led by the Spirit of God, Bishop Williams felt the need to move to Columbia, South Carolina. He resigned from his pastorate at the Pilgrim Church of Christ, with the blessings of Bishop Lawson, and moved to Columbia. The first church service he held in Columbia was on Thursday, June 8, 1944 in the home of the late Bishop and Sister Joel G. (Helen) Washington. During this service, Sister Emma Jane Preston, aunt of Sister Bessie Williams, was baptized. Later, Sister Helen Washington’s mother, the late Sister Carrie Brown, allowed Bishop Williams to use an old building she owned to conduct services regularly.  Sister Brown also was later baptized in the name of Jesus Christ.

Services were held in this building for approximately fourteen months.  By the end of the year, Bishop Williams had plans to build a church.  Sister Carrie Brown donated the first parcel of land on which the first church was built in the Taylors Community of Columbia, SC.  The dedication service for this church was held on August 19, 1945.  At the request of Bishop Williams, the late Bishop R. C. Lawson came to Columbia in October to rededicate the church.  Bishop Lawson told Bishop Williams, “It seems as if the Lord gave you South Carolina.”  Bishop Lawson gave Bishop Williams his blessings to proceed with the work in Columbia.  Bishop Williams observed how the church was growing through the preaching of the Word of God.  From a casual conversation relative to the progress of the church, the name “Progressive Church” came into being.  The church was later chartered as Progressive Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Incorporated.

The initial work of Bishop Williams was expanded beyond the Taylors Community as the Lord directed him.  In January of 1952, some of the members were assigned to an extension of the work that was being established at 2217 Waverly Street in Columbia.  A few months later, the church was moved from the Taylors Community to Waverly Street. The Progressive Church continued to expand under the leadership of Bishop Williams and churches were continuously added to the organization.  By the early 1960's, churches were established in: Columbia, SC (Bishop J. D. Williams - Pastor); Killian, SC (Elder Joel G. Washington - Pastor); Mullins, SC (Elder Calvin Jackson - Pastor); Lugoff, SC (Elder Malon Pollock - Pastor); Denmark, SC (Elder Edward Smith - Pastor); Florence, SC (Elder Ernest Finkley - Pastor); Bishopville, SC (Elder Henry J. Breakfield - Pastor); and Winnsboro, SC (Elder Herman Jackson - Pastor). By the early 1960's, missions were also established in Barnwell, SC, Edgefield, SC, Greenville, SC, and Johnson, South Carolina.

In 1961, God blessed the church to erect an edifice worthy to be called the National Headquarters of the Progressive Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ at 2222 Barhamville Road in Columbia.  This was a dream fulfilled that had been envisioned by the late Bishop Williams years earlier.  The mortgage for the land was to be paid off in seven years.  However, through the sacrifice and support of the saints, the mortgage was paid off in six months.  The church was dedicated on April 8, 1962.  The late Bishop Hubert J. Spencer of Columbus, Ohio, Presiding Bishop of the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, Inc. and close friend of Bishop Williams, delivered the dedication sermon.  Bishop Spencer spoke on the topic, "The Importance of the Church." Despite trials from within and from without, the Lord blessed the Progressive Church to grow and progress in the early 1960's.

After many years of service, Sister Helen L. Washington, the first member, fell asleep in the Lord on August 27, 1964.  The Lord added 20 years to her life and enabled her to endure her sickness after many doctors had given her up to die. She served faithfully as director of the Columbia Church Senior Choir, President of the National Missionary Board, advisor to the various women's auxiliary boards, and as an inspiration to all of a virtuous woman. Many women's auxiliaries were established and many souls were brought to Christ through her labor in the vineyard of the Lord. Her many contributions to the Progressive Church will always be remembered.

For 22 years as pastor and presiding bishop, Bishop J.D. Williams led the Progressive Churches of Our Lord Jesus Christ, as a caring and knowledgeable man of God. Known as a "no-nonsense preacher," he instilled the principles of the Apostolic Doctrine and holiness in the saints who were saved under his pastorate. After many years of dedicated labor in the vineyard of the Lord, Bishop J. D. Williams fell asleep in Christ on January 10, 1966 at his home after a brief illness. Funeral Services for Bishop Williams were held on January 16, 1966. Hundreds of people came to pay tribute to the man of God that led them for many years. He was buried at the Headquarters Church in Columbia, SC. Even after our founder's death, the seeds sown by him have continued to bring forth fruit. As a result of his ministry, many souls were saved, bodies were healed, demons were cast out, and many were able to witness the miraculous works of God. Many other churches have been established as a result of his ministry.  Through the Progressive Church, the Word of God is being preached in South Carolina, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia, New York, and California by men chosen of God. Even the Pilgrim Church of Christ, which he founded under the leadership of the late Bishop R. C. Lawson, still exists today in Cleveland, OH as part of the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Inc. of the Apostolic Faith. Because of the strong foundation laid by the late Bishop Williams, he was blessed with Ministers, Elders, and Bishops through whom many souls continue to be saved through the ministry of the Progressive Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ.

Realizing that his life was coming to a close, in early January of 1966, Bishop Williams called five of the Elders to his home to give them instructions concerning leadership of the organization after his death. At this meeting, he appointed a Board of Elders to provide leadership for the Progressive Church after his death. He appointed Elder Joel G. Washington, Elder Edward Smith, Elder Herman Jackson, Elder Henry J. Breakfield and Elder Ernest Finkley to serve on the board. Bishop Williams shared with the elders that he would not appoint a successor to his position, but rather that God would later show them who, among them, should lead the others. After the death of Bishop Williams, this board collectively governed the church from 1966 to 1973, with Elder Joel G. Washington serving as Chairman.  During this time, Elder Herman Jackson resigned from the board.  Each of the elders was assigned to oversee a district of churches to maintain the unity of the organization. 

During the 29th Annual Holy Convocation in 1973, the members of the Board of Elders were consecrated to the office of Bishop, and thereafter governed the organization as the Board of Bishops.  Bishop Joel G. Washington, Sr. was elected to serve as Presiding Bishop by members of the board. Members of the Board of Bishops were: Bishop Joel G. Washington - Presiding Bishop, Bishop Edward Smith – Executive Secretary, Bishop Henry J. Breakfield – Member, and Bishop Ernest Finkley – Member.  Bishop Finkley resigned from the organization in August of 1976.  During the 1970's and 1980's, the national church experienced unprecedented growth. Churches were established in North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, as the Progressive Church continued to share the message of salvation and hope to a lost world, under the leadership of Bishop Washington.  During the 39th Annual Holy Convocation in 1983, the national church ratified a new Church Constitution. During that Convocation, Bishop Edward Smith was appointed to serve as the Assistant Presiding Bishop of the organization. Bishop Joel G. Washington served as Presiding Bishop of the organization until he fell asleep in the Lord on April 14, 1987. Bishop Henry J. Breakfield also fell asleep in the Lord on May 16, 1988.  Bishop Ernest Finkley later reunited with the Progressive Church and fell asleep in the Lord in 2005. 


The Progressive Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ is currently led by Bishop Edward Smith, who became Presiding Bishop in April of 1987.  Serving along with him as members of the Board of Bishops are: Bishop Theodore Jenkins, Bishop David S. Johnson, Bishop Paul C. Johnson, and Bishop Lang Priester. Bishop J.D. Williams, Jr., a former member of the Board of Bishops, passed away in 2017. Under Bishop Smith's leadership, God has tremendously blessed the national church to excel to new heights. New churches and missions have been established and the organization has also been blessed to achieve greater unity. Today, the Progressive Church consists of approximately 25 churches and missions.  


In 1987, Bishop Smith established a National Unity Conference for the National Church to come together and to focus on issues that are vital to maintaining unity.  The Unity Conference has been held in different cities throughout the southeast.  In addition to the National Unity Conference, the National Church convenes its Annual Holy Convocation during the first week of July. The Annual Holy Convocation is generally convened in Columbia, South Carolina.  


In August of 1999, the Progressive Church was saddened by the loss of its last remaining original member. After nearly 70 years of walking with the Lord, our founder’s wife, Mother Bessie Williams, fell asleep in the Lord at the age of 99.  Many souls were saved as a result of her witness and through her living testimony.  Many souls received the gift of the Holy Ghost as she labored with them in the tarry room.  The Lord allowed "Sister Bessie," as she was affectionately called, to live and witness the growth and progress of the Progressive Churches over 55 years. She will always be remembered for her love for the church and for the people of God.  Sister Williams was buried next to her husband, Bishop Williams, at the Headquarters Church in Columbia, SC. 


In October 1999, Bishop Smith and the saints of the Columbia Church celebrated the dedication of the new 31,000 square foot Headquarters Church Complex, which consisted of a sanctuary that seats 1,000 + people, a family life center, a gymnasium, office space, and classrooms. Through the faithful labor and generous contributions of the saints, the Lord blessed this $2.5 million dollar building project to be completed debt free! In addition to the new facilities, the Headquarters Church also has on location an education and office building, senior citizens apartments, and the old sanctuary built under the leadership of the late Bishop J.D. Williams. 


The Lord has blessed the Progressive Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Inc. to be just that, a “progressive" church  We have come from the ‘storefront to the forefront.’ Our present leaders maintain the importance of unity, dedication, and commitment in the work of the Lord. The Progressive Church is moving forward, as Acts 26:22 states, “Having therefore obtained help of God, [we] continue unto this day, witnessing both to small and great.” Today, we are proud and thankful to God to be a part of a church that is on the move and heaven bound! To God be all the glory for the marvelous things he has done!