During the summer of 1903, seemingly all Dallas children were going to the circus that had come to town. All children, that is, except for 9-year-old J. Howard Williams and his brothers. Although they were eager to go to the circus like their peers, their father encouraged the young boys to stay home and work on the family’s small acreage of cotton. He did so, he told them, not out of punishment, but for a bigger purpose.

The following Sunday, a special offering was to be taken for foreign missions, and Mr. Williams wanted his family to have something to offer.

“Boys, let’s pick all the cotton we can and give it to missions,” Mr. Williams said. “This will take the Gospel to little children who have never heard the Word.”

The Williams family sacrificed a day at the circus and instead put all their time and energy into doing their part for missions, something that forever impacted the life and eventual ministry of J. Howard Williams.

Williams would become a visionary leader and a passionate evangelist, and nearly everything he did was in service of winning souls. He took on many roles before ultimately becoming Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s fourth president, where he carried out a vision for training men and women for ministry. Although he was only able to serve Southwestern Seminary for five years before his death, in those short years, he was able to accomplish an extraordinary amount of work.

‘I am ready to begin.’ 

John Howard Williams was born near Dallas on July 3, 1894. His parents were some of his greatest spiritual influences, but he also had the privilege of hearing the teachings of one of the greatest preachers of his day: George W. Truett.

In his childhood and teenage years, Williams frequently attended Sunday School at the First Baptist Church of Dallas and eventually joined in membership with his family.

After hearing a message preached by Truett during a 1902 revival meeting, Williams placed his faith in Jesus Christ. He privately confessed his faith to his mother at home, but his father wanted both Williams and his brother to receive spiritual counsel from Truett. 

Before the revival week concluded, Mr. Williams took the boys to meet with Truett. Finally, Truett said to Mr. Williams, “I think these boys know what they are doing, and they want to make a public profession of faith. I believe they are ready. I have questioned them thoroughly.”

Williams continued to grow in his faith in the following years and eventually sensed the Lord calling him to preach at age 16. An influential figure in this call was Brother Waldron, who worked in the Dallas Rescue Mission.

Williams had been a regular worker at the Mission, coming daily to assist in whatever way he could. After having spent time with the young Williams, one day, Waldron finally said, “Young man, isn’t the Lord calling you to preach?”

“Oh, no, Brother Waldron! Surely He couldn’t use me as a preacher,” Williams said. “I have no education, no training, and nothing to offer the Lord.”

Having dropped out of school after the fourth grade due to an eye condition, Williams had doubts about his ability to become an effective preacher. Waldron let the matter rest for some time, but later pressed the issue again.

Williams finally admitted that despite his insecurities and the obstacles before him, “I had rather preach than do anything on earth. … I am ready to begin.”

A Visionary Shepherd

Williams quickly seized every preaching opportunity, including at the Mission where he eventually took charge at the request of the Dallas Baptist Association. The Mission later became a church, which Williams pastored until 1920 when he was called to a church in Venus, Texas.

During this time, Williams enrolled in classes at Southwestern Seminary (he previously took night classes before earning his bachelor’s degree at Baylor University) and met his wife, Floy Kelley, another enthusiastic soul-winner with aspirations of becoming a missionary.

Williams was a well-regarded pastor of seven Southern Baptist churches. He exemplified all the best characteristics of a preacher, leader, and shepherd. One of his church members said of him, “Shepherding was probably one of Dr. Williams’ strongest points as a pastor. He was so gracious and understanding that everyone looked forward to a visit with him.”

In each church, Williams strengthened the organizational structure and created opportunities for the training and equipping of its members to be ministers of the Gospel. Williams did groundbreaking work in each of his churches, creating new staff positions and establishing religious education programs, for example. 

Another church member said of him, “He always had plans and goals to set before the people and knew how to challenge them to achieve those goals.”

Williams always had a large vision for what the church could be, and a larger vision for how that work could impact the Kingdom of God. This visionary leadership made him the perfect fit to lead a new era of Southwestern Seminary.

But long before he became the seminary’s president, Williams and his wife met with the retired president L.R. Scarborough in 1945. In that meeting, Scarborough said he believed God would someday call Williams to be Southwestern Seminary’s president.

Surprised by the suggestion, Williams replied, “Dr. Scarborough, I am not a school man. I am hardly qualified for that work.”

But Scarborough simply replied, “Howard, do not limit God!”

The Man for the Job

Eight years later, the seminary was searching for another president and had nominated Williams as their choice candidate. By then, Williams was well-experienced in denominational and administrative work, having served as both executive secretary and president of the Baptist General Convention of Texas. Even so, Williams was hesitant at first to assume the presidency. But after much prayer, he eventually accepted the task and took office on Aug. 1, 1953, becoming the fourth president of Southwestern Seminary. 

In his inaugural address, Williams laid out a vision for the seminary. He had three essential goals for his presidency—enlarge the faculty, update campus facilities, and increase the endowment. The seminary had seen much growth in recent years as it neared its fiftieth anniversary. Significant growth required a significant vision for the future. Williams was the man for the job.

“I always knew when he was ‘hatching’ a dream,” Mrs. Williams said of her husband’s work. “It spilled over and ran all over the place. He would say to a guest in the home, ‘Get in the car. I want to show you something.’ He would then take the guest to the spot on or near the campus where he had by faith seen in his mind the building that was needed there.”

During Williams’ presidency, the seminary saw unprecedented growth. Enrollment numbers dramatically increased, Williams made 37 additions to the teaching staff, and he set into motion plans for updated facilities, technologies, and library resources.

Although Williams was not able to see the entirety of his vision fulfilled before he died on April 20, 1958, he was able to see many of those remaining goals set into motion, including additional student housing north of the campus, which was eventually named in his honor.

Despite his previous concern that he was not a “school man,” Williams quickly adapted. But he also recognized where he had shortcomings and often called faculty and other individuals to his office for advice and counsel.

This humility was beneficial to the seminary’s success, but also the relationship between president and employee. Williams was viewed as a trusted friend and colleague devoted to serving the Kingdom of God.

In a 1955 editorial in the Southwestern News magazine, Williams wrote of his high regard for the Southwestern Seminary faculty: 

“Now that I am well into my second year with Southwestern, I can say that my admiration of and affection for the faculty have increased with the passing months. I like them as men and women who are agreeable to work with. I like them as a team cooperating in a united effort. I admire them as Christian men and women who are dedicated to the high calling of teaching. 

“… The dedication of the faculty to the Lord, to Southwestern, and to the high calling of teacher is further evidenced by the fact that many of them stay here even though they are sought for in other fields of service.”

Ever the Soul-Winner

Even with all of his many titles and accomplishments, Williams’ primary objective was to win souls to Christ. The role of evangelist was such a natural part of his character that he could not help but share Christ with every person he met in any situation.

“How are you getting along, neighbor?” was a common phrase to hear from Williams at any given time just before he inquired about the individual’s salvation.

E.W. Jackson, a church layman, noted that Williams was “the most consistent man in this area that I have ever known.” There was no meeting that could not be delayed, no appointment too important that he would not stop to share with the taxi driver, restaurant server, or the general passerby.

His passion and care for the souls of all people inspired his students, staff, and faculty. Southwestern Seminary was in a time of academic flourishing and administrative growth, but by his leadership, soul-winning remained one of the seminary’s primary passions.

Reflecting on the life and work of J. Howard Williams, pastor W.A. Criswell said, “He had the heart of a pastor, and in whatever capacity he served our Lord, either as an executive in the denomination or as a president of one of our schools, he was ever the shepherd and the guardian of the flock.”