(known familiarly as ‘Billy’), b Llanfair-ar-y-Bryn, nr Llandovery, Carmarthen, S Wales 1717, d Pantycelyn nr Llandovery, Carmarthenshire 1791. Born into a farming household which was soon fatherless, he grew up at an inherited farm at Pantycelyn which became the family home and later, his identifying name in the Welsh tradition. In the poetry of R S Thomas ‘Singing Pantycelyn’ means ‘Singing the hymns of William Williams’ (as in Border Blues c1958). The family attended the Cefnarthen chapel before transferring to an independent Calvinist group. In 1737 he came to the Llwyn-llwyd Dissenting Academy at Chancefield, intending to become a doctor. His medical studies were broken off after 1738 when he heard Howell Harris preach in the nearby Talgarth churchyard; he became a believer, and soon sensed the call of God to Christian service. He was ordained at Abergwili as an Anglican in 1740 and for 3 years ministered with growing unease as a curate at Llanwrtyd near his home. His vicar was a bitter opponent of this new ‘Methodism’. In 1742–3 he was charged with various technical offences against church law and refused full ordination (as presbyter) by an unsympathetic bishop. This was a clear signal for him to join the Calvinistic Methodists, and after a period of teaching at Llansawel to begin a 50-year evangelical ministry which covered well over 100,000 miles, mainly on horseback, and in fellowship with Harris and Daniel Rowland of Llangeitho. But first he married the gifted and musical Mary Francis; the newlyweds settled into Pantycelyn and the pioneering Mary taught him the blessings of tea. He became an enthusiast for this rapidly growing product, buying it by the chestful to use or sell to friends. His hymnwriting may have been prompted by a copy of George Wither’s 1641 book, but according to Thos Charles, it began at Harris’s suggestion in 1743 Members of a small praying group were urged to compose some verses, since Wales needed a Charles Wesley of its own. Williams’ contribution was so well-received that he was urged to write more. But this story ‘is shot through with problems’—Alan Luff. At any rate, from 1744–47 WW’s 6-part collection Hallelujah was issued in Bristol, to be followed by others including Hosannah to the Son of David, or Hymns of Praise to God (1751–54), Gloria in Excelsis, or Hymns of Praise to God and the Lamb (with prayers, poems and further Welsh hymns, 1772), and The Songs of those upon the Sea of Glass: a book ‘which seemed able to produce a revival wherever it was introduced’—AL. Many lines came to him at night; he always went to bed well-prepared with writing materials to hand.
In all he wrote some 850 hymns, most in Welsh. In 1811, some time after his death, his son John published a complete collection. Martyn Lloyd-Jones said in 1968 that Williams combined the merits of Watts and Wesley; ‘that is why I put him in a category entirely on his own’. Faith Cook calls him the ‘poet of the revival’; in Our Hymn Writers and their Hymns (2005) she provides further details including his 4 guidelines for hymnwriters (p133–4). He is widely celebrated as ‘the sweet singer of Wales’. Williams has more references than anyone else in Alan Luff’s Welsh Hymns and their Tunes (1990; notably pp93–103, and ‘it is his voice that lives on’). In 1991 R Brinley Jones published Songs of PraisesThe Experience Meeting to guide leaders and pastors in times of great spiritual advances and dangers. At the start of the 21st cent, the 7th generation of the family to be active in Christian service was working in the area. Nos.309, 702, 868*, 898.