William Williams of Pantycelyn (Part 1): Early Years and Call to Ministry
This year sees the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of William Williams of Pantycelyn, the ‘sweet singer’ of the eighteenth century Welsh revival and pre-eminent hymn-writer of Wales. The third of the great figures of the Methodist revival after Howell Harris and Daniel Rowland, Williams is claimed by Wales as a whole to a greater extent than his fellows, largely due to his hymns, which have provided comfort and spiritual nourishment to many of his countrymen.
A later hymn-writer and minister has compared his influence on Wales to that of Paul Gerhardt on Germany.1 The hymns of Williams have touched many hearts, both in Wales and beyond, whether by means of his English hymns, or the translations of his Welsh hymns. His greatest hymn Guide me, O thou great Jehovah is familiar to many who know nothing of the man who penned it, being sung even by largely godless crowds at Welsh rugby matches.
He has been called the ‘first Romantic poet in Europe’ by the great Welsh writer Saunders Lewis, and others have discerned in him an appreciation and understanding of the human psyche which prefigures modern psychiatry. Yet there is more to William Williams than his hymns and literary reputation – his life story is one of controversy, persecution, and, most importantly, love to Christ and a desire to see the extension of his kingdom, and his writings contain much that is still profitable to the people of God.
His Early Life
William Williams was born in 1717 at his father’s house, Cefn-Coed, in the parish of Llanfair-ar-y-bryn, near Llandovery in the lovely Towy valley.2 His father, John Williams, was a freeholder and senior deacon (or ruling elder) of the Independent church of Cefnarthen. His mother, Dorothy, was some thirty-three years her husband’s junior. Her family owned the nearby farm of Pantycelyn, and it is clear that she saw something in the sober deacon which the frivolous youths of Llandovery lacked. Seeing him walking past her door on his way to pay court to a lady dwelling some distance away, Dorothy admonished him that he ‘could find one a good deal nearer home!’3 The hint was taken, and they were soon after married.
The farm of Pantycelyn came to Dorothy on the death of her father; her two brothers had gone to an early grave, part of that strange and large-scale failure of family lines which occurred during the eighteenth century in Wales. This rendered the Williams family substantial freehold farmers in an age when many farms were held on lease from landlords, something that would afford William a secure income and base for his work.
Cefnarthen was one of the oldest nonconformist churches in Wales, tracing its origins to 1642. During the years of persecution they had worshiped in caves and woods, ever looking out for the coming of the sheriff’s men. Their chapel (since replaced) had been erected in 1689, after the accession of William and Mary had brought about a measure of toleration. By the time of William’s birth, they were a prosperous fellowship; records suggest that about half the Christians in the parishes of Llanfair-ar-y-bryn and Cilycwm worshiped there on the Lord’s Day. However, it was not a happy church. The minister, Roger Williams (no relation to John Williams), was an Arminian, whose views may have verged towards Unitarianism, as was the case with a substantial number of ministers in the area, influenced by men who had retained a form of godliness whilst denying the power thereof.
John Williams was able to discern the dangerous tendencies of his minister’s teaching, and after the death of Roger Williams in 1730, attempted to call the church back to its Calvinistic roots by putting forward sound men to fill the pulpit. When this proved of no avail, John Williams led the Calvinistic party out of the church, and established a new fellowship in which the doctrines of grace were preached and honoured.4 It to be regretted that the experience of tension and distrust generated by the doctrinal controversy at Cefnarthen during William Williams’ formative years left him confused and grieved, as Calvinist and Arminian ministers contradicted each other from the same pulpit, and friends parted company, at times angrily. Looking back on the quarrels at the chapel, Williams feared many had wrangled in the flesh, and so lost sight of more important matters. Being on the right side of the dispute came to be seen as everything, rather than being right before a holy God:
With all this empty wrangling, they lost a contrite heart
Which pined with earnest longing, in Christ to have a part.5
Despite these sentiments, it is not to be thought that William Williams valued unity above truth. In the course of his life, he would be drawn into many controversies, wrestling with antinomianism, Unitarianism, Sabellianism, and Sandemanianism, among other heresies. His advice was eagerly sought at Association meetings when error appeared among the Methodist societies.6 On his dying bed, Williams counselled the men who remained behind to winnow the Methodist societies, having discerned within many the secret workings of error.7 The lesson which the strife at Cefnarthen taught the young Williams was that controversy wrongly conducted generated more heat than light and offended tender consciences. The competing preachers, each confuting the other’s doctrine as the Calvinist and Arminian parties competed for ascendancy, had sown seeds of confusion in young minds, and caused the love of many to grow cold, whilst inflating pride on both sides of the divide, as those who have neither part nor lot in Christ exalt ‘their own pet theme’ in order to show their orthodoxy, rather than out of zeal for Christ.8 A party spirit had grown up, rather than a God-honouring spirit. It is a lesson which Christians are slow to learn; to conduct such matters, which are sometimes necessary, in a manner which does not grieve the Holy Spirit.
Williams left this scene of strife in 1735, moving to Llwyn-llwyd, near Hay on Wye, where there was a Dissenting Academy, then presided over by Vavasor Griffiths. It had been founded in Carmarthen, but had moved from to prevent the students from getting into trouble in the town, and due to fears that the church there had been corrupted by the heretical teaching of Thomas Perrot, a former principal who has been called ‘the father of Arminianism in Wales.’9 Although the academies had initially been intended to prepare men for the ministry, they provided a general higher education for the sons of nonconformists, who were at this time shut out from the great universities. Williams was studying to become a doctor, perhaps influenced by the example of the famous line of physicians from Myddfai, a few miles on the other side of Llandovery.10 The curriculum at Llwyn-llwyd was taxing; although he was studying for a medical, rather than ministerial career, Williams was expected to study theology, the Classics, Greek, Latin and Hebrew, in addition to mathematics. He became proficient in the English language also, for the instruction at Llwyn-llwyd was in English, rather than his native Welsh. Whilst here, Williams would most likely have worshiped at the simple Independent chapel at Maesyronnen, converted out of a cowshed, and still used for worship today. William was an apt and disciplined student, confining himself to his studies, and indifferent as to the state of his soul, content that he was among the ranks of the orthodox. In his elegy for Howell Harris, Williams described the state of Wales at this time as being one of spiritual slumber for the established church and nonconformity alike. Although he had been raised in a large and active chapel community, he saw that the love of many had grown cold, in part through the influx of rationalism and pride.11 Formality, rather than real religion, was the order of the day, mere outward morality sought after, rather than Christ.
Called by Grace
William Williams’ whole life was changed one day in 1738 as he walked back to his lodgings through the town of Talgarth. His attention was drawn to the spectacle of a young man standing in the churchyard, speaking to the people about their state as sinners, the Lord Jesus Christ’s holy life and atoning death, and exhorting them to flee to Christ from the wrath to come. The heart of the careless student was touched; he was drawn to listen, and the Holy Spirit breathed new life into him. Looking back on that life-changing moment, Williams sang:
O soul! what preparations, what thought, what clear intent,
Dwelt in you on that morning, when heaven’s call was sent?
That unexpected moment my foolish heart was drawn,
By unexpected measures, my very life reborn.
‘Twas God’s decree in action, His pure and holy plan,
All unbeknown, drew near me, His grace towards me ran;12
William Williams found fulfilled in his own experience the words of the prophet: ‘I am sought of them that asked not for me; I am found of them that sought me not’.13 Listening to Harris describe the corruption of the human heart, Williams was led to see that he was a sinner, and that the cold orthodoxy with which he had hitherto been content could not reconcile him to a holy God. It was not enough to be a deacon’s son and a morally upright young man. He was a sinner, lost and ruined in the fall. Awakened from his complacency and shown that his all his imagined righteousnesses were as filthy rags in the sight of a holy God, Williams returned again and again to the preaching of this man.14 The man was Howell Harris, a schoolmaster from a respected local family, who, three years earlier, had undergone a dramatic conversion and begun to exhort his neighbours, to the scandal of the Church of England, which would not accept the idea of an unordained man preaching, and the glory of God, who owned Harris’ work even as clergy and squires disowned him. In due time Williams was released from bondage under the law and set at gospel liberty. Of this, he wrote:
I’ll not forget the place, the spot,
Where wine was poured into my impotent soul
In endless torrents, from yonder heaven,
Until my wound was healed, my terror was subdued.15
With Joseph Hart, Williams henceforth saw that:
True religion’s more than notion,
Something must be known and felt.
Call to the Ministry
Williams set aside all thought of a medical career; he now desired, more than anything else, to show fellow sinners their lost estate and make Christ known to them. The unsettled state of the Llandovery nonconformists, and Howell Harris’ attachment to the Church of England led Williams to throw in his lot with the Established Church. He ignored the fact that the followers of the revival, the Methodists, as they were generally called, were despised by many within the Church; when a mighty preacher like Daniel Rowland, curate of Llangeitho, was found among their number, Williams seems to have thought, surely there was a great deal of good in the Church? In 1740, he was ordained deacon by the Bishop of St. David’s. As the son of a leading nonconformist, Williams’ decision to conform seemed to represent the advance of Anglicanism in Wales. He was instituted as curate of Llanwrtyd and Dewi Abergwesin, with a stipend of ten pounds a year (equivalent to £1300 today). His preaching was blessed, Howell Harris rejoicing at the power Williams displayed in the pulpit.16 George Whitefield heard Williams preach at this time, and confessed ‘I feel a sweet union to brother Williams.’17 However, Williams could not confine his activities to a small area, and soon ventured beyond the bounds of his curacies, to the fury of local clergy, and to his own superior, Theophilus Evans, an enemy of religious ‘enthusiasm.’ There were repeats of the sorry scenes at Cefnarthen, as Evans thundered forth denunciations of the Methodists as false teachers and fanatics from the pulpit where Williams at other times spoke of the need for grace and the new birth.18
In 1744, Williams was summoned before the Bishop to answer for his neglect of ecclesiastical propriety. The charges were not confined to Williams’ preaching outside his parishes, but included allegations that he did not make the sign of the cross in baptism, and frequently omitted parts of the liturgy in his ministrations, signs that his nonconformity still clung to him.19 Seeing that he would be convicted, Williams decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and resigned his curacies before he could be dismissed. He was never advanced to priest’s orders, and in consequence was not allowed to administer communion. Yet his gifts were so manifest among the Methodists that the young curate was sought after as a preacher and counsellor. In 1743, at the Calvinistic Methodist Association, held at Watford, near Caerphilly, Williams had been appointed assistant to Daniel Rowland, later becoming superintendent of the Methodist societies in Brecon and Radnor. This was no mere title; Williams was constant in his visitation, and tireless in his travels – it has been estimated that in the course of his lifetime, he travelled over a hundred thousand miles!20
It was during this period that a number of the early Methodists, including Williams, met together at Llanddeusant in Carmarthenshire to discuss means of spreading the gospel. The subject of hymns and spiritual poetry was touched upon, and the members of the meeting agreed to adjourn, compose some verses on suitable subjects, then meet to weigh and consider them. At this second meeting it was decided that William Williams had been given the gift of poetry.21 It seems that Williams had, early in his spiritual walk, begun to mediate in verse upon his state and pathway, and upon the glories of God, for notebooks dating from just a little after his conversion exist outlining his walk and state in poetry. This gift was not forced; there were times when he would put a scripture passage into verse in the pulpit, or compose an apt verse on the spot.22 His longer works, such as Theomemphus and the View of the Kingdom were, however, the product of long reflection and extensive reading.
- H. Elvet Lewis, The Sweet Singers of Wales: A Story of Welsh Hymns and their Authors (London, no date), p.29.
- There is, in fact, no known record of his birth; as a dissenter, John Williams would not have taken him to the parish church for sprinkling, and civil registration of births only commenced in 1837. The exact date of his birth is, therefore, unknown, since the records of Cefnarthen are incomplete.
- John Morgan Jones & William Morgan (trans. John Aaron), The Calvinistic Methodist Fathers of Wales (Edinburgh, 2008), vol. 1, p.210.
- Eifion Evans, Bread of Heaven: The Life and Work of Williams, Pantycelyn (Bridgend, 2010), pp.2-3.
- Translation quoted in Jones & Morgan, Fathers, p.218.
- Jones & Morgan, Fathers, p.234.
- D. E. Jenkins, Thomas Charles of Bala (Denbigh, 1908), vol. 2, p.79.
- Jones & Morgan, Fathers, p.218.
- Emyr Roberts (ed. John Aaron & John Emyr), Revival in Wales: Addresses to the Bala Ministers’ Conference (Bridgend, 2014), pp.93-4; D. Elwyn Davies, ‘They Thought for Themselves”: A Brief Look at the History of Unitarianism in Wales and the Tradition of Liberal Religion (Llandysul, 1962), p.33.
- The last of these physicians died in 1739.
- E. Wyn James, ‘” The New Birth of a People”: Welsh Language and Identity and the Welsh Methodists, c.1740-1820’, in Robert Pope (ed.), Religion and National Identity in Wales and Scotland 1700-2000 (Cardiff, 2001), pp.17-18.
- Translation given in Jones & Morgan, Fathers, p.223.
- Jones & Morgan, Fathers, p.224.
- Derec Llwyd Morgan. The Great Awakening in Wales (London, 1988), p.5.
- Quoted in I. R. Broome, Some Welsh Ministers: From Howell Harris to Christmas Evans (Harpenden, 2012), p.47. Although Broome suggests that this relates to Williams’ first hearing, it is more likely to refer to the Lord’s setting Williams’ soul at liberty under Harris’ ministry.
- Emyr Roberts (ed. John Aaron & John Emyr), Revival in Wales: Addresses to the Bala Ministers’ Conference (Bridgend, 2014), pp.99-100.
- R. Brinley Jones (ed.), Songs of Praises: English Hymns and Elegies of William Williams Pantycelyn 1717-1791 (Felinfach, 1991), p.29.
- Morgan, Great Awakening, p.86.
- William Williams, Welsh Calvinistic Methodism (London, 1872, second edition, Bridgend, 1998), p.63.
- Jones & Morgan, Fathers, p.231.
- Jones & Morgan, Fathers, p.230.
- Jones & Morgan, Fathers, p.239.
This article was taken from the Peace & Truth magazine with the permission of the author.
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