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William Williams of Pantycelyn: His Character and Writings (2)

Category Articles
Date October 27, 2017

This is the second half of a two part article on the character and writings of William Williams. Part one may be found here.

* * *

Like all those touched by the eighteenth century awakening, Williams Pantycelyn was led to see that the vital matter is grace. Williams’ characterisation of the years immediately before the revival as ‘…those dark days when Wales was lying/ In a dark and deadly sleep,’ has been criticised by a number of historians, who point to the amount of religious literature published, and the work of schools and educational charities during this period.1 Yet this literature included much that was largely legal in its tone, such as Allestree’s Whole Duty of Man. Even where orthodox teaching was propagated, the key note of Methodism, that the gospel is the good news of God’s grace to sinners, and that all men, however morally upright they may be compared to their fellows, are sinners, was largely neglected in favour of preaching which either turned the gospel into a milder law, after the scheme of Richard Baxter, or the proud spirit which, whilst making much of the doctrines of grace, loses sight of the grace of the doctrines.

The early Methodists were men whose eyes had been opened to their lost estate, and their absolute need of God to save them by the gospel of his grace. God must act by his sovereign decree, for man is without power. The Father must give the Son, the Son must die in the sinner’s place, and the Holy Spirit must draw the sinner, and show them that all these things were done for them. The gospel, then, is not an offer, but ‘an act and a power: it is God’s act of redemption before it is man’s message of it.’2 And for a man or woman to receive that message, to be made a lover of grace, they must first be emptied of all thoughts of self-help and brought as condemned sinners, lost unless God saves them by his sovereign act. God hears the prayer of the destitute, having caused them to see that they, indeed, but beggars poor at mercy’s door.

The theology of William Williams, Pantycelyn, was that robust experimental Calvinism which breathes through the best of the Puritans, and saved much of English Independency (Congregational and Baptist) from sliding into the bogs of rationalism during the eighteenth century. He never forgot his father’s witness against the errors of Arminianism; in 1742, he composed a hymn on election, and a second on the same subject a few years later.3

His great poem, Theomemphus, which describes the work of God in the soul, and the experience of a typical saint of God, points out that the Baxterian doctrine of a new law, which the believer must keep, can only sink an awakened soul in black despair, as that one sees that they cannot keep their own feet from falling. It is only as the decree of God is set forth to those feeling their sinful and lost condition that they find hope. Only as that one is shown that God in Christ has made the reconciliation can hope be found.4

Whilst Pantycelyn was aware that doctrine alone, without the work of the Holy Spirit, can never save a soul, he was well aware of the value of sound doctrine in establishing the Lord’s people in the faith and guarding them against error. Writing to Thomas Charles in 1790, Williams expressed his confidence in the doctrines which he had learned, first from his earthly father, then by the teaching of his heavenly father:

Exhort the young preachers to study, next to the Scriptures, the doctrines of our old and celebrated Reformers, as set forth in the Articles of the Church of England, and the three Creeds, namely, the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene, and the Athanasian. They will see there the great truths of the gospel, and the deep things of God, set forth in a most excellent and suitable manner. They are a most sound form of words on the high and spiritual things of God. The larger and lesser Catechisms of the [Westminster] Assembly of Divines, with the confession of faith, are deserving of the greatest respect and acceptance. These, altogether, are some of the grandest and most illustrious beauties of the reformation. I think our young exhorters should study such orthodox truths and over again, with great care, that they may clearly understand the fundamental doctrines of our creed, and preach in a suitable way on those noble subjects.5

As the devil sowed tares in the gospel-field, Williams saw that there was a need for the ministers of Christ to be able to discern error and to preach the mighty truths of the gospel. And those truths were experimental Calvinism.

Williams’ Calvinism had been strengthened by the circumstances of his conversion. It had been in an ‘unexpected moment,’ without any preparations, thought or ‘clear intent’ on Williams’ part that the Lord had met with him. There were others from the academy who had gone out to hear Harris, yet it was Williams, in his careless, graceless state, who had been made to pass by the churchyard at Talgarth at the precise moment that Harris was preaching there, and he, not a ministerial student who had gone out to hear Harris’ preaching, who had been gripped by God and made a minister of God’s appointment, and not of man. This recognition that conversion and revival are a work of sovereign grace may be seen in his hymns and longer writings; the prayer meeting described in The Experience Meeting, where the Lord came down reveals a sovereign God, whose Spirit comes upon the weakest and most unbelieving vessels, and spreads throughout whole districts through power from on high.6 This is no mere emotional state, but the power of God, without which, even the most cunning works of man must come to naught.

Conclusion

What lessons can we learn from the life and work of William Williams, Pantycelyn, in our own day and age? The first is that the gospel can reach the most unconcerned people. The Lord used the ‘foolishness of preaching’ to arrest William Williams when he was careless of heavenly things, his mind set on earthly advancement, leaving him with an abiding confidence in the power of the word of God in the conversion of sinners. His indefatigable labours in the service of the Saviour are surely proof enough of Williams’ own zeal, whilst his writings still witness to his desire to advance the cause of the gospel in any way he could.

A second lesson is that it is not enough for someone simply to be raised under sound teaching, or in a doctrinally correct home. Williams’ father, John, was not only a deacon and a Calvinist, he had the root of the matter in him. However, it required the Lord to meet with Williams on that great and memorable day at Talgarth, through the preaching of Howell Harris, for Williams’ eyes to be opened to see his lost estate. The same was true of many of the leading figures in the eighteenth-century awakening; as Derec Llwyd Morgan observed ‘…they were saved not from [open] sinfulness but from complacency and self-righteousness.’7 This is often a greater obstacle than gross sin, for the Pharisee must be woken from their slumber, and stripped of their self-confidence before they can be clothed in the spotless righteousness of Christ. They must be emptied of self and all their fancied religion before they can be filled. The mercy is that God is able to do even this, bringing a self-righteous Saul of Tarsus as well as a bloodthirsty idolatrous Manasseh to repentance and faith.

If there is one thing which shines gloriously through all of Williams’ hymns it is this; that Christianity is a deeply personal matter. True faith is not mere profession, but possession. It is not enough to say that the enormous weight of human guilt was laid upon the Saviour, he must be known and felt to be my Saviour. The prayer of the awakened soul is:

Eternal Saviour, suffer me,
A wretch, to call thee mine.

There is a depth of personal feeling in Williams’ hymns which renders them timeless, and reminds us that this personal, experimental note should be present in all real Christianity. Yet the personal note is never allowed to become mere sentimentalism, for it is married to solid doctrine which gives it moorings. Both these elements, the intellect, in the form of sound doctrine and scripture knowledge, and the emotions, the experience, must be present in sound Christianity; where either is lacking, church history teaches us that disaster is not far behind.

Fourthly, we see in Williams’ work the truth that the Lord’s people need to be fed. His writing and teaching ministry was informed by this fact. He did not write simply to display his gifts, but to be of real, lasting use to the Lord’s family, whether penning hymns, a pamphlet on the experience meeting, or a guide for married people, and in the societies he showed himself a good doctor of souls and a discerner of the spirits. Yet Williams was a man of like passions as we are. He suffered from depression, yet consecrated this, too, to the Saviour’s service in his writing and counselling ministry. It is a reminder that some of the most outstanding servants of God have known soul-depths as well as soul-heights. Indeed, it is this which allows them to minister to the Lord’s afflicted and poor people with compassion and understanding.

Williams’ faith in God’s sovereign decree comforted him in every affliction, and gave him grace in every triumph. He could travel thousands of miles for God, confident that the Lord would supply his needs, could bear his rejection by the established church, and at the end of his life, his labours over, largely confined to his home, write ‘This is how my God wishes to deal with me, and it is well.’ What need we have of that spirit which is content with the things which we have, not after the manner of the world, but because we have God’s promise ‘I will never leave thee nor forsake thee,’ and, possessing God, can stand the loss of all things!

Lastly, William Williams’ life and work speak of the vital need for the anointing of the Holy Spirit on the ministry. Whilst Williams laboured in season and out of season, he did so in humble reliance on God, at a time when many of his contemporaries in the ministry looked to learning alone. Williams could pen many excellent works, but he placed the greatest weight not on learning but the grace of God in the heart of a sinner. Without this God-given grace, all the learning of man could only make proud sinners, rather than humble followers of Christ. And, although man may, and should labour, it is God which giveth the increase.

Although Williams has long departed to take his place among the church triumphant, singing the praises in heaven of the God whose praises he sung whilst on earth; although his hymns live on, it is the same Spirit which anointed and guided Williams all his journey through who must breathe life into the church in our day and age. And he can do so, just as he revived a dry and formal religion in the eighteenth century. As the Lord’s people meet for prayer week by week, let them bear in mind the account in Williams’ The Experience Meeting of how the Lord can give revival to even a small company, meeting in discouraging circumstances, and give to them that spirit of wrestling prayer which will not let the Lord go until he gives a blessing, because the Lord who has poured out upon them the spirit of prayer and supplications will not suffer them to pray in vain.

Notes

  1. See G. H. Jenkins, Literature, Religion and Society in Wales 1660-1730 (Cardiff: University of Wales, 1978)
  2. P.T. Forsyth, Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind (London: Baker, 1907), p3.
  3. Eifion Evans, ‘Welsh Calvinistin Methodism and Revival’, in R.D. Smart, M.A.G. Haykin and I.H. Clary (eds.), Pentecostal Outpourings: Revival and the Reformed Tradition (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage, 2016), p8.
  4. E. Evans, Pursued by God, (Wales: Bryntirion, 1996), pp86-89.
  5. William Williams to Thomas Charles, 28 May 1790, reproduced in Jenkins, Thomas Charles Vol. 2 (South Carolina: Nabu, 2010), p71.
  6. W. Williams, Experience Meeting (Vancouver, Regent College, 2003), pp8-11.
  7. D.L. Morgan, The Great Awakening in Wales (London: Epworth, 1988), p5.

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