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WILLIAM WILLIAMS, PANTYCELYN.
What Paul Gerhardt has been to Germany, what Isaac Watts has been to England, that and more has William Williams, of Pantycelyn, been to the little principality of Wales. His hymns have both stirred and soothed a whole nation for more than a hundred years: they have helped to fashion a nation's character and to deepen a nation's piety. They have been sung by the shepherd on the moor and on the mountain, in the midst of romantic solitudes; or by the smith to the accompaniment of his ringing anvil; or by the miner in the weird halls of buried forests underneath the ground; or by the milkmaid, with a fresh, clear voice, as she brushed from the clover the dewdrops of an early morning in May; or by the reaper in the harvest-field as he gathered in the golden grain.
The mother hums one of his tender musings above the cradle of her child, surrounding its soft-winged slumbers with the praises of Him whose 'very name is music.' The funeral procession takes up one of his strains of sorrow touched with hope, and sings it when accompanying the dead to the long home-sings it musingly, measuredly, 30 moaningly. The young man in the day of trial will take some smooth stones out of this brook of Christian poetry, and with them overcome the enemy. The veteran soldier of God thirsts for the water out of this 'well of Bethlehem,' and 'pours it out before the Lord.' Through some memorial verse of his the family of the Lord Christ has often expressed its sweet sorrowfulness of heart, as it looked on the breaking of the bread. Many a time has the sad Angel of Death heard one of his victorious strains fall from some trusting soul as it passed through the dark gateway--heard the echo of the song far down in the Valley of the Shadow: a strange thing of joy: like a warm sunbeam piercing through the chill eternal twilight of some ancient forest of pine. It was a verse of his that Christmas Evans--one of the immortal 'three' of the Welsh pulpit--sang when nearing home; taking it as a staff in his hand, 'and smiting Jordan with it, so that the waters were divided hither and thither, and he went over on dry ground':
Like all poets that have deeply stirred a people, 31 he was brought up in troublous times. His father was the deacon of a famous Independent church in Caermarthenshire, which had to meet for a time in a cave during the hours of twilight, on account of the persecution to which a large number of the sincerest Christians of the age were subjected. But when the poet was very young he lost his father, and was left to the care of his mother. He spent some years at college, purposing to devote himself to the medical profession. It was on his way home from college that an incident happened which changed his whole career. He was passing through the little village of Talgarth, in Breconshire, on a Sunday morning, when he was attracted by the sound of a bell to enter the parish church. The service was cold and spiritless, and left scarcely any impression whatever on the young man's mind.
The people on leaving church, instead of scattering and wending their way home, grouped themselves together in the churchyard, and every face was alive with expectation, as though eagerly waiting for something more. And more did come. It affords a striking picture of the religious life of Wales near the middle of the eighteenth century. On one of the gravestones a man of short stature and exceedingly sombre face takes his stand. In a moment every eye is fastened upon him in a solemn, nervous suspense. Then the voice begins to ring deep and clear and earnest among the grey tombstones--like the voice of some ancient prophet of Israel summoning the people with words of fire 32 to repent forthwith and escape for their life. The congregation is stirred, startled, confounded: it moves to and fro, 'as the trees of the wood are moved by the wind.' Strong men are there, weeping like little children, terrible to see; while others in their rage against the preacher curse like a demoniac at the approach of the Lord Christ. Here a woman falls fainting: another cries out through a storm of sobs and tears, 'What must we do?' And the young poet? 'There he is, his face deathly pale, and his whole body shaken with excitement and terror. He is a very image of fearfulness. He stands each moment expecting to see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven: a sharp, glowing arrow from the bow of the doctrine of the man on the gravestone has pierced through his heart.' He came out of that historic churchyard with the light of eternity in his eyes.
Two or three years afterwards he was ordained deacon of the Church of England. But in those days the Church of England was her own unrelenting enemy in Wales. Like many another of her servants of best worth, he was excommunicated on an indictment of committing twenty-four crimes--chief among them being his refusal to make the sign of the cross in baptism, and his zeal in preaching the gospel outside of places properly consecrated. He had come under the influence of Whitefield, who urged him to go forth to the highways to proclaim the glad tidings. And 33 preach he did from Holyhead to Cardiff, having travelled on an average 3,000 miles every year for fifty years.
As a preacher, he was a son of consolation. His sermons, like his hymns, were expressions of profound experience--the sorrow and joy of a pilgrim who had travelled for a long time heavy-laden, and at last had 'his burden loosed from off his shoulders' at the place where 'stood a cross, and a little below, in the bottom, a sepulchre.' He was a poet in the pulpit, with all a poet's swift change of feeling. In a conversation with his coworker, the Rev. Peter Williams--well known in Wales still for his annotated Bible--he remarked, with his usual quaint humour: 'As for thee, Peter, thou couldest get through it well enough if the Holy Spirit were in America; but I can make nothing of it unless He is near.'
Williams first exercised his gift of sacred song at an association held in the earliest days of Welsh Calvinistic Methodism. The hymns hitherto used were foreign to the spirit of the new movement; but as soon as be began to pour forth his varied strains of passionate sweetness, Howell Harris, the preacher of Talgarth Churchyard, pronounced him a master of song. His hymns seemed to fly abroad as on the wings of the wind, and soon became the sacred ballads of the whole nation. As Luther sang Germany into Protestantism, so did Williams sing the Wales of the eighteenth century into piety.34
His hymns are full of pictures from Nature. It could be almost said that the natural aspects of his native land through all the changes of the twelve months are reflected and reproduced in his hymns. The heavy clouds of storm, and the white clouds of a summer day--clouds gathering with dark forebodings on the horizon, clouds beautifully passing away at eventide after a rainy day--clouds of thunder with fringes of chilly white, and the fleeting clouds of April: they are all here. He has watched the dawn deepening in the east, be has walked in the glow of noon, he has looked with sobering eye on the sunset glories of the west. He has wandered beside the mountain brook and the calm river, and he has seen the brown torrents raging on the hillsides. He knows the charm of a spring day after a long winter; and the sweet pensiveness of yellow corn-fields and tinted autumn leaves. He has found quiet havens of the sea, and felt the joy of the morning star rising above the waves. Some of these pictures will appear in the hymns reproduced here: but to reproduce all his etchings from Nature would be to give almost all his hymns.
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