William Morley was born at Orston, Nottinghamshire, England, on 14 August 1842, the son of William Morley, a tailor, and his wife, Mary Mason. As devout Wesleyans both parents held office as class-leaders, and gave hospitality to visiting preachers. During the 1848–50 campaign to reform the church's constitution they remained loyal to the church and sought to reconcile the different factions.
William was tall and robust and possessed a resonant voice with which he is said to have dominated meetings in later life. He was educated at Southwell and Ossington village schools and was a pupil-teacher at Newark. Converted in his teens he began preaching at 17 and two years later was accepted as a candidate for the ministry, training for 12 months under the Reverend Dr Kesson in London.
The Morleys emigrated to Auckland, New Zealand, in 1864. Before leaving England William Morley senior suffered severe business losses; he seems to have recovered later to the extent that he was able to give considerable time to the interests of the church in Parnell. The Waikato war prevented William junior entering the Maori mission: instead, in 1864 he became the first resident Wesleyan minister in Waiuku. While there he met Hannah Watson Buttle. They were married at Otahuhu on 10 April 1867; there were four sons and three daughters of the marriage.
Over the next 36 years Morley was appointed to The Hutt, Wanganui, Lyttelton, Wellington, Christchurch, Auckland, St Albans, Dunedin and Wesley College, Three Kings. Throughout his ministry he cultivated the spiritual development of his congregations and the minds of young men in particular. From his early circuit ministry he quickly realised that if colonial Methodism were to cope with the rapidly increasing population, crippling debts had to be extinguished, church properties had to be held on a common deed of trust, and the polity of the church amended.
In 1872 Morley was one of nine New Zealand representatives at the annual Conference of the Australasian Wesleyan Methodist Church. By 1874 he was chairman of the Wellington district. He was secretary of the New Zealand conference in 1877, 1878, 1880 and 1882 and president in 1879 and 1884 – the only man to hold this office twice. He gave leadership in the establishment of the Church Building and Loan Fund (1883), the Model Deed (1884), the Fire Insurance Fund (1899) and Prince Albert College (1895). Morley also helped secure the extension of the term of ministerial appointments and lay membership of the annual conference. He pressed for a conference independent of Australian Methodism in order to achieve the union of Methodism in New Zealand. Union was achieved with the Bible Christian Church and United Methodist Free Churches in 1896 and with the Primitive Methodists in 1913. He was active in promoting temperance, overseas missions and the establishment of the Sunday school union movement.
In 1887 Morley's grasp of 'The doctrinal and ecclesiastical position of the Methodist church' was set forth in a lecture by that name to the annual conference. By virtue of his administrative record he served as connexional secretary from 1893 to 1902. At the same time he was becoming internationally known. He was the official representative to the British and Irish conferences in 1888, was elected one of the presidents of the second Methodist ecumenical conference in 1891, and was president of the Australasian general conference in 1894, the only New Zealander to hold that office. He also began to turn the attention of Australasian Methodism towards Asia as a mission field.
Hannah Morley's death on 11 June 1898 overshadowed the award to William of the degree of doctor of divinity by Emory and Henry College, Virginia, USA. The history of Methodism in New Zealand, begun at this time, brought together Morley's pastoral and administrative knowledge of the church and his acquaintance with many of the early missionaries.
Difficulties in Australian Methodism led to Morley's transfer to Melbourne where he managed the Supernumerary Ministers' and Ministers' Widows' Fund and took an active part in promoting Wesley and Queen's colleges. On 20 March 1903, at Melbourne, he married Grace Henderson Webster, a nursing sister who had accompanied New Zealand troops to the South African war. They were to have one son. In 1913 he was guest of the New Zealand conference celebrating the union of the various New Zealand churches and their separation from the Australian church. He had long advocated separation but may have had second thoughts. He died in Melbourne on 24 May 1926 and was buried in the Boroondara cemetery, Kew, Melbourne. Grace Morley died in 1944.