Saturday, 4 August 2012

William Williams

In the opening ceremonies of the 2012 Olympic Summer Games in London, all the countries of Great Britain were represented: England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland. If you recall, the children's choir for Wales sang William Williams's hymn, "Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah." I was particularly in tune to hear this song since I had just finished reading Eifion Evans's book, Bread of Heaven: The Life and Work of William Williams, Pantycelyn.

Evans has done a service to scholars like me who cannot read Welsh. Outside of his book, there are only sparse references (in English) to Williams's significance to early evangelicalism. Overall, the book is a very good monograph, but with some significant weaknesses. For me, the first third of the book was the most enjoyable to read because it contained the best contextual information on Williams's background as a farmer, his conversion after hearing a sermon by Howell Harris, and his entrance into the ministry. In the last two-thirds of the monograph, however, there is very little historical information on Williams's life and the division that occurred in the 1750s between Howell Harris, on the one hand, and Daniel Rowland and Williams, on the other. In the latter two-thirds, Evans spends more time looking at Williams's theology, making the case that (unsurprisingly) he was a good Calvinistic Methodist.

While I appreciated the research that no doubt was undertaken for this project, I was disappointed on the minimal contextual information on Williams's hymns, especially his most famous song, "Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah." It is not entirely clear in Evans's book when Williams penned the famous lyrics for this hymn (which he did in Welsh), when Peter Williams translated the first version into English, when W.Williams edited Peter Williams's translation, and when and where the first versions of this hymn came into print. From my own research, I determined that the first English version of "Guide me, O Thou great Jehovah" appeared in 1774 as a "supplement" to the nineteenth edition of George Whitefield's Collection of Hymns for Social Worship, with subsequent publications including the hymn. Perhaps the circumstances of this part of Williams's life could not be ascertained, but because of the significance of the hymn, I wished Evans had showed more of an effort in finding out these details. All criticism aside, this is the best introduction on Williams in English. Readers interested in transatlantic evangelicalism will find Evans's book a helpful entry point on one of the best known Welshmen of the eighteenth century.

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