William W. Hays (1927-2010) came from a family known for drunkenness and crime, and he lived up to his family’s poor reputation. Addictions and debauchery almost led William to an early grave, but God delivered him and called him into ministry. The ex-convict and former addict became a noted Assemblies of God prison chaplain and evangelist, devoting his life to helping others escape the living hell that he knew well. He shared his story in the July 22, 1962, issue of the Pentecostal Evangel.
William was raised during the Great Depression in an impoverished community along the Arkansas River near Fort Smith, Arkansas. Moonshine, violence, and prostitutes were a way of life in the community. William started drinking moonshine at age 5. He got into daily fistfights with other children and dropped out of school in the seventh grade. He and his brother, Benny, devoted much of their time to helping their father make whiskey.
William’s mother had died, and his father never took his children to church. The boys had few positive influences, and they lived to satisfy their destructive desires. By age 17, William was an alcoholic. “I lied, cheated, and committed crimes,” he recalled, in order “to get the money for another drink of alcohol.”
At age 17, William fell in love with a lovely young girl, Edith Mae, who had been raised in a Christian home. He was attracted to her “clean way of living.” After a whirlwind courtship, they married a few weeks later, on the condition that he would stop drinking. But he could only fight the urge to drink for a few days, and he again succumbed to what he later described as the “demon forces” of alcohol.
William had difficulty holding down a job and could not provide for his growing family. “I would leave my wife and children with nothing to eat,” he wrote, “and would awake from an intoxicated stupor to find myself hundreds of miles from home in some cheap joint or on Skid Row with the lowest characters.”
William’s wife, Edith Mae, spent much of the first 14 years of their marriage in tears and in prayer. She had six children in eight years. William was unstable. When he returned home from wandering, he would show tenderness to her and their children. But the next moment he might be wild and rash.
His life got even worse. William became addicted to morphine, and, at age 25, his body began to waste away. One more tragedy made life unbearable. His brother, Benny, who had been living in squalor with a prostitute, was murdered with a shotgun at close range. Seething with anger, he tried to find Benny’s killer, but was unsuccessful.
By age 31, William’s body was giving out. His nerves were shattered, his body was emaciated and addicted to alcohol and heroin, and his spirit was deadened to the world. He ended up in a state mental institution, where doctors gave him a few days to live.
William’s oldest daughter, Phyllis, called a Pentecostal Holiness Church preacher, Walter Brown, who came to his bedside. William, sensing this was his last chance, responded to Brown’s fervent prayers. “I began to cry to God for salvation,” he recounted. “Soon the tremendous load on my heart was lifted. I knew the power of the omnipotent God was working to set me free.”
Almost immediately, William’s condition began to improve. Brown helped to disciple William, teaching him how to follow Christ and to be a faithful husband and father. Brown warned him that he must take certain definite actions, or he would not experience lasting change. “You must study the Bible consistently and earnestly, and regularly attend a church,” he insisted. As William did this, he was able to overcome the temptations to return to his former addictions and lifestyle.
The new Christian felt compelled to share his testimony. He went to his former buddies on Skid Row, and they initially laughed at him. The road back to health was a struggle, but as William made progress, people took notice. When his former associates saw a lasting change in William’s life, they wanted to know more.
William read the Bible voraciously, hungry to know God. He sensed God’s call into the ministry and, in 1962, was ordained by the Assemblies of God. He pastored several churches, started rescue missions in Fort Smith and Oklahoma City, and then became director of the Teen Challenge center in Fort Worth, Texas. William felt a tug to prison chaplaincy, in part because his brother spent two stints in the Arkansas State Penitentiary, which was known as the “hell hole of the penal system.” He helped to lead a successful prison reform movement, which made prisons safer in Arkansas. He also engaged in chaplaincy work in dangerous prisons in Mexico. In his later years, he served as coordinator of prison and jail ministries for the Oklahoma District Council of the Assemblies of God.
William W. Hays was an unlikely candidate to become a minister, much less a prison chaplain. But when God changed his life, his early years behind bars and on the wrong side of the law became an asset for his new calling.
Read William W. Hays’ testimony, “Delivered from Dope and Death,” on pages 8-9 of the July 22, 1962, issue of the Pentecostal Evangel.
Also featured in this issue:
• “All May Prophesy,” by Donald Gee
• “New Church for Navajos in California,” by L. E. Halvorson
• “No Birth Certificate,” by L. Nelson Bell
And many more!
Pentecostal Evangel archived editions courtesy of the Flower Pentecostal Heritage Center.