Bread of heaven
It is more than likely that you have sung the words ‘Bread of heaven’, the refrain of the first verse of ‘Guide me O thou great Jehovah’. The author of the words was William Williams, and you may already have found yourself adding ‘of Pantycelyn’. Why was it so easy to fill out that detail, when he lived so long ago, 1717-91 to be precise? There is a simple explanation: his hymns leave a powerful impression on us, and his name is always linked to the farm where he spent most of his married life.
Born in 1717, the son of a sixty-one-year-old farmer at Cefncoed some three miles to the east of Llandovery, William was the only surviving son among the six children born to John and Dorothy Williams. They worshipped at Cefnarthen, an Independent church, which during William’s teenage years was facing turbulent times of doctrinal controversy. Educated locally at first, he wanted to become a doctor, and for this purpose he went to an academy near Hay-on-Wye, staying with a relative near Talgarth. On his way home one day he heard Howel Harris, a young schoolteacher from the neighbouring village of Trefeca, preaching in the open-air among the graves of the Talgarth churchyard. This proved to be a life-changing experience. Where before his religion had been a matter of family tradition and superficial familiarity with Scripture, he now came into a personal relationship with Jesus Christ.
Ministry of God’s word
At home, John Williams was now blind, and amidst the demands of the farm William worked through an increasingly urgent sense of call to preach the gospel. While his medical interest never left him, in 1740 he was ordained as a clergyman in the church of England, and served as curate in three small churches at Llanwrtyd. Meanwhile a powerful religious ferment was in progress, with the layman Harris and the clergyman, Daniel Rowland, curate of Llangeitho, closely involved. William was soon in trouble with the church authorities because he would not confine his ministry of the word within his parish boundaries. Within three years he left his curacy to assist Rowland at Llangeitho. For the rest of his life he exercised an itinerant preaching ministry, so that just before he died he could say he’d travelled ‘111,800 miles, which is more than four times around the world.’ He and his wife, Mary Francis of Llansawel, moved to Pantycelyn some time after their marriage in 1747, both their sons also becoming clergymen of the Established Church.
While the allegiance of these men was to the doctrine and liturgy of the Established Church, their activities were apart from it and they soon formed an independent network of ‘societies’ or fellowship meetings, and lay leaders. Because of their insistence on these things they were called ‘Methodists’. It is hard for us to realise that during their lifetime this was not a denominational title, but another name for people considered to be religious fanatics. It was a pattern that was emerging at the same time in England under the ministries of George Whitefield and the Wesley brothers, John and Charles. The Welsh Methodists formed a close relationship with Whitefield, since they held in common doctrinal convictions that followed Calvin’s insistence on the sovereignty and freeness of God’s grace in salvation.
Williams ably described and defended the revivals which God sent during his lifetime, particularly the most powerful and widespread of these, in 1762. Of that time he wrote: ‘Salvation in Christ is the only pleasure of hosts of people. Prayer, sermons, and especially singing praise to God cover the land. This is more wonderful than earthquakes and all the wars of the world.’ Eighteenth-century society was now experiencing a revolution which profoundly challenged its lack of spiritual foundations.
The written word
With consummate skill, Williams excelled as a physician of souls, providing for the societies an authoritative manual Drws y Society Profiad (translated with the title The Experience Meeting). Exceptional discernment is required, he says, ‘to unravel the various nets and hidden snares woven by Satan to catch the simple believer on his own ground. Many young saints are like lambs, that run after the dogs instead of after their mothers; imagining that some sins are no sins, but grace; that the breezes of nature are the breath of heaven; that the spirit of melancholy is a truly broken heart; and pride, envy, and prejudice are a sign of zeal for God.’ It is still relevant since it identifies the landmarks of genuine Christian experience.
The first hymn collection by Williams, Aleluja, appeared in1744, and hymns continued to flow from his pen for over thirty years, a total of nearly a thousand. An early major poem dealt with Christ’s kingdom; later poetic works included elegies. Poetry, using metre and rhyme, was for Williams a useful medium to convey biblical truth and make it easy to read and remember. There were prose works on the evil of jealousy, and on the dangers of materialism. For the young converts he provided A Guide to Marriage, and a survey of the world’s religions at a time when encyclopedias were a new phenomenon. In addition, he translated a few works from English: on assurance, and on the Person of Christ; and some biographies.
Williams’ hymns are clearly Bible-based and Christ-centred. Powerful imagery is used to express abiding realities, and this resonates with the heartache we feel for God, knowingly or otherwise. Classical bardic forms are avoided, the vocabulary is familiar, the language homely, and the expression concise. One verse in particular uses striking imagery to explain the atonement, and fix it in the memory:
He came to heal the wounded
Was wounded in their stead;
The heir of heaven was pierced
For those through sin made dead;
He sucked the awful poison
The serpent gave to me,
And from that deadly venom
He died on Calvary.
For the purpose of personal devotion and public worship, his hymns edify as well as inspire.
In his writings Williams was fond of using fictional characters to convey biblical ideas, much as Bunyan had done in Pilgrim’s Progress. Their experiences were ‘fleshed out’ in imaginary lives, allowing the writer greater scope, and challenging the reader to make whatever connection was appropriate and to respond accordingly. In ‘Fidelius’, for example, the most apt picture is drawn of a New Testament Christian, his chief characteristic being that he was the same man outwardly as inwardly.
Williams’ theology was soundly biblical. Scripture was God’s word written, inspired, and abiding, the touchstone of truth, and the ‘statute-book of Christ’s kingdom’. The structure of his theology was covenantal: the plan of salvation hinged upon an eternal agreement between God the Father and God the Son. Its objective was to redeem a sinful people, for whom the Son made full compensation by His death on the cross, and to bring them by grace and through faith into union with Himself forever. In time, the covenant was realised through the means of grace, whether in the ‘ordinary’ manner of regular ministry, or by ‘extraordinary’ intervention in revival.
A rich heritage
A man of decisive and sometimes over-hasty action, with a humour that bordered on levity, Williams was nevertheless a faithful friend. He managed his farm with diligence, and was perhaps over-anxious about his health. That he was a man of peace is evident from the way he tried to restore Harris to the Methodist fold after a decade of estrangement over theological issues and personal friction. Throughout his Christian life he was a follower of the ‘cloudy pillar’, feasting always on the ‘bread of heaven’, and on 11 January 1791 he landed ‘safe on Canaan’s side’. Williams not only gave ‘songs of praises’ himself to God; their timeless quality and biblical content are for us also a rich spiritual heritage.
Eifion Evans is a retired Presbyterian minister and author of ‘Bread of heaven’, a recently published biography of William Williams.