There have been several spiritual and godly men in history with this name, and at times it is difficult to separate the stories, but we are focused on the great hymn writer in particular!
William Williams was born on Feb. 11, 1717 to a wealthy Welsh farmer in Cefn-y-Coed near Llandovery, Wales. He was a good student and received a good education.
His father was a deacon of the Independent Chapel whose congregation had to hide in a cave during times of persecution.
Williams was involved in medical training to be a doctor, and went for a walk through the countryside one Sunday. He heard church bells in Talgarth, entered the church there. The church service was cold and dreary, and afterwards the folks hung around the church yard. Soon a younger fellow, a Welsh preacher, 26 year old Howell Harris, stepped up onto a grave stone on the church wall and spoke to the folks with a moving sermon, and some wonderful congregational singing. Williams decided to change the course of life, leave the medical profession, and enter the ministry. The process of Williams’ conviction of sin was deep and alarming, but after his salvation, his joy was equally high.
Williams served in two Anglican churches, being ordained a deacon in 1740, but was not happy with the rituals. He became very close friends with George Whitefield, the Countess of Huntingdon, and some Methodists. After three years, because of his associations, the bishop would not offer “priest orders.” Williams, now 32, decided instead to break free from the confines of church walls, and instead make the whole region of Wales his audience.
He along with Peter Williams, Howell Harris, Daniel Rowlands, and Howell Davies, formed the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists, or Presbyterians of Wales. George Whitefield served as their first president in 1742. Williams was the principal and very influential preacher of the group.
For 35 years he preached once a month at Lanllian, Caio, and Llansawel, and took trips into North and South Wales. As a preacher he was held in high esteem, and served tirelessly as an itinerate preacher. There were no railroads or stage coaches to use to make his travels easier.
Williams’ preaching style was very effective to the Welsh hearer. He had a warm heart and his sermons abounded with vivid picturing, and he was always radiating the presence of his Savior. With his eloquence he had an added gift of singing that inspired people to join him in singing his collection of hymns.
The hymns Williams wrote came from the very picturesque scenes in Wales. One hymn came during a period of drought when Williams came upon some little animals making mischief in the green fields. Another hymn came when he woke up early in the morning to see the hills lying in darkness and mist, with the dawn breaking into the gloom and brightening the sky.
In 1744 he published a Welsh hymn book called Halleluiah, which quickly went through three editions. In 1759, he printed an English hymn book, Hosanna to the Son of Death, that had 51 Welsh hymns and was translated into English. In 1762, he published another book with the title, Y’ Mor o Wydr (The Sea of Glass). This book went through five editions. In 1771, he published an English hymn book, Gloria in Excelsis. In 1811, his son, John, published an edition of his hymnbook. One of his hymn books was written at the request of the Countess of Huntingdon for George Whitefield to give his orphan homes in America.
For forty-three years he travelled on horseback, preaching and singing to the people of Wales. It is estimated that he travelled an average of 2,230 miles a year, putting in nearly 100,000 miles on horseback. His wife, who was also a singer, also travelled with him. He suffered greatly, but was known as the “sweet singer of Wales.” Others called him the “Isaac Watts of Wales.” Even though as a preacher he was very persuasive, it was his hymn singing that was the major source of influence. He wrote nearly 800 hymns in Welch and another 100 in English. Only one of his hymns has been translated into English and become popular with English speaking people. That hymn is “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah.”
Among the many hymns he wrote were:
William Williams drew crowds of 10,000 people or more, and at one time spoke to a crowd estimated to be one of 80,000 people! He wrote, “God strengthened me to speak so loud that most could hear.” His hymn “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah” is an autobiography of his own life. He lived life as a pilgrim, pressing on through the snows of winter, the rains of the spring, and the heat of the fall. Mobs beat him up to the point of death, but in it all he sought to follow God in his travels.
On August 24, 1769, John Wesley records in his journal of a day when he was with William Williams. It was a Thursday, and at 10 a.m. the morning public service began. The chapel was too small for the crowds, so the service was held in the courtyard. After the lively preaching of Mr. Fletcher, William Williams spoke in the Welsh language from 1 to 2 p.m. At 2 they ate, and a large number of people with baskets of bread and food carried them to the court to share with those there. John Wesley spoke at 3, then Mr. Fletcher, and at 5 p.m. the crowds were dismissed. They had a feast from 7 to 8 p.m. and then went for a walk in the neighboring wood, leading to a raised meadow that had great views and beautiful gardens, orchards, and waterworks.
In 1771 he wrote an elegy (funeral song) on George Whitefield, which was dedicated to the Countess of Huntingdon.
After a long illness, the Rev. William Williams died at the age of 74 on January 11, 1791, in Pantycelyn, Wales. Even though he could not talk, he gave signs of a happy state of mind. His remains were buried in a quiet village churchyard in a Welsh valley.
This article previously was written by Gideon Macomber when he was 13. It was revised by his sister, Faith Macomber on Jan. 20, 2007. The current version is a rewrite and expansion of their work.
A.E.C., Hymns and their Stories (London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge: 1896), pp. 139, 140.
The Ambassador Book of Great Hymn Stories (Belfast, North Ireland: Ambassador Publications, 2001), pp. 43-44.
Kathreen Blanchard, Stories of Beautiful Hymns (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1942), pp. 42, 43.
David R. Breed, The History and Use of Hymns and Hymn-Tunes (Chicago: Fleming H. Revell Company, 1903) pp. 122-125.
John Brownlie, The Hymns and Hymn Writers of the Church Hymnary (London: Henry Frowde, 1899), pp. 160, 161.
Hezekiah Butterworth, The Story of the Hymns or Hymns that Have a History (New York: American Tract Society, 1875), pp. 30-32.
Duncan Campbell, Hymns and Hymn Makers (London: A. & C. Black, 1898), p. 48.
John Julian, editor, A Dictionary of Hymnology Setting Forth the Origin and History of Christian Hymns of All Ages and Nations Setting Forth the Origin and History of Christian Hymns of All Ages and Nations (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1892), pp. 1284-1285.
LindaJo H. McKim, The Presbyterian Hymnal Companion (Louisville, Kentucky: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993), p. 281.
Robert J. Morgan, Nelson's Complete Book of Stories, Illustrations, and Quotes, electronic ed. (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 2000), p. 372.
Kenneth W. Osbeck, 101 Hymn Stories (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1982), p. 81.
Kenneth W. Osbeck, Amazing Grace: 366 Inspiring Hymn Stories for Daily Devotions (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Publications, 1990), p. 13.
Carl F. Price. One Hundred and One Hymns Stories (Cincinnati: The Abingdon Press, 1923) p. 47.
John Wesley, The Works of John Wesley: Journals, electronic ed. (Albany, OR: Ages Software, 2000), Journal 15, “Thurs. 24.”