Williams, George Huntston (1914-2000)

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George and Marjorie Williams.
Source: Harvard Square Library

George Huntston Williams: foundational scholar of the Radical Reformation, was born 7 April 1914 in Huntsburg, Ohio, USA to David Rhys Williams (1890-1970) and Lucy Adams Pease Williams (1890-1969). He was the oldest of two sons and one daughter. David Williams was a socially radical Unitarian minister, which influenced Williams’ theological and historical perspectives.

Williams studied at St. Lawrence University (BA, graduated 1936), and Meadville Theological School (BD, graduated 1939). After studies in Paris and Strasbourg he became assistant minister of a Unitarian church in Rockford, Illinois, where he married Marjorie Derr (14 April 1918-7 January 2004). George and Marjorie had four children. George H. Williams died 6 October 2000 in Belmont, Massachusetts.

George H. Williams started his academic life as a teacher in church history. From 1941 he taught church history at the Unitarian affiliated Starr King School for the Ministry in Berkeley, California, and at the nearby Pacific School of Religion, while studying for his ThD completed at Union Theological Seminary, New York in 1946. He moved to Harvard Divinity School in 1947, where he taught for 33 years until his retirement in 1980.

George Williams was the model of a Christian scholar, measured not so much by the number of his publications, although there were many, as by their intellectual range, the depth of their perception, and the generosity of spirit toward his subjects regardless of their ecclesiastical label. His ecumenical credentials ranged from being Director of the Unitarian Historical Society to being made a Decorated Knight of the Order of St. Gregory the Great by Pope John Paul II. He was a member and supporter of numerous historical societies.

He was a friend and mentor of Mennonites and Mennonite scholars, giving much of his time to the recording of Anabaptist history and theology. In his edition of Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers (1957) he identified the Radical Reformation (he coined the term) as a distinctive and "major expression of the religious movement of the 16th century." His work as chairman of the North American Committee for the Documentation of Free Church Origins stimulated research in the history of what he called the free churches: Baptist, Mennonite, Schwenkfeldian, and Quaker. Together with Franklin H. Littell he promoted two volumes of Documents in Free Church History in 1974 and 1975, in both of which Anabaptists were liberally represented.

His Menno Simons Lectures at Bethel College of 1958 appeared in 1962 as Wilderness and Paradise in Christian Thought, a book with astounding intellectual sweep, which, in a review worthy of the book, Gabriel Vahanian described as "not so much a theological clarification of a biblical or even mythological category as it is an assessment of Western civilization from the point of view of the Christian idea of culture." His most important work was his monumental The Radical Reformation, first published in 1962 and in revised versions in 1983 and 1992. This work is the most comprehensive account of 16th century dissent, written with profound understanding and elegance.

George H. Williams described his view of Christian scholarship in Wilderness and Paradise in Christian Thought:

The Christian scholar or poet still lives in an enclosed and fertile part of that garden [the university], sustained by the grace mediated through the fellowship of research, prayer, and kindled imagination. Disciplined by his Christian duty and opportunity to come face to face with the many before him in the vast communio sanctorum of the centuries, he may strengthen others who find themselves planted where the soil is exhausted and join with them in the never ending task of holding back the moral and spiritual wilderness on the frontier of which man precariously maintains his hold upon the life that God created and called good (8).

"Grace," he wrote in the conclusion, "may operate not only in the realm of behavior and redemption but also in the realm of knowledge" (229).


Church, Forrest. "George Huntston Williams: Historian of the Christian Church, 1914-2000." Harvard Square Library. Web. 2 July 2016. http://www.harvardsquarelibrary.org/biographies/george-huntston-williams/.

Hutchison, William R., Peter J. Gomes and C. Conrad Wright. “Memorial Minute for George H. Williams.” Harvard University Gazette (20 March 2003). Web. 2 July 2016. http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/2003/03.20/18-mm.html.

Klaassen, Walter. “In Memoriam: George Hunston Williams, 1914-2000.” Mennonite Quarterly Review 75 (January 2001): 3-4. This GAMEO article is derived, with permission, from the MQR memorial article.

Wikipedia contributors. "George Huntston Williams." Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia. 2 May 2016. Web. 2 Jul. 2016. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Huntston_Williams.

Books by and about George H. Williams

Boston Theological Institute. George Hunston Williams : biographical statement and bibliography for the period 1940-1994 : presented to him on the occasion of his 80th birthday, 7-8 April 1994. [Cambridge, MA] : [Mt. Auburn Press], [1994].

Church, F. Forrester and Timothy George. Continuity and discontinuity in church history : essays presented to George Huntston Williams on the occasion of his 65th birthday. Leiden : Brill, 1979.

Lubieniecki, Stanislas. History of the Polish Reformation : and nine related documents, translated and interpreted by George Huntston Williams. Minneapolis : Fortress Press 1995.

Petersen, Rodney L. and Calvin Augustine Pater. The contentious triangle : church, state, and university : a festschrift in honor of Professor George Huntston Williams. Kirksville, Mo. : Thomas Jefferson University Press, 1999.

Williams, George Huntston. American Universalism." [Boston]: Universalist Historical Society, 1971. Appeared in multiple editions.

Williams, George Huntston and Rodney L. Petersen. Divinings: religion at Harvard: from its origins in New England ecclesiastical history to the 175th anniversary of the Harvard Divinity School, 1636 - 1992. 3, Calm rising: through change and through storm ; the contours of religion and commitment in an age of upheaval and globalization, 3 vols. Göttingen: Vandenhoeck et Ruprecht [u.a.], 2014.

Williams, George Huntston. The law of nations and the book of nature. Collegeville, Minn. : Christian Humanism Project, St. John's University, 1984.

Williams, George Huntston. The mind of John Paul II: origins of his thought and action. New York: Seabury Press, 1981.

Williams, George Huntston. The Norman anonymous of 1100 A.D.; toward the identification and evaluation of the so-called Anonymous of York. Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1951.

Williams, George Huntston, trans. and ed. The Polish brethren: documentation of the history and thought of Unitarianism in the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth and the diaspora, 1601 - 1685, 2 vols. Missoula, Mont.: Scholars Press, 1980.

Williams, George Huntston and Thanasĕs Papathanasiou. P. Geŏrgios B. Phlŏrophsku: eisagŏgĕ stĕ skepsĕ tou. Athĕna : Ekdoseis Parousia, 1989.

Williams, George Huntston. Protestants in the Ukrainian lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Cambridge, Mass.: Ukrainian Studies Fund, Harvard University, 1988.

Williams, George Huntston. The Radical Reformation. Philadelphia, Pa. Westminster Press, 1962. Issued in revised form in Spanish in 1983.

Williams, George Huntston. The Radical Reformation, 3rd ed. Kirksville, Mo.: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1992.

Williams, George Huntston. Rethinking the Unitarian relationship with Protestantism; an examination of the thought of Frederic Henry Hedge (1805-1890). Boston, Beacon Press, 1949.

Williams, George Huntston and Angel M. Mergal, eds. Spiritual and Anabaptist writers : documents illustrative of the Radical Reformation. Philadelphia : Westminster Press, 1957. Also published in Korean in 2011.

Williams, George Huntston. The theological idea of the university. New York, Commission on Higher Education of the National Council of Churches, 1958.

Williams, George Huntston, ed. Thomas Hooker : writings in England and Holland, 1626-1633. Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 1975.

Williams, George Huntston. Wilderness and paradise in Christian thought; the Biblical experience of the desert in the history of Christianity & the paradise theme in the theological idea of the university. New York: Harper, 1962.

Author(s) Walter Klaassen
Date Published July 2016

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MLA style

Klaassen, Walter. "Williams, George Huntston (1914-2000)." Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. July 2016. Web. 28 May 2023. https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Williams,_George_Huntston_(1914-2000)&oldid=139581.

APA style

Klaassen, Walter. (July 2016). Williams, George Huntston (1914-2000). Global Anabaptist Mennonite Encyclopedia Online. Retrieved 28 May 2023, from https://gameo.org/index.php?title=Williams,_George_Huntston_(1914-2000)&oldid=139581.

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