William Williams

1717-1791. Welsh Methodist leader, author, and hymnwriter. Although known to English readers as nothing more than the author of “Guide me, O thou great Jehovah,” Williams, whose work is almost entirely in Welsh, is the most significant literary exponent of the mind and spirit of the Evangelical Revival. He was born at Cefncoed, Llanfair-ar-y-byrn, Carmarthenshire, son of a ruling elder at the Congregational Church at Cefnarthen. Williams was educated at the Dissenting Academy at Llwyn-llwyd and it was then that he experienced evangelical conversion under the ministry of Howel Harris* when the latter was preaching in the churchyard of Talgarth. He joined the Church of England and was ordained deacon in 1740, but he was refused ordination as a priest in 1743. In the intervening years he served as a curate. After this unhappy experience, he devoted himself to the Methodist Revival as an itinerant preacher and the ablest conductor of the societies that were springing into existence.

Williams was the most prolific of Welsh Methodist authors. Some ninety titles were published under his name between 1744 and 1791. His greatest contribution was as a hymnwriter and poet. In these productions the power, the unction, and the passion of the Methodist Revival are fully expressed. In two long poems, Golwg ar Deyrnas Crist (View of Christ's Kingdom, 1756, 1764) and Bywyd and Marwolaeth Theomemphus (Life and Death of Theomemphus, 1764, 1781), he describes the objective christological framework of his thinking on the one hand, and on the other the spiritual trials and eventual triumph through grace of the redeemed sinner, Theomemphus. These two works provide the golden threads that run through his hymns, which were published from time to time in twenty-four publications. His masterly exploration of the inner life-its joys, fears, trials, and victories-was a unique contribution to evangelical literature. The other golden thread is his “praise of the Lamb” (to use Moravian terminology). Ann Griffiths* alone among Welsh hymnwriters comes close to him in the ability to celebrate successfully the grace and power of the Redeemer. Williams's hymns were not merely literary exercises, but were intended as a practical contribution to the work of the Revival; its history in Wales cannot be fully written without putting adequate emphasis on the role of these hymns in evoking and sustaining the revival spirit.

Williams's prose writings do not reach the same standard as his poetry and hymns, but they are of great interest to the student of the period. His Ductor Nuptiarum (1777), for example, is a treatise bearing upon sexual ethics that is far removed from the prudery that characterized Evangelicals of a later age. His handbook for conducting society-meetings (Drws y Society Profiad, 1777) throws valuable light on the principles that animated Methodist leaders at their class-meetings. The breadth of Williams's interests-the kind of enthusiasm that was later to flower in the foreign missionary enterprises-is demonstrated in his very substantial account of the religions of the world (Pantheologia, 1762-79).

Amid all these literary labors, Williams, like his colleagues, was constantly engaged in preaching tours throughout Wales. Of all the Methodist leaders, he was the ablest spiritual physician, with a rare gift for assisting people in their religious and psychological difficulties. His stature as a poet has continued to increase in the estimation of critics, and his influence continues among Welsh Christians, since large numbers of hymns are included in all the denominational hymnbooks.

Biography by G.M. Roberts, Y Pêr Ganiedydd; his works are in process of being published in a definitive edition; S. Lewis, Williams Pantycelyn (1927), is a brilliant (though controversial) literary appraisal. There are a vast number of articles and monographs on his work.