The Welsh Saints, 1714–1814: William Williams


The Welsh Saints, 1714–1814

Sixty or so years ago, Prof Geoffrey Nuttall, one of the finest twentieth-century historians of British Dissent, penned a book entitled The Welsh Saints, 1640–1660: Walter Cradock, Vavasor Powell, Morgan Llwyd. It is in the spirit of that literary gem, that this series has been entitled “The Welsh Saints, 1714–1814.” Nuttall’s trio were controversial men in their day—Richard Baxter dismissed them once as a trio of dangerous Antinomians—and so were the five in this series, who were dismissed by more staid types as misguided “enthusiasts.” Yet, as will be seen, these five saints—Howel Harris (1714–1773), William Williams Pantycleyn (1717–1791), Benjamin Francis (1734–1799), Ann Griffiths (1776–1805), and Thomas Charles of Bala (1755–1814)—have much to teach us about the nature of the Christian life, its thoughts, and its affections.


William Williams, Pantycelyn
and his “Guide me, O thou great Jehovah”[1]

In 1738, a twenty-one year old medical student named William Williams (1717–1791) was returning home to Carmarthenshire when he happened to pass through a little village called Talgarth in Breconshire. It was Sunday and the village church bell was calling the village parishioners to worship, and so Williams joined them. But the service that morning was spiritually cold and lifeless. As he came out of the church, however, he was amazed to see another young man standing on top of a table tomb. It was the evangelist Howell Harris (1714–1773). Harris had been prevented from preaching within the church and thus had resorted to the graveyard. It was a sermon, Williams would later recall, that was “unusually terrifying.” Around him the words of the evangelist were being driven home by the Spirit of God to sinful hearts and sinners were coming to Christ. It was the time of the Great Awakening in Wales, when Howell Harris told the English preacher George Whitefield (1714–1770):

The outpouring of the Blessed Spirit is now so plentiful and common, that I think it was our deliberate observation that not one sent by Him opens his mouth without some remarkable showers. He comes either as a Spirit of wisdom to enlighten the soul, to teach and build up, and set out the works of light and darkness, or else a Spirit of tenderness and love, sweetly melting the souls like the dew, and watering the graces; or as the Spirit of hot burning zeal, setting their hearts in a flame, so that their eyes sparkle with fire, love, and joy; or also such a Spirit of uncommon power that the heavens seem to be rent, and hell to tremble.[2]

Not surprisingly, Williams never forgot that day. “It was a morning,” he wrote many years later, “which I shall always remember, for it was then that I heard the voice of heaven.”[3] Henceforth Williams regarded himself as a pilgrim on the way to the celestial city.[4]

When William Williams, Pantycelyn,[5] died in 1791, he had written some 860 hymns and over 90 books, and had travelled nearly 112,000 miles as an itinerant preacher during the stirring days of the Great Awakening in Wales.[6] D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones considered Williams to be “the theologian of Welsh Calvinistic Methodism,” which was born in that Welsh revival.[7] His great contribution to that revival was in the realm of “experimental hymnody and revival apologetic.”[8] His hymns were a central vehicle in the extension of the revival and also in creating a hunger for literacy.[9] Thomas Charles (1755–1814) of Bala said of him at the time:

He was one of the most gifted, respected and useful men of his age. His gift of poetry was naturally and abundantly given him by the Lord. … His hymns wrought a remarkable change in the religious aspect of Wales, and in public worship. Some verses in his hymns are like coals of fire, warming and firing every passion when sung.[10]

Again Lloyd-Jones can say of William’s hymn-writing:

The hymns of William Williams are packed with theology and experience … William Williams was the greatest hymn-writer of them all. You get greatness, and bigness, and largeness in Isaac Watts; you get the experimental side wonderfully in Charles Wesley. But in William Williams you get both at the same time.[11]

Overview of life and ministry

After his conversion Williams studied at a Nonconformist Academy under a Rev. Vavasor Griffiths, learning Greek, Hebrew, Latin and the Puritan classics.[12] Of the latter, he was deeply influenced by John Owen (1616–1683), Thomas Goodwin (1600–1679), and, interestingly enough, John Gill (1697–1771), who had some hyper-Calvinistic tendencies. Many years later, in 1779, he would publish a translation of the life of Thomas Goodwin.[13] Ordained a deacon in 1740, he was appointed to a parish with an unsympathetic vicar and a people who considered him a fanatic. By 1743, the local bishop had deep concerns about Williams who was preaching beyond the parish bounds and he refused him ordination as a priest. But God owned Williams’ preaching. As Howell Harris said of him at this time: “Hell trembles when he comes and souls are taken daily in the Gospel net. … He is eminently owned by his heavenly Master in His service; he is indeed a flaming instrument in his hands.”[14]

In 1748 he married a Mary Francis, and he and his new bride went to live in his mother’s old home at Pantycelyn. Mary would often accompany him on his preaching tours. When they stayed in an inn, Williams would ask his wife to sing one of his compositions. A crowd would gather to hear and Williams would have a group to which to preach.[15] Between 1756 and 1779, Williams wrote extensively so as to give the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists a theological framework. Among the key works of these years was his definitive rebuttal of Sandemanianism, The Crocodile of Egypt’s River Seen on Mount Zion (1767). His final years saw no slackening of the pace, as he continued to preach and itinerate.

The hymnwriter

His first book of hymns—Aleluia: Collection of hymns on various themes containing 248 hymns—came out in the mid-1740s in Welsh. It proved to be very popular and went through three editions. In 1759 he had published an English hymnal, Hosannah to the Son of David: or, Hymns of Praise to God for our glorious redemption by Christ, in which there are 51 hymns, 11 of which Williams had especially translated from Welsh for this hymnal. Three years later, he published a second major Welsh hymnal. Its title in translation is The songs of those on the crystal sea. Containing 149 hymns, it soon went through five editions. Between this hymnal, which appeared in 1762 and his death in 1791, he published another four Welsh hymnals. A second English hymnal, Gloria in Exclesis: or, Hymns of Praise to God and the Lamb—published at the request of George Whitefield and Selina Hastings (1707–1791), the Countess of Huntingdon for use in Whitefield’s orphanage in Georgia—appeared in 1772 with 72 hymns.[16]

Williams’ hymns “often express longing for Christ” and employ the Song of Songs as a favoured source of images relating to this longing.[17] For example, there is this well-known hymn from 1776:

Jesus, Jesus, all sufficient,

Beyond telling is thy worth;

In thy Name lie greater treasures

Than the richest found on earth.

Such abundance

Is my portion with my God.


In thy gracious face there’s beauty

Far surpassing every thing

Found in all the earth’s great wonders

Mortal eye hath ever seen.

Rose of Sharon,

Thou thyself art heaven’s delight.[18]

Or this from his 1759 hymnal Hosannah to the Son of David:

One drop of that o’erflowing stream

That angels taste above,

One smile from my Rdeemer’s face

Would kindle all to love.[19]

For Williams, hymns had two key purposes: first, to fix Scripture truth in the mind and memory and second, to kindle spiritual affections, especially that of love for the Triune God.[20]

Guide me, O thou great Jehovah

One of the dominant, if not the dominant, images of his written work, both prose and verse, was that of the pilgrim.[21] At least fifty of his hymns explore this theme of pilgrimage.[22] Thus, his best-known hymn in English, “Guide me, O thou Great Jehovah” is quintessential Williams.

There were abundant sources by earlier Christian authors to influence him in this regard. One thinks of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, for example, which a number of writers think was deeply influential on Williams’ thinking.[23] But it was Scripture in particular that influenced him in this emphasis. So, for example, there is the primeval story of the expulsion of the man and the woman from the Garden of Eden. Or there is the call of Abram to leave his home in Ur of the Chaldees and journey to a new land. Abraham would subsequently speak of his life as a pilgrimage.[24] Or there is the Exodus story of Israel leaving Egypt and wandering in the desert for forty years. In the New Testament, it is the book of Hebrews that especially picks up this theme.[25] The geography of Wales would also influence Williams in this regard: its rugged, mountainous terrain with its rough and stormy coastline made travel at times very difficult. Here is Williams writing in a letter one September: “intended to go to Langeitho next Sunday, but the weather is so cold, the wind so high and, the frost so severe that I fear I can’t go.”[26]

“Guide me, O thou great Jehovah” was originally written in Welsh and published in 1745. It was entitled in Welsh, “A Prayer for strength to go through the Wilderness of the World” and had five stanzas.[27] In 1771, a Peter Williams of Carmarthen translated into English stanzas 1, 3, and 5 of this Welsh version. The following year, when Selina Hastings and George Whitefield requested a hymnal, Williams used Peter Williams’ translation of the first stanza. He then made his own translation of stanzas 3 and 4 of the Welsh version, considerably revising them, and added a fourth stanza not in the Welsh version.

The tune to which this hymn is normally sung, Cwm Rhondda, was written in 1905 for a Baptist song festival by John Hughes, a deacon of and precentor for Salem Baptist Chapel, Pontypridd.[28]

Guide me, O thou great Jehovah,
Pilgrim through this barren land.
I am weak, but thou art mighty;
Hold me with thy powerful hand.
Bread of heaven,
Feed me till I want no more.

The first line was originally as it stands here, not “Guide me, O thou great Redeemer” as it has been altered in some hymnals.[29] The change is regrettable since it loses the Old Testament text that is the operative passage behind the hymn: Exodus.[30] The Christian life is likened to the journey of Israel through the wilderness (see Exodus 16:1), which Williams calls a “barren land.” But Christian pilgrims are weak and in need of guidance. Thus, Williams beseeches God: “Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah/Pilgrim through this barren land.”

But Christians not only need guidance, but also protection in this wilderness, for there are dangers and hazards to be faced. Thus, Williams prays: “I am weak, but thou art mighty;/Hold me with thy powerful hand.” But there is yet more. We need guidance. We need to be guarded. And we need nourishment. So Williams now prays: “Bread of heaven, bread of heaven,/Feed me till I want no more.” Here, Williams is alluding to Exodus 16:4–18. Now, this text is explicitly referred to by Jesus in John 6:48–51 as a reference to himself. Christ, then, is the “Bread of Heaven” to whom we are praying when we sing this hymn.

It needs noting that Williams’ use of the term “want” in the final line is the older meaning of that word, which has the idea of “being in want.” It is not our modern use of the word which bears the idea of “desire.” Hence the line “till I want no more” does not mean “till I desire no more.” Rather, it is the idea of “Feed me till I am no more in need, till the hunger of my soul is satisfied.” This is why some modern hymnals re-phrase this line thus: “Feed me now and evermore.”[31]

Open thou the crystal fountain,
Whence the healing stream doth flow;
Let the fire and cloudy pillar,
Lead me all my journey through.
Strong Deliverer,
Be thou still my strength and shield.

“Open now the crystal fountain,/Whence the healing stream doth flow” takes us back to Exodus, this time Exodus 17:1–6. Again, there is a Christocentric emphasis, for Paul understands the rock that is smitten here to be Christ, as stated in 1 Corinthians 10:4. “The fire and cloudy pillar” refer to Exodus 13:21, and spoke of God’s presence with his people and his guidance of them. Thus, the singer prays: “Lead me all my journey through.”

Again, though, there is the realization that not only is guidance needed but also strength for the journey. In this regard, it bears recalling that the original title of the hymn in Welsh was “A Prayer for strength to go through the Wilderness of the World.” The Christian pilgrimage has a goal, though, which Williams now describes in the third stanza:

When I tread the verge of Jordan,
Bid my anxious fear subside;
Death of deaths, and hell’s destruction,
Land me safe on Canaan’s side.
Songs of praises,
I will ever give to thee.

At the end of her journey through the wilderness, Israel came to the River Jordan and crossed over into the promised land. Traditionally, this crossing over was seen as a symbol of the end of the Christian pilgrimage and crossing over into heaven. This third stanza then is a prayer in the face of death and the fears that can grip one as one faces that: “When I tread the verge of Jordan,/Bid my anxious fear subside.” Fears are a great challenge to the believer. When George Whitefield died in 1770, Williams could write in his elegy on the preacher: “But anxious fears do still of every kind,/Resistless rush unto my thoughtful mind.”[32] In Williams’ day, it should be noted, the average life-span in Wales was twenty-seven and death an ever-present reality among the population.[33] Even as an old man, in 1790, Williams could ask Thomas Charles to pray that the Lord would “make me Strong to meet death.”[34]

Now, what does Williams mean by “Death of death, and hell’s destruction”? Surely, this is a reference to Christ, who as the Risen Lord has defeated death (see 2 Timothy 1:10) and defeated hell. Such a One can “land” the believer “safe on Canaan’s side.” And what our response when there—and if so there, then also here in this world in anticipation? “Songs of praises,/I will ever give to thee.”

The final stanza is usually omitted, but it forms a fitting conclusion to the hymn, as Williams reaffirms a central Gospel truth: heaven is a Christ-centred habitation. Purposely placing the Lord Jesus first and foremost in our daily thoughts in this world—the beauty of his person, the infallibility of his words, the joy of being in his presence, the impeccability of all of his thoughts and deeds, the perfection of his ethics—is thus preparation for an eternity with him. It was with such an other-worldly passion that the hearts of men and women were fired in the time of the Calvinistic revivals of the eighteenth century and they did great exploits for their God in this world:

Musing on my habitation,
Musing on my heav’nly home,
Fills my soul with holy longings:
Come, my Jesus, quickly come;
Vanity is all I see;
Lord, I long to be with Thee!



[1] The bulk of this article first appeared in La revue Farel 5 (2010): 97–104, and is reprinted here by permission.

[2] Cited Eifion Evans, Daniel Rowland and the Great Evangelical Awakening in Wales (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1985), 243.

[3] Cited Tim Shenton, Christmas Evans: The Life and Times of the One-Eyed Preacher of Wales (Darlington: Evangelical Press, 2001), 34.

[4] Eifion Evans, “‘A most gifted, respected and useful man’: Part 1: A Survey of Williams’ Life” in his trans. of William Williams, Pursued by God (Bryntirion, Bridgend: Evangelical Press of Wales, 1996), 17.

[5] “Pantycelyn” was the name of his mother’s old home, which he inhabited from 1748 onwards after his marriage. Descendants of his family still inhabit the home.

[6] Evans, Daniel Rowland, 63.

[7] “William Williams and Welsh Calvinistic Methodism” in his The Puritans: Their Origins and Successors. Addresses Delivered at the Puritan and Westminster Conferences 1959–1978 (Edinburgh/Carlisle, Pennsylvania: Banner of Truth Trust, 1987), 192.

[8] Evans, Daniel Rowland, 63.

[9] W. Glanffrwd Thomas, “Welsh Hymnody” in John Julian, ed., Dictionary of Hymnology (1907 ed.; repr. Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1985), 2:1251.

[10] Cited Evans, Daniel Rowland, 63.

[11] Cited Evans, Daniel Rowland, 296.

[12] Stephen J. Turner, “Theological Themes in the English Works of Williams, Pantycelyn” (M.Th. thesis, 1981), 324 and n.33. For an excellent life of Williams, see Eifion Evans, Bread of Heaven: The Life and Work of William Williams, Pantycelyn (Bridgend: Bryntirion Press, 2010).

[13] Cited Evans, “Survey of Williams’ Life” in his trans. of Williams, Pursued by God, 22.

[14] Cited Evans, “Survey of Williams’ Life” in his trans. of Williams, Pursued by God, 19.

[15] Cited Evans, “Survey of Williams’ Life” in his trans. of Williams, Pursued by God, 21.

[16] W. Glanffrwd Thomas, “Williams, William” in Julian, ed., Dictionary of Hymnology, 2:1284.

[17] Eifion Evans, “‘A most gifted, respected and useful man’: Part 2: A Survey of Williams’ Published Work” in his trans. of Williams, Pursued by God, 30.

[18] Cited Evans, “Survey of Williams’ Published Work” in his trans. of Williams, Pursued by God, 30.

[19] Cited Evans, “Survey of Williams’ Published Work” in his trans. of Williams, Pursued by God, 32.

[20] Evans, “Survey of Williams’ Published Work” in his trans. of Williams, Pursued by God, 32.

[21] Turner, “Theological Themes in the English Works of Williams, Pantycelyn,” 311–382.

[22] Ted A. Campbell, “‘Guide Me, O Thou Great Jehovah’: Contributions of Welsh and English Calvinists to Worship in Eighteenth-Century England,” Proceedings of the Charles Wesley Society 1 (1994): 74.

[23] Turner, “Theological Themes in the English Works of Williams, Pantycelyn,” 319, n.22.

[24] Genesis 23:4. See also Hebrews 11:8–10.

[25] See, for example, Hebrews 3-4 and 11:8–16.

[26] Cited Turner, “Theological Themes in the English Works of Williams, Pantycelyn,” 320.

[27] J.R. Watson, ed., An Annotated Anthology of Hymns (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 228.

[28] Frank Colquhoun, Hymns That Live: Their Meaning and Message (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1980), 193.

[29] Colquhoun, Hymns That Live, 194. For the following analysis of the hymn, Colquhoun, Hymns That Live, 193–198 has been very helpful.

[30] Watson, ed., Annotated Anthology of Hymns, 228.

[31] Colquhoun, Hymns That Live, 195.

[32] Turner, “Theological Themes in the English Works of Williams, Pantycelyn,” 355.

[33] Turner, “Theological Themes in the English Works of Williams, Pantycelyn,” 366.

[34] Cited Turner, “Theological Themes in the English Works of Williams, Pantycelyn,” 368.

Picture of Michael A.G. Haykin

Michael A.G. Haykin

Michael A.G. Haykin serves as professor of church history and biblical spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is also the Director of The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies also on the campus of Southern Seminary. He is the author of several books including Iron Sharpens Iron: Friendship and the Grace of God. He is married to Alison and they have two children.
Picture of Michael A.G. Haykin

Michael A.G. Haykin

Michael A.G. Haykin serves as professor of church history and biblical spirituality at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is also the Director of The Andrew Fuller Center for Baptist Studies also on the campus of Southern Seminary. He is the author of several books including Iron Sharpens Iron: Friendship and the Grace of God. He is married to Alison and they have two children.