Harold Williams was born in Auckland on 6 April 1876, the oldest of seven sons. His parents had emigrated from Cornwall, England, and his father, the Reverend W.J. Williams, was one of the early leaders of the Methodist church in New Zealand, for many years editing the Methodist Times. Williams senior was well-read and gave Harold early instruction in the classics. Like most youngsters his age, Harold was not possessed by a voracious appetite for learning, but he recalled that, when he was about seven, ‘an explosion in his brain’ occurred and from that time his capacity to learn, in particular languages, grew to an extraordinary degree. He began with the study of Latin, one of the great root languages, and hungrily acquired others.
As a schoolboy he constructed a grammar and vocabulary of the New Guinea language Dobu from a copy of St. Mark’s Gospel written in that language. Next he compiled a vocabulary of the dialect of Niue Island, again from the Gospel written in that language, and was published in the Polynesian Journal. Harold spent his pocket money purchasing New Testaments from an obliging Christchurch bookseller in as many languages as he could. By the end of his life he had studied the Bible in twenty-six languages, including Zulu, Swahili and Hausa. Before attending Christchurch Boys’ and Timaru Boys’ High Schools he had managed to teach himself Latin, Ancient Greek, Hebrew, French, German, Spanish, Italian, Māori, Samoan, Tongan, Fijian and other Polynesian languages.
In 1893 the Williams family moved to Auckland, where the teenage Harold would visit ships at the Auckland wharves so that he could converse with Polynesian and Melanesian crewmen in their own tongues.
He sat for his BA at Auckland University, but was failed because of an inability to sufficiently master mathematics, and, on the instruction of his father, entered the Methodist Ministry at the age of 20. After appointments in St Albans, Christchurch, and Inglewood, Taranaki, he went to the Northern Wairoa district around Dargaville where there were crowds of gumdiggers of diverse nationalities. He quickly absorbed their languages and then begun to study Russian and Polish, inspired in part by an interest in the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy.
As Harold wrote to a Christchurch friend Macie Bevan Lovell-Smith, he was “struggling with reading Tolstoy in his native tongue”. Harold’s admiration for Tolstoy was not only literary, but philosophical. Like Tolstoy, Williams was a vegetarian, he tried to practice nonresistance, and was a proponent of “the doctrine of Christian Anarchism.” He enjoyed preaching, but his speech was marred by a stammer, and some members of his congregation were suspicious of his intellectualism, socialist views and pacifism. Conservative members of the clergy also harboured suspicions, as Eugene Grayland writes in Famous New Zealanders, “His clerical superiors distrusted his views and disapproved of some of the heterodox books in his library, touching on evolution and such matters.”