Bishop Smallwood E. Williams, 83, a onetime street preacher who founded the Bible Way Churches Worldwide and used a message of faith, self-confidence and salvation to become one of the most influential ministers in Washington, died Friday at the Washington Hospital Center, where he had undergone heart surgery.
Williams began his ministry in 1927, when he arrived here from Columbus, Ohio, with little more than $5 in his pocket, a secondhand tent and the conviction that God would provide for the daily needs of those who sought His help. In time, he founded the Bible Way Church of the Lord Jesus Christ Worldwide, which claims more than 100,000 members and has about 330 congregations in the United States, the United Kingdom, Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.
A force in politics and the civil rights movement, Williams was a former president of the D.C. chapter of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and a delegate to several national conventions of the Democratic Party. He used to say that church members had a vital interest in "an amicable relationship with the law and a respect for the rights of others" and that this is what brought the church into the political sphere.
Like the late Bishop Walter "Sweet Daddy" McCollough, who died in March, and other prominent black ministers, Williams loomed large in the calculations of local politicians. He was consulted by leaders of all branches of the local Democratic Party and often was sought out by the media for his views on community events.
In 1987, for example, he opposed a referendum that sought to enact a bottle deposit bill for the District. The failure of the measure was widely viewed as evidence of a deep rift along racial lines in the electorate. Williams explained that although he personally supported environmental measures, it had to be understood that many blacks regarded the environment as a "dessert" issue. They were still struggling with the "soup" issues -- the basic necessities of life, the bishop said.
In 1989, he took to the hustings to embrace Jesse L. Jackson, now the District's shadow representative in the Senate but at that time a potential mayoral candidate in the city. The notion that Jackson, then recently arrived from Chicago, was an "outsider" in Washington was ridiculous, Williams told his flock, which included a sizable radio audience. He described Jackson as "an international personality."
In 1963, he used his political connections to save his church from being torn down. Interstate 395 was scheduled to go through his building. With the help of Democrat Hubert H. Humphrey, then a senator from Minnesota, Williams got the plans redrawn so that the highway would skirt the site.
In 1988, on the 25th anniversary of that episode, two local streets were renamed to commemorate it. One is called Bible Way Plaza and the other is Bible Way Bend.
The church announced yesterday that Elder James Silver, 62, the president of the church's Ministers and Elders Club and Bishop Williams's administrative assistant for the last 34 years, had been appointed interim pastor. Officials said a permanent bishop will be elected by the board of trustees within the next year.
Bishop Williams's main business always was his church, and his message was a combination of faith and self-help with a strong element of fiscal conservatism.
The church building, on New Jersey Avenue NW, is currently undergoing expansion, and the organization once owned a supermarket. Other interests include the nearby Golden Rule housing project, which has town houses and apartments. The church is the sponsor of the development.
"We are a faith operation," the bishop once told an interviewer. "We've never been subsidized by wealthy parishioners. As people began to see what their collective efforts could do, the seeds of prosperity began to spread. People gave to the church, and what the church contributed to them made them feel worthwhile."
A refrain of his sermons was the need of poor parishioners to save and to avoid the temptations of liquor and gambling.
"You've got to live by faith, not luck," he said. "Poor people talk about bad luck, but it's really not having faith -- and bad money management -- that hurts them."
Bishop Williams said he always tried to instill self-confidnece in his listeners. "And that would come from God," he continued. "I told them that their ship was sure to come in. It was a message of inspiration. I told them not to worry about white segregationists because their arms were too short to box with God."
He applied the same prescription of faith and self-restraint to social problems. "Our whole society is looking for an ethical and moral balance in our lives," he said. "The solution to street crimes and drug addiction lies in people finding moral balance in their lives."
Williams was born in Lynchburg, Va., and grew up in Columbus. He stuttered when he was a child, and playmates used to laugh at him when he played at preaching. He overcame that hurdle and graduated from American Bible College. He was ordained a minister of the Church of Our Lord Jesus Christ, a Pentecostal denomination.
When he decided to come to Washington, he was warned that the city was "a preacher's graveyard and a mission wreckshop." The pessimists said this was so for Baptist preachers even though Washington was a Baptist city, and it would be true even quicker with a Pentecostal preacher.
Nonetheless, Williams went out on the corner of Seventh and G streets NW, and in a deep, booming voice called on passersby to draw nigh. Sometimes he held prayer meetings in an old tent, and gradually he began to attract a following. The pessimists were wrong.
The bishop's survivors include his wife, Verna L. Williams, whom he married in 1928, of Washington; two children, Yvonne L. Williams and Wallace W. Williams, both also of Washington; a brother, Adolphus A. Williams of Columbus; five sisters, Corinne Gibson, Lucille Turner, Mary Handon and Lucretia Cunningham, all of Columbus, and Bobbette Morrow of Cleveland; two grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.
"We are the Bible Way family -- living the way of the Bible," Bishop Williams said in the 50th year of his ministry. " 'Give us this day' -- I say, 'this day -- our daily bread . . . . ' But man shall not live by bread alone."