Willson served as a second lieutenant for Company F, 42nd NC Regiment during the Civil War. After the war, he joined the Methodist Conference at Greensboro in 1867. He pastored a group of churches in Davie County, including First United Methodist in 1887, and lived in the parsonage on Salisbury Street. A Mason, he spoke at the 1892 Masonic Picnic. Willson also served on the board of the North Carolina Midlands Railroad. His wife, Alice Long Willson, raised silkworms. Martha Call and Frances Morris, two children in the neighborhood, gathered mulberry leaves to feed the silkworms.