Rees, William (1802-1883) (DNB00)


REES, WILLIAM, D.D. (1802–1883), Welsh minister and author, was born on 8 Nov. 1802 at a farmhouse called Chwibren-Issaf, near Llansannan, Denbighshire. The village lies at the foot of a mountain known as Hiraethog, from which Rees took his bardic name. He was the second son of David Rees, a farmer, by his wife Anne, who traced her descent from Hedd Molwynog, the founder of one of the fifteen tribes of Gwynedd. Henry Rees [q. v.] was his elder brother.

At the age of three William was deprived by small-pox of the sight of his right eye. After a very meagre education he obtained employment as a shepherd, but he studied in his leisure, and at the age of twenty devoted himself to Welsh poetry. Within four years he had mastered the twenty-four metres, and wrote poems which attained some popularity. At the Brecon eisteddfod in 1826 he was awarded a prize for a ‘cywydd’ on the battle of Trafalgar, and at the Denbigh eisteddfod, two years later, he greatly distinguished himself. His parents had brought him up as a Calvinistic methodist, but on the formation of a Welsh congregational church at Llansannan he joined the congregationalists. In 1829 he began to preach, and in 1831 he became pastor of the small congregational church at Mostyn, Flintshire. In February 1837 he removed to Denbigh, and ‘his earnestness and eloquence as a preacher became universally known in Wales.’ In May 1843 he succeeded William Williams of Wem at the Tabernacle Congregational Church, Great Crosshall Street, Liverpool. In 1853 he removed, with part of his congregation, to Salem Chapel, Brownlow Hill, and in 1867 this chapel was elaborately rebuilt in Grove Street.

Rees held ministerial office in Liverpool for thirty-two years, during which he filled a leading part in all political and educational movements in the city. He retired early in 1875 from the ministry, and settled at Chester. Active to the last he continued to write and, whenever invited to do so, to preach with great power. Two American universities (Marietta College, Ohio, and Amherst College, Massachusetts) conferred on him the degree of D.D. He died on 8 Nov. 1883, the eighty-first anniversary of his birthday. He was buried in Smithdown Lane cemetery, Liverpool, on 13 Nov. 1883. He married in early life Anne Edwards (d. 1874) of Waen, Nantglyn.

Rees exerted a powerful influence on the politics, poetry, and literature of Wales. His eloquence rendered him in the eyes of his countrymen the greatest of their preachers and popular lecturers for over fifty years. In politics he was a staunch liberal. He established, in 1843, with John Jones, of Castle Street, Liverpool, the first successful Welsh liberal newspaper, ‘Yr Amserau’ (‘The Times’), which he edited until 1853. Its success was largely owing to the letters written by him on domestic and foreign politics under the cognomen of ‘Yr hen Ffarmwr’ (the Old Farmer). He supported the causes of Kossuth and Mazzini, and corresponded with the latter. Rees's literary versatility was most remarkable. In prose he appears as biographer, novelist, journalist, divine, and even dramatist. As a poet in Welsh, Rees was very voluminous. In middle life he abandoned the strict metres, in which his most popular performances were awdl (ode) on ‘Heddwch’ (Peace); awdl on ‘Job;’ cywydd on the ‘Death of Nelson;’ and cywydd on ‘Cantre 'r Gwaelod.’ In the free metres he composed some successful lyrics, including ‘Y Wenol,’ ‘Hiraeth am Gymru,’ and ‘Adgofion Mebyd.’ His hymns lack swing, and his rendering of the Psalms into verse (‘The Tower of David,’ 1875) is unimpressive. His longest poetic publication was an epic poem, called ‘Emmanuel,’ in blank verse (2 vols. 1861, 1867), which is much longer than the ‘Paradise Lost,’ and is the longest poem in the Welsh language. His published volumes of verses contain about sixty thousand lines. Rees's principal works, besides those specified, are: 1. ‘Catechism on the Chief Doctrines and Duties of Religion,’ 1833. 2. ‘Natural and Revealed Religion,’ 1839. 3. ‘Memoir [in Welsh] of the Rev. Wm. Williams of Wern,’ translated into English by J. Kilsby Jones, 1841. 4. ‘Providence and Prophecy,’ 1851, in English (the substance of a course of lectures in Welsh in 1849). 5. ‘Caniadau Hiraethog, or the Songs of Hiraethog,’ 1855. 6. ‘That Day,’ a drama treating of the ejectment in 1662 of the two thousand dissenting ministers, 1862. 7. ‘An Exposition of the Epistle to the Hebrews,’ 1865. 8. ‘The Songs of Old Age’ (1878?). 9. ‘Moses and the Prophets,’ a metrical version of the Messianic prophecies, with notes, 1884; this was published a short time after his death. 10. ‘Koheleth,’ a volume of sermons, 1881. A collected edition of his prose works was issued in two volumes in 1872.

[Edwards's Life; works in Brit. Mus.; Congregational Year Book, 1884.]

R. A. J.