Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Williams, William (1717-1791)

WILLIAMS, WILLIAM (1717–1791), Welsh hymn-writer, son of John Williams (d. 1742), by his wife Dorothy, was born at Cefn-y-Coed, near Llandovery, in 1717. His father was a ruling elder of the presbyterian church at Cefn Arthen, but seceded from it, with other Calvinists, in 1740, and formed the independent church of Glyn y Pentan. William, the only son who reached manhood, was intended for the medical profession, and was sent to a school kept at Llwyn Llwyd, near Hay, by David Price, the independent minister of Maes-yr-Onnen. Here he chanced, in 1738, to hear Howel Harris [q. v.] preach in Talgarth churchyard, and resolved, under religious conviction, to devote himself to the ministry. He was ordained deacon in 1740, and appointed curate of the mountain parishes of Llan Wrtyd and Llan Ddewi Aber Gwesin. His connection with the methodist movement now became close. He was present in January 1743 at the first methodist ‘association;’ and in the next, held in April 1743 at Watford, near Cardiff, it was resolved that he should resign his curacy and act as assistant to Daniel Rowlands [q. v.] In this way he ceased to hold any recognised office in the church, nor did he seek ordination, after this, as priest; there is, however, no evidence that any penal measures were taken against him, and he still called himself ‘a minister of the church of England.’ His mother had inherited from a brother the little estate of Pant y Celyn, near Llandovery, and thus he was in no pecuniary difficulties. In 1749 he married Mary (d. 1799), daughter of Thomas Francis, of Pen Lan, Llan Sawyl, and with her portion bought more land in the neighbourhood of Pant y Celyn. Pant y Celyn was henceforth his home. His ordinary duties included regular preaching at Llan Geitho, Llan Lluan, Llan Sawyl, and Caeo, but he spent many weeks each year in evangelistic tours through other parts of Wales, and continued active in this itinerant work until the close of his life. He and his family were members of the methodist society of Cil y Cwm. He died on 11 Jan. 1791, and was buried at Llanfair ar y Bryn. Two of his sons survived him: William, who became curate of Newlyn, Cornwall; John (d. 1828), who was ordained in 1779 and held several curacies, but threw in his lot with the methodists in 1786. Pant y Celyn passed ultimately to the descendants of a daughter, Sarah.

It is said that Williams's poetic gifts were first discovered in 1742 as the result of a friendly contest in hymn-writing set on foot by Howel Harris. His first volume of hymns was issued in 1744, and at once placed him at the head of Welsh hymn-writers—a position still by general consent accorded to him. Over eight hundred hymns are ascribed to his pen, and of these a large number are still in constant use, forming, indeed, the nucleus of most Welsh collections. Williams's hymns had, like those of Charles Wesley, no small share in the dissemination of methodism, and are in doctrine and in spirit a characteristic product of the movement. ‘Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah’ (first published as a leaflet in 1772) is a free translation from Welsh partly by Peter Williams [q. v.] and partly by the author.

The following is a list of Williams's works, from which, however, the numerous elegies and some small tracts are omitted:

  1. ‘Aleluia,’ a collection of hymns, Carmarthen, 1744; some of these had already appeared in another form; further parts of ‘Aleluia’ were published in 1745, 1746, and 1747, and complete editions in 1758 and 1775, all (except the last) at Bristol.
  2. ‘Hosanna i Fab Dafydd,’ a second set of hymns, Bristol, 1751; there was a second part in 1753, and a third in 1754, from the same press.
  3. ‘Golwg ar Deyrnas Crist’ (‘A Prospect of Christ's Kingdom’), a long religious poem, Bristol, 1756; 2nd edit. Carmarthen, 1764; 3rd edit. Trefecca, 1799; 4th edit. Carmarthen, 1822; 5th and 6th edits. Newcastle Emlyn, 1845.
  4. ‘Rhai Hymnau a Chaniadau,’ more hymns, Carmarthen, 1757.
  5. ‘Sicrwydd Ffydd,’ a translation of a sermon by Ebenezer Erskine, Carmarthen, 1759; reissued in 1760 and 1800.
  6. ‘Hosanna to the son of David,’ Bristol, 1759, a collection of fifty-one English hymns by Williams, of which a few only were translations from the Welsh.
  7. ‘Pantheologia,’ a Welsh history of the religions of the world, with geographical notes; it appeared in instalments from 1762 to 1774, the earlier portions at Carmarthen, the later at Brecon. In this, his first prose work, Williams adopted the dialogue form, which became his favourite style of prose composition.
  8. ‘Caniadau y rhai sydd ar y môr o wydr’ (‘Songs of those who are on the Sea of Glass’), Carmarthen, 1762; a collected edition of Nos. 2 and 4 reprinted in 1764, 1773 (Brecon), 1795 (Trefecca).
  9. ‘Letter by “Martha Philopur” to “Philo Evangelius,” with Reply,’ Carmarthen, 1763.
  10. ‘Ffarwel Weledig, Groesaw Anweledig Bethau’ (‘Farewell, ye things visible; welcome, ye things invisible’), Carmarthen, 1763, the first part of a new set of hymns, followed by a second part in 1766 (Carmarthen), and a third in 1769 (Llandovery); the collected edition was styled ‘Aleluia Drachefn’ (Carmarthen, about 1785).
  11. ‘Life and Death of Theomemphus’ (i.e. according to Williams, ‘Seeker after God’), a Welsh allegorical poem in dialogue form, conceived in the spirit of the ‘Pilgrim's Progress;’ the editions were as follows: 1st, Carmarthen, 1764; 2nd, Brecon, 1781; 3rd and 4th, Trevecca, 1795; 5th, Carnarvon, 1822; 6th, Carmarthen, 1823; 7th, Newcastle Emlyn, 1845.
  12. ‘Crocodil Afon yr Aipht,’ Carmarthen, 1767, a prose dialogue on envy.
  13. ‘Hanes Bywyd a Marwolaeth y Tri Wyr o Sodom,’ Carmarthen, 1768 (reprinted at Merthyr in 1821 and at Swansea in 1852), a similar dialogue on the use of riches.
  14. ‘Gloria in Excelsis,’ a further collection of hymns, of which part i. was published at Llandovery in 1771, part ii. at Carmarthen in 1772; an English set appeared in 1772 (Carmarthen), under the same title.
  15. ‘Liber Miscellaneorum’ (verse), Llandovery, 1773.
  16. ‘Aurora Borealis,’ Brecon, 1774; 2nd edit. Brecon, 1784; 3rd edit. Ruthin, 1832; a letter from ‘Ermenus’ to ‘Agrupnus’ on the religious revival in the north.
  17. ‘Templum Experientiæ Apertum,’ Brecon, 1777 (reprinted at Aber Ystwyth in 1839); a Welsh essay in dialogue form on the methodist ‘society’ meeting.
  18. ‘Ductor Nuptiarum,’ Brecon, 1777 (reprinted at Aber Ystwyth in 1810); a similar essay on the marriage of believers.
  19. ‘Rhai Hymnau Newyddion,’ Brecon, 1781, a set of new hymns, followed by 2nd and 3rd parts in 1782 and 1787.
  20. ‘Immanuel,’ Trevecca, 1786; a translation of a work by Archbishop Usher (reissued in 1803 and 1826).
  21. Dialogue (Welsh) between ‘Philalethes’ and ‘Eusebius’ as to true Christianity, Carmarthen, 1791; a defence of Peter Williams [q. v.]

In 1811 Williams's second son, John, at the request of the South Wales Association, issued at Carmarthen a complete edition of his father's hymns, which was reprinted at Carmarthen in 1824 and Swansea in 1829. Other (incomplete) editions were those of Robert Jones, Rhos Lan, in 1795 (‘Grawnsypiau Canaan,’ Liverpool), and William Rees in 1847 (‘Y Pêr Ganiedydd, Liverpool). A part of a religious poem by Williams, found among his son's papers, was published in 1830 (Llandovery) under the title ‘Reliquiæ Poeticæ.’ Seven of the more important elegies appeared, in one volume, at Swansea in 1854. In 1867 James Rhys Jones [q. v.] edited a complete edition of the works of Williams (published at Glasgow), with a memoir and a critical essay, the latter by William Rees. Recently a new collected edition by N. Cynhafal Jones has appeared, in two volumes (Holywell, 1887; Newport, 1891).

[The earliest memoir of Williams is that by Thomas Charles in the Trysorfa for January, 1813. It is the source of all later notices. Edward Morgan, of Syston, published in 1847 (Llandovery) an English account of Williams's ministry; William Rees's ‘Rhyddweithiau’ (Liverpool, 1872) contains a critical essay; and there is a full bibliography in Ashton's Hanes Llenyddiaeth Gymreig. Cf. Llyfryddiaeth y Cymry and the catalogue of the Welsh portion of Cardiff Public Library. Hanes Eglwysi Annibynol Cymru (ii. 528, 530, iii. 583) gives the facts as to Williams's dissenting connections.]

J. E. L.