Aled Gwyn Job
Every nation seeks to celebrate its own particular genius in various ways, and utilise those celebrations to re-affirm its nationhood, and proclaim its own unique contribution to the world.
Wales has plenty of its own and we’ve just set up a petition calling on the Welsh Government to recognise one of the greatest of them all.
It’s a shame that in this Year of Legends the Welsh Government has found £400,000 to shell out on the iron ring celebrating Edward I’s subjugation of Wales, but have not celebrated a true genius.
Many readers will perhaps be completely unaware of the fact that this year is the tricentenary of William Williams, Pantycelyn (1717-2017): the hymnist, poet, author, preacher, traveller and organizer from Llandymddyfri, Carmarthenshire.
But you will be familiar with Pantycelyn’s work, whether you recognise his name or not. Guide me Oh Thy Great Jehovah, the English language translation of one of Williams’s most famous Welsh hymns, can often be heard ringing around the Millennium Stadium whenever Welsh fans are gathered together
Williams was not only a creative genius but a key figure in the process of rebuilding Wales as a modern nation which began in the 18th century.
He was a pivotal figure in the Welsh Methodist revivals in that century, which eventually led to the creation of the first national Welsh institution for 400 years, in the form of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists of 1811.
This initiative, in turn, led to a host of further educational and cultural developments, which saw Wales becoming the most literate nation in the whole of Europe by the middle of the 19th century.
William Williams, or as he is affectionally remembered in Wales, “Pantycelyn” (after the name of the family farm) can truly be identified as a genius when one considers his vast literary output and his outstanding contribution to Welsh life during his lifetime.
He wrote over 900 hymns and 90 literary works, expanding the range of the Welsh language in new and innovative ways.
The dense and heavy Welsh language used in the Welsh translation of the Bible in 1588, evolved into an altogether more fluid and modern language by means of Williams’s prolific pen, with his work drawing heavily on the everyday language used by ordinary Welsh men and women in his native Carmarthenshire.
Williams wanted to replace the cold, superficial and distant religion practiced by the Established Church, with a new and vibrant faith tradition that would better serve the people of Wales.
He was instrumental in a series of revivals during the 18th century when thousands of Welsh people embraced that new faith tradition, Methodism.
He was the first author to write in Welsh about the evils of slavery in America. His “Cyfarwyddwr Priodas” (The Marriage Director) 1777, was also groundbreaking in his insistence that women should be treated as the complete equal of men within marriage.
Williams was also intimately familiar with the scientific and psychological developments within the new Age of Enlightenment. His vast library at Pantycelyn displayed his familiarity with pioneers such as Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and Isaac Newton, and such knowledge features strongly in his work.
His epic 6,000-line poem “Golwg ar Deyrnas Crist” (A view of the Kingdom), of 1756 features a truly wonderful depiction of the planetary system, followed by a detailed and imaginative description of the range of different creatures which inhabit God’s creation.
His “Drws y Society Profiad” (A glimpse of the Society) 1777, described the new Seiat meetings he helped to set up all over Wales, which enabled the new believers to meet and develop their faith.
These were the small and intimate cells which would eventually develop into hundreds of chapel buildings in communities all over Wales.
Williams, who had started training to be a medical doctor, eventually became a doctor of souls for Welsh men and women all over the country.
We all know that one of the main challenges that has faced the Welsh nation over the years is to reconcile our national differences, be those of language, geography or politics.
In his own way, William Williams was a forerunner of this new search for national unity. For forty unbroken years, Williams traversed north, south, east and west in all seasons and all weather on his trusty horse, Bess, to evangelise and organize.
By his own estimation, Williams travelled around 2,000 miles a year around Wales for 40 years with his work. That equates to travelling around the world a staggering 4 times!
There’s a wonderful story of Williams coming up to Llangefni on Ynys Môn in the 1750ies and staying at the Bull hotel on the square in the town. A gang of men were rustled up by the local squire to teach the “sowthyn bach” a lesson he wouldn’t forget.
They assembled outside, demanding that he came down to face their wrath. Fortunately, Mali, Williams’s wife was with him (she often accompanied him on his travels). She was an accomplished harpist and she went down to play the harp in front of the men. They were entranced with her playing and ended up singing one of Williams’s hymns in front of the Bull Hotel!
A national figure
The Presbyterian Church of Wales have staged several events this year to mark the tricentenary of Williams Williams’s birth. They rightly regard him as an icon of the faith tradition in Wales.
But, it’s also right that Williams be commemorated as a national figure of importance, as a key player in the national story of Wales. You don’t have to be religious or belong to any faith tradition to recognise that this genius of a man “Y Per Ganiedydd” (The Sweet Songster) played a huge part in the emergence of Wales as a modern nation
It is scandalous that the Welsh Government have done nothing at all thus far to acknowledge his immense contribution to Welsh life. It just displays once again how the dead hand of Welsh Labour impoverishes Wales, not only economically and socially, but also spiritually.
Tim Hodgins of Port Talbot and myself have just launched a petition to call on the Welsh Government to commemorate William Williams in an appropriate fashion before the end of the year.
Our government spent not an inconsiderable amount of money to commemorate Roald Dahl last year and Dylan Thomas in 2015. With due respect to both authors, their contribution to Welsh national life fades into insignificance compared to William Williams, Pantycelyn.
The petition is online in both Welsh and English, and will be available in a paper format at the National Eisteddfod on Ynys Mon next week.
If we can amass 5,000 signatures by September 11, a debate about this petition will then be held at the Senedd in September.
Here’s a thought for Ken Skates to ponder as part of his consultation: why not transfer the £400,000 earmarked for the “Iron Ring” to commission a Welsh sculptor/artist to design a glorious piece of art at Llanymddyfri to commemorate Pantycelyn?
How about commemorating and celebrating someone who developed our national story and took it to new and unimagined heights instead of someone who strove to choke that national story out of existence?