William Williams (1717-1791) was one of the most remarkable hymn writers who ever lived. What may seem strange to those outside Wales, however, is that he is generally known not by his personal name, but simply by that of the farm where he lived: ‘Pantycelyn’.
The farm lies just beyond the hamlet of Pentre-tŷ-gwyn, near Llandovery in northern Carmarthenshire. It is still owned by his descendants, and they are always glad to welcome visitors. No doubt, there will be even more visitors during 2017, the 300th anniversary of his birth. More importantly, the occasion affords an appropriate opportunity for an appreciation of his life and work.
He was a young student aiming to become a doctor, but in 1737 (or 1738) his life was changed as he heard Howel Harris preaching in Talgarth churchyard, near Brecon:
‘This the morning I’ll remember,
I myself heard heaven’s call,
I received a fearful summons
From the highest court of all.’
He had grown up in the Independent church at Cefnarthen, near Llandovery, but it was through Harris’ preaching that day that he came to true faith in Jesus Christ. And thenceforth he was committed to the service of the One who had issued ‘heaven’s call’.
Probably as a result of Harris’ influence, he was ordained deacon in the Church of England in 1740, and appointed curate to Theophilus Evans — a celebrated literary figure, but implacable anti-Methodist — in the Llanwrtyd area, between Llandovery and Builth.
His time there proved turbulent. Among other things, he was accused of neglecting his ecclesiastical duties because of his Methodist activities. When he was refused ordination as a priest, he decided to remain within the Church of England, but to commit himself entirely to working with the burgeoning Methodist movement.
Preacher and pastor
It is easy to forget the importance of his preaching and tireless travelling to this movement. According to Howel Harris, ‘Hell trembles when he comes, and souls are daily taken by brother Williams in the gospel net’. Indeed, added Harris, ‘He is eminently owned by his heavenly Master in his service. He is indeed a flaming instrument in his hands, and he is too on the stretch day and night doing his will’.
But he was also a wise and sensitive pastor, especially in supervising the seiadau (‘societies’), where converts were instructed in the faith and encouraged to share their spiritual experiences.
As demonstrated in his famous book Drws y Society Profiad (available in English as The Experience Meeting, most recently published by Regent College, Vancouver), he excelled in helping them to understand and learn from their experiences.
He was particularly known for his sensitive dealings with the weaker members and his ability to recognise hypocrites. It was largely through his labours that the seiat became a spiritual powerhouse in Wales.
Pantycelyn was a poet of distinction, as demonstrated especially in two impressive long works. Golwg ar deyrnas Crist (‘A view of Christ’s kingdom’) is a vibrant exploration of Christ’s sovereign rule over everything. The other poem, Bywyd a marwolaeth Theomemphus (‘The life and death of Theomemphus’; selectively translated by Eifion Evans as Pursued by God, Evangelical Press of Wales, 1996) traces the spiritual pilgrimage of a true Christian — a kind of Pilgrim’s Progress in verse.
Neither poem is without its weaknessses, but both contain superb passages that cast valuable light on the Christian life. In addition, he wrote some 30 elegies in memory of other Methodists. These are funeral tributes in verse, and provide helpful information concerning those commemorated.
He was also the author of important prose works that display his extensive interests, natural wit and lively imagination. His aim was to instruct those who had recently come to faith in Christ. The range of subjects included marriage, the dangers of jealousy, their relationship with the world around them, the nature of true revival, and the end of the world.
However, it is for his hymns — eight volumes in Welsh and two in English — that Pantycelyn is especially remembered. They are particularly notable for their masterly combination of deep spiritual experience and solid biblical theology; a combination that reflects his vital relationship with Jesus Christ, his understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit, his knowledge of the human heart, and his debt to Reformed and Puritan theologians.
At times his style can appear rather careless, but his poetic gifts are undeniable. They are evident especially in the dramatic immediacy of his hymns. As a scene is depicted or a truth set forth, we are participants with Pantycelyn, personally drawn into his own vibrant experience.
This dramatic immediacy, together with Pantycelyn’s awareness of the vital relevance of biblical truth to himself and every believer, may be seen, for example, in the following hymn (translated by Bobi Jones and included in Christian Hymns):
‘In Eden — sad indeed that day —
My countless blessings fled away,
My crown fell in disgrace.
But on victorious Calvary
That crown was won again for me —
My life shall all be praise.
‘Faith, see the place, and see the tree
Where heaven’s Prince, instead of me,
Was nailed to bear my shame.
Bruised was the dragon by the Son,
Though two had wounds, there conquered One —
And Jesus was His Name.’
The same elements are also evident in the well known ‘Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah’, which was partly translated by Pantycelyn himself. In his moving confession of his weakness, but his utter reliance on divine grace and power, he helps to articulate our own relationship with God: fearfulness, longing, confidence and final glory.
Pantycelyn regarded these hymns as an expression of worship and a means of instructing young believers, rather than as an instrument of evangelism. Indeed, he ‘would be the last man to support the idea of singing in order to win people for Christ’ (Emyr Roberts, Revival in Wales; Bryntirion Press, 2014, p.111).
In God’s providence, however, they were to be a channel of revival, notably in 1762 at Llangeitho, when the publication of a new collection was accompanied by a powerful outpouring of the Spirit. Overall, his hymns left an indelible mark on the Methodist movement and ensured that its initial vibrancy, spirituality and doctrine were maintained and nourished.
As Martyn Lloyd-Jones reminds us, in his combination of profound experience and sound doctrine Pantycelyn was the very embodiment of Calvinistic Methodism. And although fashions change, it needs to be emphasised that this combination is just as fresh and powerful — and relevant — today.
In many ways Pantycelyn was the most winsome of the Methodist leaders. He had a healthy interest in the world created by God and, while he took his faith seriously, he also knew how to laugh. His marriage was exceptionally happy; he declared that God should repay his wife handsomely for all her loving care. Above all else, however, he was entirely captivated by the Lord Jesus Christ:
‘Jesus, Jesus, all-sufficient,
Beyond telling is Thy worth.’
His Saviour’s atoning death was a constant source of loving amazement to him:
‘Awake, my soul, and rise
Amazed, and yonder see
How hangs the mighty Saviour God
Upon a curséd tree.’
As a result, his overwhelming desire was to know Christ:
‘Dear Jesus, come, my soul doth groan
For nought but for Thyself alone.’
He longed to see Christ glorified in the growth of his kingdom:
‘Onward march, all-conquering Jesus,
Gird Thee on Thy mighty sword;
Sinful earth can ne’er oppose Thee;
Hell itself quails at Thy Word.’
And while he delighted in worshipping his Saviour here on earth, he looked forward earnestly to doing so in infinitely greater measure in the heavenly Canaan:
‘Songs of praises
I will ever give to Thee.’
Pantycelyn was undeniably the greatest hymn writer Wales has ever seen, and ranks among the nation’s most eminent literary figures.
Was he the world’s greatest hymn writer? Quite likely. The title often given him in Welsh is Y Pêr Ganiedydd (‘The Sweet Singer’) — echoing that of David, Israel’s king and psalmist, in 2 Samuel 23:1 — and it is difficult to think of anything more appropriate.
But he desired no title. Rather, his entire being was a simple and all-consuming response to the amazing love of the Lord Jesus Christ, revealed to him in ‘heaven’s call’; as quoted above, ‘My life shall all be praise’.
Dr Gwyn Davies (now retired) was a lecturer in church history at the Wales Evangelical School of Theology.