William Williams (1717-1791)
Revivalist, Hymn Writer
At the time of William Williams Wales was still relatively isolated from England. Despite unification under Henry VIII, the Welsh still preserved distinct cultural and historical traditions. Wales was physically remote from England in that her roads were hazardous, so people tended to think twice before they visited Wales. The use of the Welsh language was another isolating factor. Griffith Jones, (see this website) who set up his Circulating Schools to teach people to read Welsh, made an interesting point about the language. He said, “There are some advantages peculiar to the Welsh tongue favourable to religion, as being perhaps the chastest in Europe. Its books and writings are free from the infection and deadly venom of Atheism, Deism, Infidelity, Arianism, Popery, lewd plays, immodest romances, and love intrigues; which poison minds, captivate all the senses, and prejudice so many.” This could have been a major reason why the Welsh received Holy Spirit so easily in the coming decades.
The Anglican Church at this time was in a bad condition. The clergy was paid so badly that many needed two livings to get by. Bishops appointed the clergy on any basis other than that of the person being fit for the position. Not only were unfit vicars appointed, but several eminently suitable men were refused ordination. Ignorance and ineptitude were rife in the Church and few taught the Gospel, so the people were starved of Truth. Griffith Jones was a shining exception to the rule, but he was had up before the Church authorities for attracting crowds. The situation with the Nonconformists was probably better than with the Anglicans, but there was indolence and ignorance here as well.
One widespread influence at this time was Deism. In his biography of Daniel Rowland, Eifion Evans puts it this way. “Human reason was the measure of both truth and reality. Revelation, Scripture, the mysteries of the Christian Faith, miracles, the atonement, and human destiny were all subjected to its evaluation. Whatever was unacceptable or incomprehensible by that standard was deemed to be superstitious or false.” It was going back to the second and third centuries when followers of Plato and Aristotle came into the Church, bringing with them the philosophers’ beliefs that everything had to be explained. The Greek mindset took over from the Hebrew mindset. Unfortunately, many religious leaders embraced this ‘new’ teaching and could no longer accept Truth without dissecting it and reasoning it; however you cannot reason God or the supernatural. This teaching came into Wales as well and the Methodists arrived to directly oppose it.
Another influence on the Church was formalism. This was an emphasis on ritual rather than emotion; head rather than heart. Formalism pervaded all the churches; except perhaps in Cornwall (see ‘Revivals – Cornwall’ on this website) where the people loved to show emotion. However, in revival Holy Spirit comes and does as He wishes. Most of the time He is touching hearts; either making people aware of their sin so that they cry out for mercy or showing them what an amazing sacrifice Jesus performed on the Cross, so they shout out for joy. These shows of emotion are unavoidable when someone’s heart is being touched, but it caused great offence to many clergy during times of revival. (See William Haslam on this website for examples of this.) One of the main avenues of attack against the Methodists was that they were ‘enthusiasts;’ just calling them that was viewed by many to be sufficient criticism. The preachers of the Great Awakening spoke through the mind to the heart of sinners. Nobody can be converted unless their heart is affected. One of the main reasons why the Church was in such a dreadful state was because clergy would preach only to the mind of the sinner and so no one was converted. Many who were offended by this ‘enthusiasm’ rejected revival because it was not what they were expecting. A Rector’s wife wrote to William Haslam (in the 1860’s) saying that she and her husband had been praying for revival in Norfolk for years, but “if this is a revival, it has come in such a way that I cannot thank God for it.”
William Williams of Pantycelyn was born in1717 at Cefn-coed in the parish of Llanfair-ar-y-bryn in West Wales. His name is linked with Pantycelyn because it was the name of his mother’s farm house where he lived for most of his married life. His father was a Calvinist elder of the Cefnarthen Independent Church. The congregation believed themselves to be descended from the Puritans of the seventeenth century; striving for purity of doctrine, worship and discipline in their congregational life. Williams believed in the same things as they did, including regeneration, the covenant of grace and spiritual counselling.
Three miles away from the place of his birth was the market town of Llandovery which was the birthplace of Rhys Prichard a vicar of the town in the seventeenth century who was famous for communicating Gospel truths through poetry. His poems were published under the title Canwyll y Cymry (The Welshman’s Candle.) They stirred the popular imagination with their lively, simple style and down-to-earth language. His work provided Williams with a good model for communicating the Gospel in a simple style.
Williams wanted to become a doctor, following a long line of doctors that came from the area where he lived. With this in mind he was educated at the Nonconformist Academy at Llwyn-Llwyd. He would stay at Talgarth which was the nearest town to Howel Harris’ (see this website) home at Trafeca. In 1738 Harris was preaching with unparalleled fervour in the power of Holy Spirit throughout the neighbourhood and Williams heard him in Talgarth cemetery. He wrote about what happened to him:
This the morning, still remembered, That I first heard heaven’s sound; By a summons straight from Glory, With his voice, my heart was bound.
That’s the spot, forever treasured, Where I first his visage spied, At the Church’s portly entrance With no path on any side; In a solemn, serious spirit, With eternity in sight; Urging, pleading with the people From God’s wrath to take their flight.
After his conversion experience he seems to have completed his studies. He would have been tutored in the Greek and Latin classics, in Hebrew, Logic and Mathematics. However, Williams was a new man and felt that he had to preach the Gospel rather than become a doctor. It is likely that Harris influenced him, but for whatever reason he decided to become an Anglican and was ordained as deacon on August 3rd, 1740 by the bishop of St David’s. He became curate at Llanwrtyd, together with two small churches at Abergwesyn.
Williams knew that he had to preach wherever God sent him, but this was very unpopular with his vicar and the ecclesiastical authorities. Until around 1860, when the law changed, you were not allowed to preach outside your parish unless you were invited by the relevant vicar or curate. The Methodists at this time would ignore this rule risking censure and being thrown out of their living (as happened to Daniel Rowland, see this website.) Williams was a Methodist in that he was an evangelical who preached about being ‘born again’. Methodism was really just another name for Puritan. People like Williams who preached with such zeal and whose ministry included manifestations of Holy Spirit, were called fanatics or enthusiasts. He preached with great power and Harris described his manner of preaching as showing “the difference between Christ in the head and Christ in the heart,” and also, “the spirit of Daniel Rowland is falling on Brother Williams, oh! what earnestness had he.”
In 1743, according to Thomas Charles of Bala, Williams was indicted by the consistory Court on nineteen charges of irregular conduct, including “a failure to give the sign of the cross at baptism,” and other insignificant things. Probably the most serious charge was that of “rambling into several other counties to preach.” The result was that the bishop refused to ordain him as priest, despite Daniel Rowland’s appeal on his behalf. Unfortunately, many totally unsuitable people were ordained at this time, while some wonderful men, including Harris, were refused ordination. However, this did not hold Williams back. He is described again by Harris, who was himself one of the most powerful and energetic preachers of any age; “Hell trembles when he comes and souls are daily taken by Brother Williams in the Gospel net,” and “he is eminently owned by his heavenly Master in His service; he is indeed a flaming instrument in His hands, and he is on the stretch day and night.”
The work was expanding in all directions for Harris and Rowland so in 1743 it was decided that Williams should give up his curacy and become Rowland’s assistant; a position he held until their deaths almost 50 years later. A contemporary writing around this time describes Williams as “a very warm, serious, and devout young man, intent upon doing good, but want to give himself to read and study.”
His gift of Hymn writing was now becoming recognised and in 1744 he published his first book of hymns. Another exceptional gift he had was spiritual discernment which made him an excellent counsellor and so he was put in charge of several ‘societies’. Societies were set up for those who came to the Lord under the Methodist ministries; the purpose being to bring them deeper into the things of God, to ensure that they were living holy lives and to encourage and build them up. Williams wrote in “The Experience Meeting” of 1777, defining the qualities required of those who catechised (tested) the converts in the society meetings. “A good counsellor perceives what sin keeps the one being counselled from God. He can discover the murky lairs where Satan and sin, the flesh and lust for the world and its idols are lurking, as an angler knows where the fish are, and the mole catcher the paths of the mole and the fowler the haunts of the partridge.” It was in the homely, direct, personal sharing of Christian experience in the societies that Williams’ talents outshone those of his contemporaries.
By 1745 Methodism in Wales was taking root. Holy Spirit had been pouring out for ten years. The Methodists in Wales were Calvinists, preaching an orthodox doctrine with the power of Holy Spirit. They remained in the Anglican Church, but set up societies to ensure that their people were not infected by the weaknesses the clergy were rife with at that time. Supervision of the societies came through ‘Associations’, which were led by Rowland, Harris and Williams, with George Whitefield acting as chairman and a link to the English Calvinistic Methodists.
In 1748 Williams married Mary Francis and they set up home in Pantycelyn. They had eight children, including two sons, both of whom became clergymen. He often took his wife on tours of Wales and might ask her to sing a popular tune at the inn, with words composed by Williams. This proved very successful in providing preaching opportunities. Relationships with his wife and Rowland were harmonious. Williams learned a great deal from Rowland, who some believed to be the greatest preacher ever.
In 1750 Harris separated from the leadership owing to personality and doctrinal differences. This was a great blow to the movement as Harris had exceptional organising gifts and was an incredible evangelist. Williams tried to reconcile him back into the fold without success. Eventually, Harris returned in 1762, but nothing was quite the same as it had been.
Harris leaving would have increased Williams’ responsibilities in leadership. The 1750’s were probably a time of comparatively less Holy Spirit fire and more a time of consolidation of the results of the outpouring of Holy Spirit over the previous years; although there were still local revivals. Between the years 1756 and 1779 Williams wrote extensively. His purpose was to provide Welsh Methodists with a doctrinal and practical framework for their Christian life. He wrote elegies, religious poetry, works of prose, translations of biographies and sermons and of course, hymns. Only a very small proportion of his published work was in English. One of his long poems, ‘Theomemphus’, has been described as the spiritual history of Williams himself and of the revival with which he was so intimately connected. In his works he drew extensively from John Bunyan for his allegorical methods and from James Hervey. He published several collections of hymns, in Welsh at first, but in 1759 and 1772 he published hymns in English including ‘Guide me O Thou great Jehovah.’ For Williams the purpose of his hymns was to fix Scripture in the memory, and to work on the affections, stimulating love to God.
Williams lived through many revivals; probably the biggest was in 1762-3; which was characterised in part by the singing that accompanied it. Williams had just published a new collection of hymns (The Songs of those who Stand on the Sea of Glass) that were proving very popular and these were sung during the revival.
There was strong opposition to the revivals, especially by Anglicans, who thought that the manifestations of Holy Spirit were from the flesh. Williams wrote to justify from Scripture the reality and manifestation of true revivals. He demonstrated that there was plenty of scripture precedent for elevated experiences under the Gospel’s influences. The true must be distinguished from the counterfeit and religion does not consist merely in experiences, however powerful. But emotion is a genuine, necessary, inevitable part of the sinner’s response to the Gospel.
During his long service as Rowland’s assistant, Williams laboured extensively throughout the principality. With Rowland he led the societies through trying and exciting times of revival. He preached in Association and society meetings and on preaching tours of North and South Wales. When 73 years old he wrote to Thomas Charles of Bala (see this website,) declining an invitation to visit North Wales on account of his health. He wrote that he had been preaching for 43 years and had travelled an average of 45 miles every week, which is almost ninety-six thousand miles. He would sometimes suffer persecution, especially in North Wales, just as all the Methodist preachers did. Some would be attacked my mobs, and some by individuals and they all experienced churches being closed to them due to bigoted clergy.
Williams was a firm Anglican who followed the Book of Common Prayer, but in public worship he moved away from the strait-jacket of ceremonial and conformity to spontaneity and freedom. He lived in submission to the authority of the Word of God, deriving his spiritual sustenance and strength from feeding on its teaching and passionately sharing its message with others. A few days before his death in 1791 he wrote of true religion as consisting of three parts: firstly, true light respecting the plan of salvation; secondly, being in intimate fellowship with God in all our dealings with the world and in all the exercises and ordinances of religion; and thirdly, life and conduct, such as would reveal to the ungodly that there is a great difference between us and them. In all he wrote nearly one thousand hymns, travelled over one hundred thousand miles while preaching, and wrote more than ninety books.
Shortly after Williams’s death, Thomas Charles of Bala wrote the following tribute to Wales’s most illustrious evangelical poet. “Putting everything together, he was one of the most gifted, respected, and useful men of his age. His gift of poetry was naturally and abundantly given to him by the Lord. He would frequently mount on very strong winds, which would lift him into heights of splendour. The cross and its great sacrifice are the chief topics and substances of his writings…. In his homely language he is intelligible to all, and captured their minds and hearts by the force and excellence of his matter and high soarings. His hymns wrought a remarkable change in the religious aspect of Wales and in public worship. Some verses are like coals of fire, warming and firing every passion when sung, and impelling the people to repeat them many times, until they break forth, shouting and leaping for joy…. These four things were marked in him; the strength and abundance of his natural gifts; his great diligence in the use of them, night and day; the very great extent to which he enjoyed the influence and power of the Holy Spirit in his own work; and the immense blessing which the people received through him.”
Charles also said, “Mr Daniel Rowland’s sermons, and the hymns of Mr William Williams made the age they lived more remarkable than almost any age in the history of Wales.”
This biography has been taken from ‘Pursued by God’ by Eifion Evans, published by Evangelical Press of Wales in 1996. Eifion Evans includes a biography of William Williams at the beginning of the book, but it is mainly a translation of ‘Theomemphus.’ I also included a little from an article by Eifion Evans on the life of William Williams in the ‘Evangelical Library Bulletin,’ dated Spring 1969. I am indebted to Mr Evans for all his work on this period of Welsh history and have relied on his works heavily in the postings on this website for this period.