William Williams of Pantycelyn (Part 3): The Later Years
This series is in three parts, the first (Williams’ early years and conversion) can be read here, and the second (his marriage and ministry) can be read here.
The Later Years
The revival of 1762 may have broken out at Llangeitho, but it was given impetus by the works of William Williams, in particular the publication of a new collection of hymns, which fanned the embers of revival to a new pitch.1 This seemed to vindicate Williams’ view that the history of the church was marked by cycles of revival and declension.2 In his work on The Experience Meeting, Williams described just such a heavenly refreshing:
One time, there were just a few of us, professing believers, gathered together, cold and unbelievably dead, in a meeting which we called a special service, so discouraged as to doubt whether we should ever meet again…. But it is when man reaches the lowest depths of unbelief that God imparts faith, and when man has failed, then God reveals himself. So here, with us in such dire straits, on the brink of despair, with the door shut on every hope of success, God himself entered into our midst, and the light of day from on high dawned upon us; for one of the brethren – yes, the most timid of us all, the one who was strongest in his belief that God would never visit us – while in prayer, was stirred in his spirit and laid powerfully upon heaven, as one who would never let go.3
The smoking flax of the church was not quenched, but raised to a flame by breezes from heaven, and Williams’ hymns resounded throughout the meetings of the Lord’s people once more. His new hymnbook went through five editions, as the work of the Lord prospered.4 Williams did not confine his labours to literature, but he still travelled widely throughout the land, preaching wherever a door was opened. Although much of his work took place in the rural counties of south-west and mid Wales, he visited Glamorgan and the north on occasion, enduring persecution.
Williams emerged, too, as a vital counselor to the rising generation of Welsh Methodists, ensuring that the movement was not drawn into error or frigid orthodoxy. He had not forgotten the lessons of his early days; that although orthodoxy is necessary, it is not enough. As a young man he had possessed much knowledge, and, as the son of the leader of the orthodox party at Cefnarthen was right enough in the head, but with all this, still a child of wrath. God had to open his eyes to his lost estate, and lead him to the Lord the Lamb. He had learned, by means of Harris’ preaching that never to be forgotten day at Talgarth, that:
A form of words, though e’er so sound,
Can never save a soul;
The Holy Ghost must give the wound,
And make the wounded whole. (Hart.)
Now, he sought to guide the movement’s next generation to see the same, becoming a trusted counselor of Thomas Charles of Bala, the outstanding man among the younger leaders. His discernment was brought to bear on those who would survive him, Williams taking care that plausible rogues were not permitted to hold high positions, although his love for Daniel Rowland blinded him to the arrogance and high-handed behaviour of Nathaniel, Rowland’s son, whom he counselled to be a father and leader of the societies in his elegy to Daniel Rowland, little imagining that Nathaniel would take this as a licence to behave as though he was a monarch, rather than a humble under-shepherd.5
The mention of Williams’ elegy to Daniel Rowland is a reminder that the preacher and poet of Pantycelyn was the last of the first generation Methodist leaders to die. Harris passed to his eternal reward in 1773, worn out by his exertions for Christ, and Rowland in 1790, Williams mourning their passing in verse. He was increasingly worn out also, his nerves began to give way completely, so that he was afraid to venture out of doors at night. Nevertheless, the goodness of God to Williams continued; as his life drew to a close the new vicar of Llandovery asked the aged Methodist to preach occasionally at the church of Llanfair-ar-y-bryn. In May of 1790, he felt death near at hand, counselling Thomas Charles to pray that he might be given dying grace in a dying hour.6
By the close of 1790, Williams was confined to his home at Pantycelyn by illness. His final letter to Thomas Charles breaths disappointment, yet it is leavened by the spirit of faith, and a humble trust in the Lord in his circumstances breathes through it. He confided to Charles:
You will understand that though I am somewhat better as regards the pain from which I have suffered, I am still but weak and feeble, and very helpless; and I have but little hope that I will ever be able to go out much, if at all, again; because I am seventy three years of age. Think what a disappointment it must be to a man who has traveled nearly three thousand miles every year for over 50 years to be now without moving more than 40 feet a day – from the fireside to bed. This is how my God wishes to deal with me, and it is well.7
By the time this letter reached Thomas Charles, its author had gone to meet with the God he had so loved and sung of. On 11 January, 1791, as he was seated in his armchair whilst his bed was made, William Williams, Pantycelyn breathed his last, and his spirit returned to God who made it, being borne up to the presence of God.8 Williams’ prayer, which so many have sung, had been answered in his quiet, confident death:
When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Bid my anxious fears subside;
Death of deaths and hell’s destruction,
Land me safe of Canaan’s side;
Songs of praises,
I will ever give to thee.
Williams was laid to rest in the churchyard of Llanfair-ar-y-bryn. A large red granite obelisk was reared over his grave, his son wrote the English-language epitaph, declaring that it is here, in a still-quiet country churchyard, ‘he awaits the coming of the Morning Star which shall usher in he glories of the first resurrection.’ Below this, in Welsh, is a stanza from the epitaph composed by the central character in Pantycelyn’s great work Theomemphus, speaking of the joy of the saints in glory:
No darts, no frights, no fears, no sorrow and no pain,
Sounding forth the glory of the Lamb that once was slain;
One of a throng of myriads who sing with endless praise,
A love-song as the anthem, a song they’ll ever raise.9
The work and witness of William Williams did not end with his death in 1791; his work as the revival’s chief author assured the poet a place in the memory and affections of many in Wales and beyond.
Pantycelyn is still inhabited by his descendants, and the visitors’ book contains names of people from all over the world. Statues have been erected to the poet (including one in Cardiff City Hall), and Llandovery itself contains a beautiful memorial chapel, recently re-opened for worship and witness. However, the chief memorial to William Williams, Pantycelyn, is to be found in his hymns, which still appear in numerous hymnbooks, especially in Wales, and are loved wherever sound, experimental religion is cherished.
‘He being dead yet speaketh.’
- Welsh Ministers, p.55.
- Jones, White & Schlenther, Elect Methodists, pp.125-6; Evans, Bread of Heaven, p.173.
- William Williams (trans. Bethan Lloyd-Jones, The Experience Meeting (Vancouver, 1995), pp.8-9.
- Broome, Welsh Ministers, p.55.
- Jenkins, Thomas Charles, p.72.
- Jenkins, Thomas Charles, p.70.
- William Williams to Thomas Charles, 1 January 1791, in Jenkins, Charles, vol. 2, p.53.
- Jones & Morgan, Fathers, p.249.
- Eifion Evans, Pursued by God: A Selective Translation with notes of the Welsh Religious classic Theomemphus by William Williams of Pantycelyn (Bridgend, 1996), p.179.
This article was taken from the Peace & Truth magazine with the permission of the author.
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