One of six children, Williams was born in San Angelo, Texas. He received a Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology from Huston-Tillotson University in 1952. He was one of the first five African American graduates of the Perkins School of Theology at Southern Methodist University in 1955. He became the pastor of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco, California in 1963, and founded the Council on Religion and the Homosexual the following year. He welcomed everyone to participate in services and hosted political rallies in which Angela Davis and the Black Panthers spoke and lectures by personalities as diverse as Bill Cosby and Billy Graham. When Patti Hearst was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, Williams attempted to negotiate a deal for her release.
In 1967, Williams had the cross removed from the church's sanctuary, saying it was a symbol of death and that his congregation should instead celebrate life and living. "We must all be the cross," he explained.
Under his leadership, Glide Memorial became a 10,000-member congregation of all races, ages, genders, ethnicities, sexual orientations, and religions. It is the largest provider of social services in the city, serving over three thousand meals a day, providing AIDS/HIV screenings, offering adult education programs, and giving assistance to women dealing with homelessness, domestic violence, substance abuse, and mental health issues.
Williams retired as pastor in 2000 having turned 70 years old, the mandatory age of retirement for pastors employed by the United Methodist Church. (Pastors in the United Methodist Church are not employed by the local church or congregation. Instead, UMC pastors are assigned to a local church by the presiding bishops of the global Church.) When Williams became ineligible for assignment to a congregation by the episcopate, the local congregation and affiliated non-profit foundation hired Williams to fill a new office entitled Minister of Liberation. The position was created to allow Williams to officially continue to serve the community and church.
Williams was married to school teacher Evelyn Robinson from 1956 until their divorce in 1976. They had two children, Albert and Kim. He has been married to Janice Mirikitani since 1982. He is the author of I'm Alive, an autobiography published in 1980. He collaborated with Mirikitani on the book "Beyond the Possible" (2013).
- "Cecil Williams". This Far by Faith. The Faith Project. 2003.
- Strasburg, Jenny (17 October 2004). "At a Crossroads / Assuming Cecil Williams can let go, what will become of Glide Memorial?". San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 7 February 2013.
- "SMU Marks 50th Anniversary Of First African-American Graduates" (Press release). Southern Methodist University. 12 may 2005. Retrieved 7 February 2013.
- Williams, Cecil. No Hiding Place: Empowerment and Recovery for Our Troubled Communities, Harpercollins (September 1992)