Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Williams, Peter

WILLIAMS, PETER (1722–1796), Welsh biblical commentator, was the eldest son of Owen and Elizabeth Williams of West Marsh, near Laugharne, Carmarthenshire, where he was born on 7 Jan. 1722. His mother was a descendant of Dr. Lewis Bayly, bishop of Bangor. Both parents died before Peter was twelve years of age, and he was afterwards brought up by a maternal uncle, on whose farm he worked until eighteen. He then went to the grammar school at Carmarthen, where he stayed three years (1740–3). A sermon by Whitefield, who visited the town in April 1743, left a deep impression on him. Having kept an elementary school for one year at Conwil Elfed, he was ordained in 1744 and licensed to the curacy of Eglwys Cummin, where he also kept school. He was, however, suspected of methodism, and had to leave at the end of his first year. Though recommended by Griffith Jones (1683–1761) [q. v.], the evangelical vicar of the neighbouring church of Llanddowror, he was during the next few months driven from one curacy to another, till in 1746 he joined the newly formed association of Welsh Calvinistic methodists. In common with all the earlier members of that body he had no intention of severing his connection with the church of England, and in after life he brought up two of his sons as clergymen of its communion. For the next ten or twelve years he was an itinerant preacher, visiting the less evangelised parts of Wales and the borders, and, excepting Howel Harris [q. v.], suffering perhaps more persecution than any of his contemporaries. Being an anti-Jacobite as well as methodist, he was on one occasion locked up for the night by Sir W. W. Wynn in the kennels at Wynnstay (Cymru, i. 43, 72). About 1759 it occurred to him to utilise the press as an instrument for evangelical work, and he thereafter became the chief contributor to the religious literature of Wales during the eighteenth century. His greatest undertaking was the publication at his own risk of a family edition of the Welsh bible with annotations of his own at the end of each chapter, this being the first Welsh commentary on the whole bible ever issued. This was also the first time that a bible was printed in Wales. The work was issued in shilling parts, being the second Welsh book so published. The first part appeared in 1767, and the whole work, including the Apocrypha, Edmund Prys's Psalter, and two maps by Richard Morris, was completed and also issued in volume form in 1770 (Carmarthen, 4to). The first impression consisted of 3,600 copies, which were sold at the moderate price of 1l. each, strongly bound; a second edition of 6,400 copies appeared from the same press in 1779–1781; and a third, issued from Trevecca in 1797, consisting of four thousand copies. Rowlands (Cambrian Bibliography, p. 632) mentions another Trevecca edition in 1788, but this is an error. Quite a dozen subsequent editions, some of them profusely illustrated, have been issued during this century, and a copy of ‘Peter Williams's Bible’ has long been considered indispensable in almost every Welsh household.

In 1773 Williams issued a concordance to the Welsh bible under the title of ‘Mynegeir Ysgrythurol’ (Carmarthen, 4to). This was largely based on a smaller work by Abel Morgan, published in 1730 at Philadelphia, U.S.A.; a second edition, revised and considerably enlarged, was issued by Williams's son-in-law, David Humphreys, at Carmarthen in 1809; a third, from Dolgelly, in 1820, and there have been several subsequent reprints.

Williams's next great work was the publication (in conjunction with David Jones, a baptist minister of Pontypool) of four thousand copies of John Canne's bible with additional marginal references and explanatory notes of his own at the foot (Trevecca, 1790, small 8vo; 2nd edit. 1812). Alterations were also made by Williams in the text. The patronage of the methodist association had been promised for this work, but was suddenly withdrawn on the eve of publication, with the result that Williams lost about 600l. by the transaction. A charge of heresy was also brought against him on the ground that his earlier comments on the first chapter of St. John in the Family Bible, which were substantially reproduced in the new bible, savoured of Sabellianism, and at the association held at Llandeilo Fawr on 25 May 1791 he was expelled from the methodist connection, chiefly at the instigation of Nathaniel Rowlands, son of Daniel Rowlands [q. v.] of Llangeitho, and, it is also believed, of Thomas Charles of Bala. The death, a short time previously, of the elder Rowlands and of William Williams (1717–1791) [q. v.] of Pantycelyn (whose last work was probably his defence of Williams in a tract called ‘Dialogus’) gave an opportunity for the younger men to assert their ascendency, and this probably accounts for the time chosen for the attack, though the offending remarks had been first published twenty years previously. Williams made more than one appeal for readmission, but in vain; he was guilty of nothing worse than a confused mysticism with reference to the doctrine of the Trinity, and the cruel treatment meted to him after his unrivalled services to Welsh methodism stands out as the darkest passage in the history of that body. Williams retained possession of a chapel which he had been instrumental in having built about 1771 on his own land in Water Street, Carmarthen, and here he continued to preach till his death; while the baptists and independents also readily placed their pulpits at his disposal.

He and his wife lived for a time at Pibwr and at Moelfre, near Carmarthen; but, according to tradition, were ejected from the latter owing to Williams's methodistical practices. He eventually settled at a farm called Gelli Lednais in the parish of Llandyfeilog, where he died on 8 Aug. 1796, and where, on 8 March 1822 at the age of ninety-seven, died his widow also. Both were buried in Llandyfeilog churchyard. On 30 Aug. 1748 Williams married at Llanlleian chapel, Carmarthenshire, Mary, the only daughter of John Jenkins, ‘a gentleman farmer’ of Gors, in that neighbourhood. He was survived by three sons: Eliezer Williams [q. v.], John (d. 1798?), and Peter Bayly Williams (see below).

A portrait of Williams, done at Bristol, is known to have formerly existed; but that which has been extensively circulated in Wales is an enlargement of a spurious portrait issued in the first instance with the Carnarvon edition of the Family Bible in 1833, and purporting to be reproduced from the ‘Gospel Magazine’ for 1777, but this was denounced at the time by his son Peter Bayly Williams as unauthentic (Y Gwyliedydd, 1834, x. 54). There are several letters of Williams's preserved in various collections; one at Bala College has been printed in ‘Y Drysorfa’ for September 1895. There are other letters of his at Trevecca College, while several relics (including one letter) are in the possession of his descendant, Mr. J. Humphreys Davies of Cwrtmawr. The centenary of Williams's death was celebrated in September 1896 by the opening of a memorial chapel belonging to the Welsh methodists at Pendine, close to Williams's birthplace.

Besides his strictly religious labours, Williams did much to raise the standard of Welsh literature. Almost before he had completed his Family Bible, he undertook the chief burden of the editorship of what was the earliest Welsh magazine—‘Trysorfa Gwybodaeth, neu Eurgrawn Cymraeg’ (Carmarthen, fifteen fortnightly numbers, 8vo, at 3d. each, 3 March to 15 Sept. 1770; see Y Traethodydd, 1873 p. 44, 1884 p. 176, and Dr. Lewis Edwards's essays—Traethodau Llenyddol, pp. 505–47).

In addition to the works already mentioned, the following were Williams's chief publications: 1. ‘Myfyrdod y Claf,’ Carmarthen, 1759. 2. ‘Rhai Hymnau ac Odlau Ysbrydol,’ a volume of Welsh hymns and elegies, Carmarthen, 1759, 12mo. 3. ‘Traethawd am Benarglwyddiaeth Duw,’ being a translation of Elisha Coles's ‘Discourse of God's Sovereignty,’ Bristol, 1760; 6th ed. 1809. 4. ‘Hymns on various subjects. … Together with the Novice Instructed,’ Carmarthen, 1771. The fifth hymn in this volume is ‘Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah,’ which Williams aided the author, William Williams (1717–1791) [q. v.], to translate from the Welsh (Julian, Dict. of Hymnology, pp. 77, 1596). 5. ‘Galwad gan wyr Eglwysig at bawb ffyddlon i gydsynio mewn gweddi, yn enwedig tra parhao'r rhyfel presenol,’ 2nd edit. 1781. 6. ‘Cydymaith mewn Cystudd,’ Carmarthen, 12mo, 1782. 7. ‘Ffordd Anffaeledig i Foddlonrnydd,’ a translation, 1783; 2nd edit. Llanrwst, 1830, 12mo. 8. A translation of Bunyan's ‘Christian Conduct,’ Carmarthen, 1784. 9. ‘Cyfoeth i'r Cymry,’ selected translations from A. M Toplady's ‘Works,’ 1788. 10. ‘Marwnady Parch Daniel Rowlands,’ an elegy, 1791. 11. ‘Dirgelwch Duwioldeb neu Athrawiaeth y Drindod,’ 1792. 12. ‘Tafol Gywir i bwyso Sosiniaeth’ (1792), being a reply to a unitarian work published earlier in the same year by Thomas Evans (1766–1833) [q. v.] 13. ‘Gwreiddyn y Mater,’ 1794. The last three works were written to explain his theological views as to the Trinity and to rebut the charge of heresy.

Peter Bayly Williams (1765–1836), Williams's third son, was educated at Jesus College, Oxford, whence he matriculated on 10 Oct. 1785, graduating B.A. from Christ Church in 1790 (Foster, Alumni Oxon.) He was from 1792 onwards incumbent of Llanrug with Llanberis in Carnarvonshire, where he died on 22 Nov. 1836 (Gent. Mag. 1837, i. 106). He was a good Welsh critic and a painstaking and well-informed antiquary. Many poor boys of promising parts were befriended and educated by him. He wrote a sketch of the ‘History and Antiquities of Carnarvonshire’ for a tourists' guide issued in 1821 (Carnarvon, 8vo; 2nd edit. 1828), as well as a similar work on Anglesey, which was published in the ‘Gwyneddion’ for 1832. Cathrall's ‘History of North Wales’ (1828) is also said to have been Williams's production. In 1833 he was awarded the Cymmrodorion medal for ‘An Historical Account of the Monasteries and Abbeys in Wales,’ which was published in the ‘Transactions’ of that society for 1843. He published in 1825 an excellent Welsh translation of two works of Baxter's, ‘The Saints' Everlasting Rest’ and ‘A Call to the Unconverted’ (London, 8vo). He is to be distinguished from another P. B. Williames (1802–1871), one of the originators and editors in 1829 of the ‘Cambrian Quarterly Magazine,’ to which Peter Bayly Williams also contributed (see i. 273; Williams, Montgomeryshire Worthies, p. 309).

Another Peter Williams (1756?–1837), Welsh divine, born about 1756, was son of Edward Williams of Northop, Flint. He matriculated from Christ Church, Oxford, on 23 May 1776, proceeding B.A. in 1780, M.A. in 1783, B.D. and D.D. in 1802 (Foster, Alumni Oxon.) He was for a time chaplain of Christ Church. He returned to Wales about 1790 to become vicar of Bangor and headmaster of Bangor grammar school, and was subsequently rector of Llanbedrog, Carnarvonshire (1802–37), archdeacon of Merioneth (1802–9), and canon of Bangor (1809–1818). He died at Llanbedrog on 20 Feb. 1837. He was the author (among other works) of:

  1. ‘Letters concerning Education,’ 1786, 4to.
  2. ‘A Short Vindication of the Established Church, in which the Objections of the Methodists and Dissenters are dispassionately considered,’ Oxford, 1803, 8vo.
  3. ‘The First Book of Homer's Iliad translated in blank verse,’ 1806, 8vo.
  4. Four volumes of Welsh sermons (‘Casgliad o Bregethau’), Dolgelly, 1813–14, 12mo.
  5. ‘Clerical Legacy,’ Carnarvon, 1831, 12mo, a reprint of sermons preached before the university of Oxford ‘during sixteen years' residence there,’ and at ordinations and visitations.

He also published in 1824 an annotated edition of ‘Y Ffydd Ddiffuant’ (Dolgelly) by Charles Edwards [q. v.] (see the Preface to Edmunds's ed. 1856), and is said to have written an English life of that author (Foulkes, Enwogion Cymru, p. 1022; Allibone, Dict. of Engl. Lit.; and Introduction to ‘Clerical Legacy’).

Peter Williams, the hypochondriacal evangelist who figures so largely in ‘Lavengro’ (chap. lxxi–lxxxi.), was probably a creation of George Borrow's own imagination, but at all events could not possibly have been either of the Williamses mentioned above.

[Peter Williams (the expositor) left behind him an unfinished autobiography which, with additional details as to the family, was printed in the English Works of (his son) Eliezer Williams, London, 1840. It had previously been utilised by Owen Williams of Waunfawr in compiling his ‘Hanes Bywyd Peter Williams’ (Carnarvon, 1817, 8vo). This account was subsequently completed by Peter Bayly Williams, and published for the first time in an illustrated edition of the Family Bible issued by Fisher & Co., London, in 1823. The earliest independent memoir, by Thomas Charles of Bala, appeared in his quarterly Trysorfa for 1813, pp. 483–5. Elegies containing biographical details, by Thomas Williams of Peterston, Glamorganshire, by John Thomas of Rhaiadr (Carmarthen), and by Maurice Hughes (Trevecca), had, however, been published in 1796, while John Williams of St. Athan's had also written in July 1791 a poem giving the circumstances of Williams's expulsion (‘Y Gân Ddiddarfod’). For further particulars of Williams's evangelistic work see Robert Jones's Drych yr Amseroedd, 1820, pp. 90–7, 107, 146; Hughes's Methodistiaeth Cymru, 1851, 3 vols. passim; Rees's Protestant Nonconformity of Wales, 2nd edit. pp. 385–6, 408, 509; W. Williams's Welsh Calvinistic Methodism, pp. 17, 47–50, 52, 144–8; Life and Times of Selina, Countess of Huntingdon, ii. 109; Y Tadau Methodistaidd, 1895, i. 433–58 (with a reproduction of the alleged spurious portrait); D. Evans's Sunday Schools in Wales, pp. 39–42. As to his expulsion, see also in addition to the foregoing: Y Traethodydd, 1893–4; Y Drysorfa, September 1895, and correspondence in London Kelt for October and November 1896. For his literary work see Rowlands's Cambrian Bibliography, and Ashton's Hanes Llenyddiaeth Gymreig, pp. 296–304; and generally Williams's Eminent Welshmen, p. 532; Foulkes's Enwogion Cymru, p. 1019, Y Gwyddoniadur Cymreig (Encyclopædia Cambrensis), x. 285–97, and Cardiff Library Welsh Catalogue.]

D. Ll. T.