William Leonard Williams, known as Leonard Williams to Pākehā and as Mita Rēnata to Māori, was born at Paihia, Bay of Islands, New Zealand, on 22 July 1829. He was the third child and eldest son of Jane Nelson and her husband, William Williams, of the Church Missionary Society. In his early years Leonard was educated mainly by his father at the English boys' school at Paihia, later at Te Waimate (Waimate North), and at the Tūranga mission station, Poverty Bay, to which his parents moved at the end of 1839. In 1844 he attended the boys' grammar school, part of the St John's College complex, which Bishop G. A. Selwyn had established at Te Waimate and then shifted to Pūrewa, Auckland. In November 1847 Williams left St John's, where he had been Whytehead scholar, to go to the evangelical Magdalen Hall, Oxford, England. It would seem to have been Leonard's own inclination – as well as being expected by Selwyn and hoped for by William Williams – that he follow in his father's footsteps. He had quite literally done so in his early teens, accompanying William Williams on several of his East Coast journeys.
Leonard Williams graduated BA with third-class honours from the University of Oxford in 1852. He then offered himself for service with the Church Missionary Society, and after taking a training course at the CMS college at Islington was admitted to deacon's orders on 22 May 1853. On 16 June 1853 he married Sarah Wanklyn at Witherslack Chapel, Westmorland. On 6 August of that year he and Sarah sailed in the Hamilla Mitchell for New Zealand, arriving at Auckland on 30 November. After visiting other members of the Williams clan in the Bay of Islands he took up mission duties with his father at Whakatō, the Tūranga station, in February 1854. Selwyn admitted him to priest's orders at Lyttelton on 21 December 1856.
Williams had been especially commissioned by the London CMS to undertake the systematic training of Māori students with a view to recruiting the men as ordinands to the ministry and the women as their wives. He held firmly to the missionary belief that in order to be trained, Māori had to be removed from their own villages where 'their own careless way' would constantly interrupt that training. New habits, he hoped, would 'raise them a little in the social scale' and enable them better to instruct their own people. At Whakatō there was insufficient land to support this live-in, self-supporting training centre and when Te Whānau-a-Taupara hapū of Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki offered a block of 593 acres at Waerenga-a-hika, about eight miles further inland, the offer was accepted. The government, however, would not recognise the validity of any title not conferred by the Crown, and as Williams was to write later, 'Nothing was further from the thoughts of the natives than that the Crown should be allowed to get any footing in the district'. Somewhat grudgingly a deed of cession to the Crown was eventually signed in April 1857. The move to Waerenga-a-hika was made in May, when William and Jane Williams as well as Leonard and Sarah took up residence there. To begin with, its schools had about 50 students. By 1860 numbers had doubled and Māori of the newly formed Waiapu diocese were increasingly making provision for an endowment fund to support their future Māori pastors.
But the circumstances under which Waerenga-a-hika was founded were not auspicious for its future. Ngāti Kaipoho and Ngāti Maru of Rongowhakaata had been opposed to the move from Whakatō, and Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki found that although it was they who had ceded the land, the schools were more particularly for Māori from other parts of the diocese. There were also other disquieting factors. Increased Māori–trader contact had made drunkenness commonplace, and Christianity was losing its appeal. Williams attributed this to the fact that the native teachers had not sufficient command of English to read English books and consequently were inclined to 'vegetate and grow stale'. In some districts a sub-Christian cult, Kowhiowhio – communicating with the dead – replaced mission practice. Williams did not think that the 1860–61 Taranaki war greatly affected the Waiapu diocese. There was sympathy for Wiremu Kīngi Te Rangitāke, and Ngāti Porou were divided for and against the Māori king, but there was no hostility shown to the few Pākehā settlers. Williams was convinced that the prevalent hostility to the government was because it had adopted a policy of non-interference in disputes which broke out in 'native districts': 'The Natives have thus been deprived of one of the most important privileges involved in their becoming British subjects, and the advantage of living under a regular Government has not been appreciated by them because they have not enjoyed it'.
In 1862 Leonard Williams became archdeacon of Waiapu. His father, now bishop of Waiapu, had long considered him the only suitable person to superintend the Māori clergy, but because of their relationship had held back the appointment until he had Selwyn's full concurrence.
The incursion of a group of Hauhau into Poverty Bay in March 1865 caused a complete disruption of missionary work. The groundswell of disenchantment with Christianity and disaffection with the government had not prepared either William or Leonard Williams for the sudden and almost complete swing of Rongowhakaata and Te Aitanga-a-Māhaki to an initial embrace of the Pai Mārire faith. Pockets of mission supporters remained along the East Coast and to a lesser degree within Poverty Bay. To encourage these communities to remain steadfast, Leonard Williams remained when William Williams and the rest of the family left Poverty Bay for Napier at the beginning of April. Leonard Williams hoped to remain quietly at Waerenga-a-hika to continue with the schools and convince local Māori to return to Christianity. But, he wrote in his journal, he and his father 'seemed to be considered…scapegoats on whom might be laid all the blame of the present unsatisfactory state of the district'.
Thirty-five mission students left Poverty Bay on 22 August 1865 for a temporary school, which William Williams had begun at Horotutu, near Paihia. During the same month Leonard Williams moved into a cottage, Waikahua, which he had had built on Kaiti Hill near the mouth of the Tūranganui River. Support for Christianity now meant support for the Crown and Williams considered the arrival of militia and military settlers favourably, although some of the Māori supporters of the mission and the government suggested to him that Christianity and Pai Mārire should be allowed to coexist. He also had the welfare of the Poverty Bay settlers to consider. Hauhau raids on their farms had forced them to seek shelter in the relative safety of Tūranganui where there was a redoubt and a pā. Williams found himself the 'father of a huge family. All these women & children…in a state of utter confusion to say nothing of the Maori part of the community and all looking up to me as the pakeke [elder].'
After Te Kooti's raid at Matawhero on 10 November 1868, Williams strove to keep up the morale of settlers and Māori. His own life was never threatened as he continued to make coastal journeys. He urged J. C. Richmond, who was acting as native minister, to allow a large force of Ngāti Porou to garrison Tūranganui and occupy some of the adjoining land. Previously he had been critical of land confiscation as a penalty on Poverty Bay Māori who had supported the Hauhau, but after the fighting against Te Kooti he could see no alternative which would satisfy those Māori who had supported the government and deter aggressors.
The Waiapu diocese had been created as a particularly Māori one and Pākehā participation was limited to missionary clergy. But with the increase of European settlement following land confiscation and with the township of Gisborne planned, Williams thought that Pākehā would soon take the lead in synod administration. He therefore set about establishing native church boards which would be entirely concerned with Māori church matters. The first of these met at Tūranganui on 31 October 1870. When ill health caused William Williams to resign as bishop of Waiapu in May 1876, Leonard Williams was nominated as his successor. He declined at this time, determined to devote himself to building up the Māori church within the diocese, and Gisborne (incorporating Tūranganui) was a better centre from which to achieve this than the episcopal seat at Napier.
Throughout the 1870s Williams pursued his quest for improved Māori education. He set up village schools which he hoped would be free of government assistance and interference, but because of inadequate funding and irregular attendance they were not successful. In 1870 Williams bought some suburban sections in Gisborne where he built Te Rau Kahikatea, which became his family home from 1877 until 1894. It was also to be the nucleus of Te Rau College, built with money from property transferred to the New Zealand Mission Trust Board by the London-based Church Missionary Society. This Māori theological college was officially opened in 1885. In 1890 the school for Māori boys recommenced in the refurbished Williams homestead at Waerenga-a-hika.
Williams was consecrated bishop of Waiapu in Napier cathedral on 20 January 1895. In 1897, while attending an Anglican conference at Lambeth, he received the honorary degree of doctor of divinity from Oxford university. As bishop he still travelled indefatigably on horseback over the rough tracks of his unwieldy diocese, which consisted of Bay of Plenty with hinterland stretching to Taupō, East Coast–Poverty Bay and Hawke's Bay, all isolated from each other by mountainous country. He resigned in 1909 when he felt he was no longer able to make these arduous journeys. Williams died suddenly at Taumata, his Napier residence, on 24 August 1916. Sarah Williams had died at Napier on 18 December 1894. There were 10 children from their marriage.
Within his lifetime Leonard Williams had seen the flowering of the CMS mission on the East Coast when Christianity had been the fashion, and then its dissolution into small communities not unlike the settler parishes. He found it impossible to make any impression on the generation that had abandoned Christianity, and he acknowledged that the Ringatū faith of Te Kooti and his followers had 'sprung from a desire…to find for themselves a religion which shall be different from that which is professed by those with whom they have been at war'. He also conceded that 'political feeling' had antagonised many Māori, giving them the notion that missionaries had come 'simply as agents of the English Government, to prepare the way for colonization'.
Williams carried on his father's intensive study of the Māori language. The third and fourth editions of A dictionary of the New Zealand language (1871 and 1892) are his work. His First lessons in the Māori language first appeared in 1862. East Coast (NZ) historical records was published in 1932, after his death. At various times he worked with his father and Robert Maunsell revising the Māori Old and New testaments and prayer book. On his journeys he regularly collected plant specimens and forwarded them, initially, to J. D. Hooker of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, and later to T. F. Cheeseman of the Auckland Institute and Museum. He also assisted Cheeseman by compiling lists of Māori plant names for inclusion in his Manual of the New Zealand flora. Williams contributed over a wide range of subjects to the Journal of the Polynesian Society and to the Transactions and Proceedings of the New Zealand Institute. At the time of his death he was regarded as probably the most eminent Māori scholar of his generation.
Leonard Williams was a kindly man, quietly spoken but firm in his convictions, who made light of physical hardship. Occasionally travellers in the remote mountainous hinterland of Poverty Bay would come across one or two Māori riders accompanying a Pākehā of singular appearance – tall and spare with a dramatic waist-length beard – leading a packhorse. They were surprised to learn that they had met the archdeacon or, for a few years, the bishop of Waiapu on visitation.