One cannot speak of the history of the Progressive Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Inc. without reflecting upon the life and legacy of its founder, the late Bishop Joseph David Williams, Sr. For through his sacrifice and labor, the Progressive Church was established. Bishop Williams was born in Georgia on September 2, 1892. As a young adult, he moved to New York City to find work. In 1922, he heard the Word of God preached by the late Bishop R. C. Lawson and was baptized in the name of Jesus Christ at the Greater Refuge Temple on 133rd Street in New York. He then became a member of the Greater Refuge Temple (Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, Inc.). He later met and married the former Bessie Friday.
Some years later, he relocated to Cleveland, OH and was called into the ministry in 1933. That same year, with only 15 members, he founded the Pilgrim Church of Christ at a prayer meeting in his home in Cleveland, OH. He led the small congregation in Cleveland faithfully and the Lord blessed the small church to grow as souls were saved by the preaching of the gospel. In March of 1944, he came to Columbia, SC at the request of his wife, Sister Bessie Williams, to pray for her niece, Sister Helen Washington. When he arrived in Columbia, he found Sister Washington bed-ridden and very ill. There, he had prayer with her and told her that he wanted her to get up the next morning and eat breakfast. When he returned the next day, Sister Washington was sitting up on the side of the bed eating breakfast. God had delivered her through prayer!
At that time, Bishop Williams took the opportunity to share with Sister Washington the gospel message of salvation through water baptism in the name of Jesus Christ. As it was on the day of Pentecost, she gladly received the Word of God and agreed to submit to water baptism in the name of Jesus Christ. Bishop Williams inquired with several pastors about using their pool to perform the baptism. However, no pastor in the area would allow him use of a pool. As a result, Sister Washington was baptized in the name of Jesus Christ in a bath tub, at her mother’s house on Read Street in Columbia. Eight days later, God filled her with the gift of the Holy Ghost. From then on, in the words of Bishop Williams, “God began to work signs and wonders in the city of Columbia.”
Bishop Williams returned to Cleveland, OH and continued his work with the Pilgrim Church of Christ. Having been raised in the south, he had always stated that he would never move back to the south again. However, the Lord had other plans for his life and began to move on his heart to relocate to Columbia, SC. As an established pastor in a growing church, that could not have been an easy decision to make. Yet, being obedient to the inspiration of the Lord, he spoke to his Presiding Bishop, the late Bishop R.C. Lawson and made him aware of his desire. Bishop Lawson gave Bishop Williams his blessings to resign his pastorate at the Pilgrim Church of Christ and move to Columbia, SC. In a short period of time, he sold his possessions and he and his with his wife moved to Columbia.
After arriving in Columbia, Bishop Williams lived in the home of his sister-in-law, the late Sister Carrie Brown. Bishop Williams held the first service in Columbia on June 8, 1944 in the home of the late Bishop and Sister Joel G. Washington. During this service, Sister Emma Preston, aunt of Sister Bessie Williams, was saved. It was a great transition for Bishop Williams to leave an established church and move to Columbia, SC to start from scratch. But he often stated that God had sent him to Columbia with “sealed orders” that would be revealed in due time. Bishop Williams, Sister Bessie and Sister Helen Washington spent many days walking the streets of Columbia and witnessing to all they encountered about God’s plan of salvation and inviting many to come out to services at the Progressive Church.
As the months passed, many came out to services and souls began to be saved. As the congregation grew, Sister Carrie Brown allowed Bishop Williams to hold service in an old building she owned, called the “hole in the wall.” Shortly after this time, Bishop Williams had plans to build a church for the growing congregation. Sister Carrie Brown donated land in the Taylors Community of Columbia and a small church was built there in 1945. A few months later, Bishop Williams invited his former pastor, Bishop R. C. Lawson, to come to Columbia to dedicate the church.
Bishop Williams often told the story of how, at that time, the Lord seemed to be sending in many souls to be saved. However, one night during a Bible Study as Bishop Williams preached the Word of God, 17 of the members of the church became offended at the Word of God and walked out of the church. This certainly must have dismayed the man of God, yet he continued to stand firm on the Word of God. He believed that God would send in a harvest. Shortly after that time, many souls were saved through the preaching of the gospel.
By observing the progress of the church in a casual conversation, Bishop Williams named the church, “Progressive Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ, Inc.” The church was later official chartered with the name. At that time, many of the saints did not have automobiles to drive to the little church in the Taylors Community in Columbia. Bishop Williams would drive his Ford sedan, making several trips, to pick up the saints for church services. Some had such a desire to be in service that they would ride in the trunk of the car when there was no room inside.
In early part of 1952, Bishop Williams found a rented church at 2217 Waverly Street, a more central location in Columbia. For a short period of time, services were held at the Waverly Street Church and at the church in Taylors. Later, He decided to move the church from the Taylors Community to Waverly Street. When the church at Waverly Street was first rented, it was in terrible condition. There was saw dust on the floor and the theater—style seats had many broken spaces and exposed nails. Some of the saints were embarrassed at the state of the building. However, the saints began to repair the building and took pride in their new place of worship. Bishop Williams and the saints were able to later purchase and completely renovate the Waverly Street Church a few years later.
Bishop Williams was a man who believed strongly in personal evangelism. During the late 1940’s and early 1950’s, he took the opportunity to preach in many of the denominational churches in and around the Columbia area, sharing the true plan of salvation. As a result of his ministry, many came to the Progressive Church to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. Many saints that were saved were so convicted and convinced by the Word of God that they would often ask Bishop Williams to come to their home towns to preach to family members and friends. Bishop Williams would readily accept their invitations and would travel all over the state of South Carolina sharing the plan of salvation with anyone who would provide a listening ear. As a result of this form of personal evangelism and witnessing in the late 1940s and 1950s, Progressive Churches were established in Killian, Mullins, Denmark, Lugoff, Bishopville, and Florence, SC.
Bishop Williams traveled to each of the newly founded Progressive Churches to help lay a strong foundation for the young congregations. When the church in Mullins was established, he traveled from Columbia to Mullins for three straight weeks, preaching nightly to help the young church grow. Because of the love and support of the saints, the Bishop would rarely travel alone. Often, several cars filled with saints would follow him wherever he preached. Even in the face of adversity and physical danger, his determination to see souls saved would not allow him to stop. One night in 1955, while he preached at the Progressive Church in Lugoff, SC, someone slashed the tires on his car and fired shots through the window of the church. For some, this would have been enough to make them stop. Yet, Bishop Williams continued with the work in Lugoff because he believed that souls in the area needed to be saved. On another occasion, as he preached at the Progressive Church in Mullins, SC a man entered the church with a shotgun, threatening to kill him. As the saints prayed, the man suddenly turned around and walked out of the church. Later that night, the same man was killed with his own gun in a fight.
One night in 1959, Bishop Williams traveled along with one of his young pastors, Elder Edward Smith, to pray for a sister who was ill in Blackville, SC. While traveling down the highway with Elder Smith driving, their car was hit head-on by a drunken driver. Bishop Williams sustained a broken leg and was taken back to the hospital in Columbia by an ambulance. His leg was placed in a cast for several weeks, in order to give him time to heal properly. While some pastors would have taken this time off to rest, Bishop Williams was not the ordinary pastor. Though he was unable to stand, he preached sitting down until his leg healed and the cast was removed.
Though Bishop Williams labored in each of the Progressive Churches, he spent most of his time in Columbia, SC, where he was pastor. His love for the saints in Columbia was as deep as their love for him. At a pastor’s appreciation service in the late 1950’s, the saints purchased a Chrysler Imperial for Bishop Williams. He could often be found at the church during the day sitting in his Chrysler counseling with the saints. He had an unfailing love for the people of God and would freely give of his money and time for the saints.
Bishop Williams also had a close bond with the youth of the church. He would often sit outside of the Columbia church on Saturday evenings to talk with the youth of the church and to watch them as they played sports. He also believed in training young men and in giving them opportunities to take on leadership roles in the church. Many young brothers were saved under his leadership and after a few years under his tutelage, they were sent to serve as pastors of the various churches around the state. Among those young men were: Joel G. Washington, Edward Smith, Henry J. Breakfield, Ernest Finkley, Herman Jackson, Calvin Jackson, Malon Pollock, Heyward Anderson, Thomas Douglas, and Joe Rutherford. Although these young men were sent out as pastors in their own right, they would often make their way back to the “headquarters church” in Columbia to get spiritual instruction from Bishop Williams during his weekly Friday evening Bible Class. As a pastor’s pastor, he demanded commitment, loyalty and dedication to the work of the Lord from all men who served in the ministry.
Bishop Williams was a man of great faith who believed in the power of prayer. Many saints were delivered from their afflictions and illnesses after he prayed for them. As he visited the saints in the hospital, he would often pray for the other sick persons there. Many would later come to the church to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ. In the early 1950’s, there was a woman from Swansea, SC in the old Columbia Hospital who Bishop Williams prayed for. After prayer, the Lord healed her and she was able to leave the hospital and come to the church to be baptized. After being baptized she went home and became sick once again, and was unable to walk. Bishop Williams traveled, along with Sister Helen Washington and Sister Laura Ashe, to Swansea to pray for the sister. When he arrived at her home, she was seriously ill. He laid hands on the sister and prayed the prayer of faith. As he laid hands on her, the woman received the gift of the Holy Ghost and began to speak in other tongues. She also was able to get up out of bed and began to walk.
On another occasion, as Bishop Williams and other saints traveled to one of the Progressive Churches in South Carolina, his car broke down and would not start. After examining the mechanical parts of the engine to determine the problem, no quick resolution could be found. As others stood by in amazement, Bishop Williams took anointing oil out of his coat pocket. He anointed the car and prayed, asking the Lord to fix the problem. After praying, he cranked the vehicle and, miraculously, the car started running immediately. Bishop Williams believed that faith in action would produce divine results.
What some would deem a “long-winded” preacher, Bishop Williams would take his time to clearly explain and expound the Word of God when he preached. Many recall listening to Bishop Williams preach on a Sunday Morning until nearly 3:00 p.m. and on a Friday night Bible Class until midnight. Yet, no one became bored or disinterested because of their hunger for the Word of God. He would allow the saints to ask any question they desired during Bible Class and would always point them to a particular scripture in the Bible when giving an answer to their questions. Bishop Williams often taught the saints that, “if God will bless anything, He would bless His Word.” As a “no-nonsense” preacher, he believed in and preached the Word of God, without compromise. For those that did not want to live by and obey the Word of God, he would readily tell them that he would “rather have their room than their company.”
Worship services during the lifetime of Bishop Williams can be described as nothing less than “exciting” and “spirited.” Having been a part of the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, Inc., he was used to spirited and lively worship services. He, in turn, brought that same “flavor of worship” with him to Columbia, SC. He taught the saints that worship services did not have to be “dead” or “dry.” Many of the old jubilee songs of the church were taught by Bishop Williams. In the early years of the church, there were no musicians to provide music for the worship services. As a skilled guitar player, Bishop Williams would play the guitar to provide music for the services. He often loved to sing songs in the worship services. Some of his favorite songs were: “He’s the Lily of the Valley,” “Sweet Will of God,” “So Wash Me Thou,” and “Your Heart Must Be Clean to See Jesus.” Bishop Williams was not a man who would often dance or shout, when anointed by the Holy Ghost. He instead would simply cry and clap his hands.
As the organization began to grow, Bishop Williams had a desire to build a church in Columbia, SC to serve as a fitting “headquarters” for the organization. Groundbreaking for the new building took place in 1959. He was able to realize this dream on Sunday, April 8, 1962 at the dedication service for the new edifice. After many years of planning and construction, the Lord blessed the new headquarters church in Columbia, SC to be completed and dedicated. Bishop Williams invited his long-time friend, the late Bishop Hubert J. Spencer, Presiding Bishop of the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ of the Apostolic Faith, Inc., to preach the dedicatory message. It was a joyous day for Bishop Williams and he thankfully declared that he was grateful to the Lord for sparing his life to see the vision come to pass. At the end of the dedication service, Bishop Williams led the congregation in a resounding rendition of the jubilee song, “Can’t You See What the Lord Has Done!”
In November of 1963, a major split occurred in the organization. Several of the leading ministers, deacons and members who had worked hard with Bishop Williams for many years left the fellowship of the Progressive Church. Although Bishop Williams was dismayed by this, he continued to preach the gospel of Jesus Christ and the Lord continued to bless the Progressive Church. His greatest desire was to see the church progress and be united toward winning souls for Christ.
One of the most joyous occasions in his lifetime was also marked with one of the saddest occasions in his lifetime. In August of 1964, during the 20th Annual Holy Convocation, the national church body honored Bishop Williams for 20 years of dedicated service and faithful labor in South Carolina. This was certainly a time of celebration and reflection upon the rich history of the church. During the week of the Convocation, Sister Helen Washington, entered the hospital, once again seriously ill. On Thursday evening August 27, 1964, she fell asleep in the Lord in the midst of the 20th Annual Holy Convocation. Despite the loss of the first member saved under his ministry in Columbia, Bishop Williams continued to teach the saints to have faith in God and to continue in His Word.
As pastor of the Progressive Church in Columbia, SC and as presiding Bishop of the organization, Bishop Williams shouldered an awesome responsibility in leading the people of God. He devoted much of his time to the development and growth of the church and to the care of the flock, over which the Holy Ghost had made him an overseer. In the latter part of 1965, it was discovered that he was seriously ill. He continued to press on, despite his prognosis, preaching, teaching, visiting the sick and performing his normal ministerial functions. Bishop Williams continued his ministry until his health would no longer permit.
In December of 1965, realizing that his illness was becoming more serious, he called several of the pastors to his home in Columbia, SC for a special meeting. At the meeting in the living room of his home, he shared with the elders that he was quite ill and that, if the Lord did not intervene, he would not be able to live in his present condition. Bishop Williams appointed five of the elders to serve on a board to provide leadership for the organization. While he could have appointed a successor to his position as presiding bishop, he did not, rather choosing to tell the elders that in time God would reveal to them who should lead them. At this meeting, he also appointed his son, Minister J.D. Williams, to pastor the Columbia Church and asked the Board of Elders to help train the young minister. Finally, he asked the elders to ensure that his wife, Sister Bessie Williams, was taken care of after his death.
For about two weeks, from late December 1965 to early January 1966, Bishop Williams stayed home and did not attend church. This was an unusual experience for a man who had pressed through many illnesses and sicknesses to attend church, even preaching for several weeks sitting down due to a broken leg in a cast. Early on the morning of January 10, 1966, he talked with his wife, Sister Bessie Williams, telling her that he was ready to die and not to worry. Realizing that the Bishop’s physical condition was rapidly worsening, Sister Bessie called Sister Mary Collins, a nurse, and Sister Laura Ashe, asking them to immediately come to their home. Shortly after they arrived, they went in to visit with Bishop Williams. Although in bed, he was alert and able to acknowledge their presence. A few short moments later, he fell asleep in the Lord as his head lay in the arms of his wife, Sister Bessie Williams.
The funeral service for Bishop Williams was held on the cold Sunday morning of January 16, 1966. Hundreds of saints filled the headquarters church in Columbia, SC to pay tribute to their fallen pastor and bishop. Many of the men and women who passed by his casket cried as they viewed his body. He was reflected upon by the various pastors, elders, ministers, missionaries and saints as a compassionate and great man of God. His long-time friend, Bishop Hubert J. Spencer, was scheduled to deliver the eulogy at the funeral. However, he was unable to attend the service due to a major snow storm in the Ohio area. As a result, Elder Herman Jackson, one of the senior elders of the church, delivered the eulogy at the funeral. Bishop Williams was buried at the headquarters church in Columbia.
Those who had the opportunity to know Bishop Williams will always carry a special love and admiration for him. Though he was large in stature, at over six feet tall, he was small enough to take time with anyone in need of prayer, spiritual instruction, or counseling. The principles he instilled in the early saints and his firm stand upon the Word of God have enabled the Progressive Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ to carry on for many years after his death. Though Bishop Williams is not with us now, his memories will live on forever. We will always cherish the contributions and the legacy left by our founder. We can conclude of him in the words of the Apostle Paul, “he fought a good fight, he finished his course, he have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for him a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give him at that day.”