This year marks the three hundredth anniversary of the birth of William Williams Pantycelyn, arguably Wales’ most famous hymn writer, having written over 800 hymns in both Welsh and English, hymns which are still sung today all over the globe. In the following article Nathan Munday examines Pantycelyn’s early life and makes a powerful application to believers today.
Imagine a West Walian church. The place is packed. A young curate called Daniel Rowland is reading through the Litany (they were still in the Church of England) and he reaches the lines: ‘By Thine agony and bloody sweat, by Thy cross and passion, by Thy precious death and burial, by Thy glorious resurrection and the coming of the Holy Ghost…’
An overwhelming influence erupts. People are suddenly falling on their knees with grief for their sin and crying out for the Lord Jesus Christ.
It is still 1738.
Imagine another scene. A twenty-one year old is walking home from his medical studies near Brecon. He sees someone standing on a tombstone. The man has a bible in his hand and he is preaching powerfully. The preacher’s name is Howell Harris and his words shake that student to his very core.
We are given a glimpse here of three, twenty-something year-old men, who have heard heaven calling; they are about to become God’s primary instruments in the Great Awakening – a spiritual harvest time – where thousands were quickened from spiritual death unto life.
Let me introduce you to that student. His name is William Williams (1717-1791), but in Wales we call him Pantycelyn after his farm in Carmarthenshire. I first met him in my grandfather’s study where there hung a portrait of him. Before engulfing myself in his 800+ hymns for my Masters, I used to think that the author of ‘Bread of heaven’ was a distant and ‘perfect’ Christian; he belonged, and indeed, deserved to be in that frame. I imagined some figure neatly placed on a shelf alongside Moses! This could not have been further from the truth…
Who was he? He was a doctor/farmer/tea-seller/poet/theologian and minister. What a CV! Soon enough, his poetry developed into theologically-charged hymns, articulating the collective and personal experiences of Welsh Christians. As I studied, he was even articulating my own spiritual experiences although he’d been dead for years!
Pantycelyn wasn’t just some speaker, but a preacher. According to Harris: ‘Hell trembles when he comes, and souls are daily taken by brother Williams in the gospel net […] He is indeed a flaming instrument in [God’s] hands…’
This strength was drawn from prayer. Some said that, when he prayed, it was as if they were entering heaven’s vestibule. The cross moved him. This was not emotionalism but an overwhelming relief that his salvation was planned and carried out by God Himself. It was at that cross that Pantycelyn’s sin was nailed ‘not in part but the whole’!
The hymns are intimate in tone; they reveal, or utter, a desire for a closer communion with God; they emphasise that the hymn-writer is the sinner saved by grace and they are always Christ-centred.
Zoom in on the hymns and the Christian is a journeying pilgrim:
A Pilgrim in a desert land
I wander far and wide
Expecting I may sometime come
Close to my Father’s side.
This is a figure that desires a deeper and more intimate knowledge of his Saviour. The pilgrim’s spiritual gaze is constantly fixed on the Second Person of the Trinity, without whom there is NO knowledge of the Father:
I cast my burden when I view
His anguish on the tree;
The enormous load of guilt is turned
To song at Calvary.
This was his personal experience: that guilt-built chain had fallen off him. His utter reliance on grace is highlighted in his view of an ‘all-conquering Jesus’ who is not some pal but a warrior and a lover of the soul who not only woos but conquers:
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.
A young man
Pantycelyn struggled post conversion. He struggled with sin. He was surrounded by a fractured church (even in revival times). He knew that He was saved but felt as if his Saviour was so far away. He experienced doubts and was tempted left, right and centre. Sound familiar?
Some people say that Christians should always be smiling. Personally, I believe that comments like that are unhelpful and unscriptural. Rejoicing in the Lord does not equate to a perpetual grin! Pantycelyn struggled. However, those ‘solid joys and lasting treasures’ could not be shaken off. When you sing ‘Bread of Heaven’ notice the emphasis: ‘I am weak, but thou art mighty/ hold me with thy powerful hand’. All his hymns contrast me/You, I/Him, Williams/Jesus emphasising a necessary relationship but also the fact that we are made strong in Him. It’s this Christ-centeredness that always stands out.
So how did they do it? They didn’t. God did! But did they do anything? We find the answer in James 4:8. ‘Draw near to God and He will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners; and purify your hearts, you double minded.’ What a promise! If with all your heart you truly search for God then you shall find Him (Jeremiah 29:13). God is no liar and Pantycelyn drew on the promises that God could be both known and felt. We can, according to John McArthur, ‘pursue an intimate love relationship with God’. I was challenged by the end of the verse. Have we truly turned away from our sin? If you are saved, remember that we are not only justified but we have also been adopted into God’s family (Ephesians 1:5). The disappointing thing is that I don’t always look like a citizen of Zion. It’s strange when we talk about revival as if it’s just about those bad people out there. Revival begins with us, with me. It’s the living ones that need re-vivification not Wales.
One of Pantycelyn’s greatest works was his role in reconciling Daniel Rowlands and Howell Harris (the two Welsh leaders that fell out). His emphasis on a Christ-centred religion led to a unity in the Gospel, and in 1762, God drew near again…
Perhaps, you’d say, that Heroes of the Faith are not meant to be struggling sinners. Are you disappointed with this article? Personally, I am relieved that Pantycelyn was not some holier-than-thou Welshman sitting on some high-up shelf! The truth is that he was a young Christian who felt his sin and often struggled. However, this was also a man that leant upon a strong Saviour and longed for a closer walk with his God.