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William Williams of Pantycelyn (Part 2): His Ministry

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Date June 14, 2017

This article is part two of a series. The previous section (Williams’  early years, conversion, and call to ministry) can be read here.

Writings and Married Life

William Williams moved to the farmhouse at Pantycelyn, by whose name he is generally known, soon after his marriage in or around 1747. His bride, Mary Francis, had stayed in the household of Griffith Jones, the evangelical curate of Llanddowror, one of the foremost educationalists of his age.

A choice saint, Mary proved an excellent companion for Williams in his ministry. She excelled in singing, and was able to help her husband with his compositions. On one occasion, when travelling with him on a preaching tour, Mary was able to calm a furious crowd by singing one of her husband’s hymns. On another occasion, she was pitched into the sea by a trap set for her and her husband, and had to be rescued from drowning.1

They frequently travelled together, Williams relying on his wife to care for him, and supply paper and pen when he was moved to write. In contrast to the experience of many of the Methodist leaders, theirs was a happy marriage. Mary presented him with two sons and five daughters. Both of their sons became ministers, his younger son, John, was principal at the Countess of Huntingdon’s college at Trefecca, and translated many of his father’s hymns into English, whilst his eldest son, William, was a curate in Cornwall for many years.

On the death of her father, the family farm fell to Mary Williams, and thus to her husband, further increasing his property. Although identified with the Methodists, then part of the Church of England, Williams did not forget the church in which he had been raised, selling a plot of land to the seceders from Cefnarthen, so that they could erect a meeting-house of their own.2

Williams was indefatigable in his labours, by pen and in preaching. He provided the hymns and the theology of the revival, putting it into words which the people could sing, without diluting that content. Did he, as he worked in this way, think back to Rhys Pritchard, a former godly vicar of Llandovery, who had rendered gospel teaching into verses which the people of the town could understand?3

This was no facile work; Williams Pantycelyn possessed an excellent library, containing over a hundred books, among them the works of such choice divines as John Owen, Thomas Goodwin, John Gill, and James Hervey,4 whilst his writings indicated a knowledge of recent philosophy and science. John Bunyan was a frequent source of reference; like the Bedford tinker, Williams saw himself as a pilgrim, bound for Zion. The library at Pantycelyn revealed worlds far beyond Wales; with its aid, Williams produced a long poem on the religions of the world, comparing them with the pure and spiritual revealed religion of Christ and finding them all wanting, together with the mere natural theology of many so-called Christian ministers of his day and age.5

The amount of research which must have been needed for this work, for which Williams sought out the most recent authors on the subject, shows his concern that the converts of the revival should be well-grounded in the faith and able to give to others a reason for the hope which was in them.6 Yet Williams never forgot the lesson which he had learned on that never-to-be-forgotten day when he had heard Harris in the churchyard at Talgarth: that knowledge, however orthodox, cannot save a soul. His purpose in examining all religions was to show the need for God’s free grace to lead a soul out of darkness into God’s marvelous light, and:

To show that only an inward experience of Gospel truth is sufficient to oppose, in the midst of flood and flame, the conflicts with the flesh, the world, and the devil; that all the reasons that scholars around the world have produced to prove that Christ is the true Messiah are not adequate to support the soul in the day of adversity or to lean upon amidst the flames.7

Ministry

William Williams was pre-eminently an experimental preacher and teacher, dealing with the deep things of God and the state of the souls of the Lord’s living family. Having laid aside thoughts of a medical career when the gospel of Jesus Christ gripped his formerly careless heart, William Williams, Pantycelyn, became a skilled physician of souls. He served as a counsellor to many, and, through his writings, reached a far wider constituency than any of the other early Methodist leaders.

Although Harris brought the seiat or experience-meeting to Wales, it was Williams who provided the early Methodists with a defence of these meetings on scriptural grounds, and a guide to how they were to be conducted, in the form of eleven dialogues. Here we find a short history of the work of the Holy Spirit in reviving real religion, and the value of the experience meeting in edifying and preserving Christians.  He defended the revivals with which Wales was favoured during his lifetime against accusations of ‘enthusiasm’ and immorality, providing converts not only with comfort and edification, but with practical theology from which they could answer the slanders of the ignorant.8

Williams also produced a practical guide for married couples, which fell out of favour during the Victorian era, when its frank yet spiritual honesty was erroneously taken for immodesty, meaning that the book is not included in the nineteenth century editions of Pantycelyn’s works.9 These works led Martyn Lloyd-Jones to describe Williams as ‘the outstanding and recognized leader and authority’ in respect of the work of counselling and building up the Methodist societies and their members.10 Where Harris was the outstanding evangelist of the revival, and Daniel Rowland was scarcely behind him in fervour, although more attached to a single place, as curate of Llangeitho, Williams built on their works and gave the revival depth through providing the converts with hymns and with instruction, guarding them against being led astray by the errors which abounded on every hand, or by their own emotions. His God-given understanding of the hearts and emotions led John Gwilym Jones to describe Pantycelyn as a prototype for modern psychiatry.11

Yet Williams wrote not for the glory of man, medical knowledge, or to give later Welsh writers material for their novels, but to show forth the glory of God and to guide Zion’s pilgrims in the right way. Derec Llwyd Morgan observed: ‘There was no other Methodist author to compare with him in the richness and depth of knowledge of the new life in Christ which he displayed in his writings.’12

Newly-married couples might benefit by reading his book on the married state, whilst the perplexed would be comforted by reading his accounts of the struggles of the grace-taught soul, and those who wondered whether the multiplicity of religions in the world overthrew the claims of Christ could find a ready guide among Pantycelyn’s works. And why was this? It was because God, by his grace, led the poet-preacher in this path and gave him grace day by day. Having himself tasted of the fountain of grace, William Williams, Pantycelyn, could speak of its sweetness from his own experience.

Williams’ books (together with packets of tea) were sold among the societies, augmenting the preacher’s income. This, combined with the profits of his farms in Carmarthenshire, meant that Williams was able to preach without payment, relieving the Lord’s poor and afflicted people.

Perhaps because of his writing ministry, later generations came to believe that Williams Pantycelyn was but an average preacher, and his gifts were largely literary. Howell Harris and Thomas Charles both stated that this was very far from the case, and Williams could preach with power when moved by the Holy Spirit.13

His preaching was searching and powerful under these conditions, although his great reliance on the power of the Holy Ghost may account for later stories of his weakness as a preacher, for such men can not only preach sermons of great power and unction, but deliver addresses below the average level. Certainly, his early preaching was not always marked by the same power which attended the sermons of Howell Harris and Daniel Rowland. As Williams matured, however, he became one of the most powerful and perceptive preachers of the revival, his theological studies lending doctrinal weight and depth to his sermons.14 It is to Thomas Charles we owe a description of Williams as a mature preacher:

His oratorical powers were great, his sermons evangelical, experimental and sweet; searching and examining false teachings and experiences and discriminating in detail between false and true spirits. His imagination was strong, his eyes sharp and piercing, and heaven’s influences lay heavily upon his spirit when ministering publicly and when conversing with men in the private meetings on the state of their souls.15

In company, Williams displayed a lively wit, but this was not deployed in the pulpit, where the solemnity of the preacher’s work rested heavily upon him.16 There was power in his words when he spoke as the Spirit moved him, so that Harris wrote of jumping and dancing for joy when he heard of the effect which Williams’ preaching had on his hearers.17 ‘His sermons,’ wrote Elvet Lewis, ‘like his hymns, were expressions of profound experience’, containing much to comfort God’s tried family, as Williams spoke of how the Lord had met with him, and still guided him, a poor pilgrim, through the wilderness of this world, refreshing him day by day with streams of living waters from the fountain opened to the house of David and the inhabitants of Jerusalem for sin and for uncleanness.18

Although one of the most prominent men used by God in the Welsh revivals of the eighteenth century, Williams was content with the position and the things which he had received of God, in contrast to Daniel Rowland and Howell Harris, who at times clashed over who ought to be acknowledged as the leading man among the Welsh Methodists. Matters came to a head in 1750, when Rowland and Harris divided, a split caused by accusations that Harris held and propagated the erroneous teaching that God the Father suffered with Christ on the cross, and Harris’ counter-claims that Rowland preaching was in the letter, rather than the Spirit.19 Added to this was Harris’ fascination with Madam Sidney Griffiths, an aristocratic lady credited by Harris with the gift of prophecy, which, whatever the physical relationship between the two may have been, became too close for propriety.20

The spirit of faction having entered Welsh Methodism, the movement split between ‘Harris’ people’ and ‘Rowland’s people’. The power of the revival ebbed, and Harris retreated to his family home at Trefecca, where he founded a community after the fashion of the Moravians. There he might have remained, apart from a foray into England at the head of a company of men from the community as a captain in the militia,21 had not Williams, following the outbreak of a new revival in 1762, approached Harris and asked him to come out of isolation to preach the gospel once more.22

Having written to Harris, Williams spoke also with Rowland, and was able to mend the breach between the two men. Williams was probably the only man who could have brought this about; his willingness to occupy a subordinate place, despite his talents and prominent place within Methodism, made him ideal for this task. Not only could he speak of the need for mutual submission, but he showed that humble spirit in his own life and walk.

Notes

  1. Jones & Morgan, Fathers, p.246.
  2. By way of thanks, this meeting house now sports two stained-glass windows depicting Williams.
  3. R. R. Williams, Flames from the Altar: Harris and His Contemporaries (Caernarfon, 1962), p.44.
  4. William Williams to Thomas Charles, 1 January 1791, reproduced in D. E. Jenkins, Thomas Charles of Bala (Denbigh, 1908), vol. 2, p.52.
  5. Jones & Morgan, Fathers, p.237; Roberts, Revival, p.95.
  6. Evans, Bread of Heaven, pp.163-7.
  7. Quoted in and translated by Evans, Bread of Heaven, pp.166-7.
  8. David Ceri Jones, Erin Many White & Boyd Stanley Schlenther, The Elect Methodists: Calvinistic Methodism in England and Wales 1735-1811 (Cardiff, 2012), pp.125-8.
  9. Iestyn Roberts, William Williams Pantycelyn (Llandysul, 2004), pp.16-17; Roberts, Revival, p.108.
  10. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, ‘Introduction’, in William Williams (trans. Bethan Lloyd-Jones), The Experience Meeting (Vancouver, 1995), p.6.
  11. Roberts, William Williams, p.19.
  12. Morgan, Great Awakening, p.87.
  13. D. E. Jenkins, Thomas Charles of Bala (Denbigh, 1908), vol. 2, p.58; Roberts, Revival, p.100.
  14. Morgan, Great Awakening, pp.85-7.
  15. Quoted in Jones & Morgan, Fathers, p.232.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Roberts, Revival, p.100.
  18. Lewis, Sweet Singers of Wales, p.33.
  19. Geraint Tudur, Howell Harris: From Conversion to Separation 1735-1750 (Cardiff, 2000), p.181; Eifion Evans, Daniel Rowland and the Great Evangelical Awakening in Wales (Edinburgh, 1985), pp.273-5.
  20. Evans, Daniel Rowland, pp.177-8.
  21. Where, incidentally, he was instrumental in reviving vital religion in Great Yarmouth (Arthur Patterson, From Hayloft to Temple: The Story of Primitive Methodism in Yarmouth (London, 1903), pp.5-8).
  22. Broome, Welsh Ministers, pp.53-4.
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