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William Williams of Pantycelyn: His Character and Writings (1)

Category Articles
Date October 25, 2017

The author previously published an article on William Williams of Pantycelyn’s life. The three sections can be found here:

Part One , Part Two , Part Three

* * *

Having traced a little of the life and experience of William Williams, it is now time to look to his character and his theology. Williams was a man who had been taken hold of by the Holy Spirit when quite careless. He had not sought out Harris, as others at his college had done, but God in his sovereignty called Williams, rather than one or other of the many theological students at Lllwyn-llwyd to labour so mightily in the gospel-field.

William Williams, Pantycelyn was pre-eminently an experimental theologian and hymn-writer, he wrote and spoke of that which he had seen and heard. His was no easy or intellectual religion, but it was given him to know experimentally the deep things of God. His was a religion tried in the fire of persecution and affliction, seen and unseen, facing mighty enemies without and within. It was God who made him mighty, and not his own learning or gifts.

Many of his hymns, and his words to Thomas Charles in May of 1790 open a window on an aspect of Williams’ life which should not be passed by without comment. Although Williams’ sweet hymns and the popular image of the poet bearing a seraphic countenance give the impression of a man whose close communion with God gave him angelic peace, this is far from the case. Williams’ life is, rather, an illustration of the scriptural observation: ‘But if a man live many years, and rejoice in them all; let him remember the days of darkness; for they shall be many.’ In a letter to his son, John, William Williams writes of a family tendency towards depression, and his old age saw anxiety prevent him from venturing out at night.1 In the light of this, his hymns acquire a still more precious quality, flowing as they do from the experience of one who knew soul-depths, and well as soul-heights. Consider, for example:

Speak, I pray thee, gentle Jesus!
O how passing sweet thy words,
Breathing o’er my troubled spirit
Peace which never earth affords.
All the world’s distracting voices,
All the enticing tones of ill,
At thy accents mild, melodious,
Are subdued, and all is still.

Tell me thou art mine, O Saviour,
Grant me an assurance clear;
Banish all my dark misgivings,
Still my doubting, calm my fear.
O, my soul within me yearneth
Now to hear thy voice divine;
So shall grief be gone for ever,
And despair no more be mine.2

Like many a tried child of God, William Williams needed the Saviour to speak by the Holy Spirit into his heart, that he might have that clear assurance in the days of darkness. His was no faith which is always on the mountaintop, and so unable to counsel those passing through the valley of humiliation, but rather one which longs to be found leaning on the strong shoulder of their Beloved as they come, weary, out of the wilderness of this world, confessing to Christ:

In thy presence I am happy;
In thy presence I’m secure;
In thy presence all afflictions
I can easily endure.

In thy presence I can conquer,
I can suffer, I can die;
Far from thee, I faint and languish;
O thou Saviour, keep me nigh.

History records that this was so. Christmas Evans, attending the bedside of Williams, anxious lest the poet’s depression should undermine his faith in his dying days, asked him whether he feared sinking, only for Williams to reply: ‘Sink! Sink! I shall never sink. I have the rock under my feet.’3 That rock he commended to others, and to himself in verse:

Not on myself do I depend,
Else I shall surely fail,
But on the rock of Israel, he
Whose might is over all.

The experimental note is never far away in Williams’ hymns. The religion of the poet of Pantycelyn was not one of mere propositional truth. All his life, he had professed Christ; what was vital was to possess Christ. Personal pronouns are to the fore in many of his works, such as when he considered the atonement of Christ, singing:

The enormous weight of human guilt
Was on my Saviour laid;
With woes as with a garment, he
For sinners was arrayed.

But it is not enough to know that the Lord Jesus Christ died for sinners; the poet sees, by the eye of faith, the cruel cross, and the victim suffering on it. There, he views the work of the God-man, not just for sinners in general, but for him! Yes, for him, in all his guilt and shame the Lord of glory suffered:

And in the horrid pangs of death
He wept, he prayed for me,
Loved and embraced my guilty soul
When nailed to the tree.

A view of the work of Christ on the cross as standing in the sinner’s place is so vital, but so also is a right view of ourselves as those sinners, in all our grief and hell-deserving guilt by nature. Grief and guilt which only Christ can bear:

Be still, my soul, love and behold
The victim on the tree;
The God, the Saviour, groans and dies,
For miserable me.

His spotless soul was melted by
The heat of pain and scorn,
And wrath eternal; but himself,
No other, could have borne.

Williams at times uses very high language to describe the atonement of Christ, so that some have accused him of falling into the error of Howell Harris, teaching that when the Lord Jesus Christ died it was God who died. Yet did not Paul speak of ‘the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood’? Williams, in using such expressions, was guarding against the error which so far separates Christ’s divinity from his humanity as to imply that there were two persons in Christ, rather than a single divine person, the God-man, so that we may neatly divide the work and experience of the incarnate Word into two parts.

The God whose praises Williams sang was one who was present, living, in heaven, but still visiting his mourning people on earth. And, when in sensible enjoyment of the presence of God, the believer could truly suffer all things for Christ’s sake, yet be content:

Jesus the Saviour reigns
Both here and above,
And every providence
Endears his dying love;
To raise his name so all shall turn,
And sweetly burn our hearts to shame.

So that possessing Christ, as the apostle Paul, the believer may gladly suffer the loss of all things, whilst the miser, with all his gold and the lover of pleasure shall be left to suffer eternal torment at the last. In this world of tears and woe, only Christ’s blood applied can give solid comforts and real joy:

In all the turn of fate,
In every misery
No refuge, no relief,
One only remedy,
The Saviour died, and with his blood
The wrath of God he satisfied.

Pantycelyn, like Bunyan, possessed a clear view of the Christian life as a pilgrimage through the wilderness of this world to the world to come, in which the Lord God must direct his people, as he led Israel through the wilderness below, a wilderness which is often a solitary way, so that the hearts of the Lord’s people faint within them, and they must cry out:

Guide me, O thou great Jehovah!
Pilgrim through this barren land;
I am weak, but thou art mighty;
Hold me with thy powerful hand.
Bread of heaven,
Feed me now and evermore.

At other times the pilgrim must, seeing their own waywardness, cry out:

So prone am I, when left alone
To stray from side to side,
I need, each step along the way,
My God to be my guide.

That voice which says ‘This is the way, walk ye in it,’ and is so vital for the one who has been led of God to see their helplessness by nature, so that, they must pray to God:

Thou alone canst keep my spirit
From the pitfalls on the right,
On the left, when in great danger,
Thou alone wilt hold with might:
O have mercy
In a desert land I live.4

These sentiments will ever speak to the experience of the Lord’s living family, whether in the Welsh or English hymns which Williams wrote, or even the excellent translations which many faithful men have produced. J. C. Philpot praised Williams highly, declaring that in his sometimes stilted English hymns ‘…there is a force and originality breathing through his uncouth language, which shows that he knew and felt what he said, and that no mercenary motive or thirst for fame moved his pen.’5 Martyn-Lloyd-Jones, who had the advantage over Philpot in being able to read Williams in the Welsh, called him ‘the greatest hymn-writer of them all’, combining the experimentalism of Charles Wesley with the theological profundity of Isaac Watts.6 His hymns, as has been noted, were, like the homely verses of Rhys Pritchard in an earlier age, designed to make the common people acquainted with theology, but also to raise a thirst after Christ in the hearts of the Lord’s people; to comfort them in their sorrows, and to rebuke their slothful ease. They are not mere propositional truth in verse (too often orthodoxy’s riposte to the flabby sentimentalism which has long disfigured hymnody), but theology set on fire by the Holy Spirit, addressing those made to hunger and thirst after the righteousness of God, that is, the Lord Jesus Christ.

Williams, like all the Methodists, preached and wrote a felt Christ, speaking to the believer’s desire for personal union with Christ. The Holy Spirit must come and espouse the soul to Christ, so that doubts and despair are removed. This is not a work which man can perform himself, any more than the work of conversion. Only as a triune God works in the believer, to will and to do of his own good pleasure, is that one led to love and praise the God who works all things, even griefs and trials, for their good. God must speak the word to that tried soul, travailing in prayer, confessing to Christ:

‘Tis thy precious blood and passion
That can make the feeble strong;
‘Tis thy blood alone that conquers
All the fierce infernal throng;
Let me quickly,
Drink the pure eternal stream.

The experimental theology of William Williams did not leave the believer lost in introspection, but pointed them to the power of Christ in the salvation of needy sinners, throughout the world, so that the poet prayed:

Fly abroad, thou mighty gospel,
Win and conquer, never cease;
May thy lasting wide dominion
Multiply and still increase!
Sway thy sceptre,
Saviour, all the world around.

The woodwork in the Pantycelyn Memorial Chapel, Llandovery, carved by natives of the Khasia Hills, where translations of Williams’ hymns are still sung by the natives, testifies to the way in which the poet’s prayer was wonderfully answered.

Notes

  1. Quotes in E. Roberts, Revival in Wales (Wales: Bryntirion Press, 2010), p94.
  2. Translated by Richard Morris Lewis.
  3. Roberts, Revival, p106.
  4. Translated by R.R. Williams.
  5. J.C. Philpot, Reviews: Vol. 2 (London, 1902), p259.
  6. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, The Puritans:Their Origins and Successors (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987), p203. David Lloyd George made a similar remark when visiting Llandovery during his premiership.

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