Peter Williams (1723- 1796)

It is often said that any persons who cannot accept the Trinity doctrine, common to Catholicism, Orthodox and most denominations, are not Christian. Since even before Nicea (325AD) however, there have always been outspoken individuals who rejected it as unscriptural, and often suffered for it. In the eighteenth century, a time of ferment in the history of Welsh faith, such a man was Peter Williams.

In addition, Peter Williams knew that Bibles were financially beyond the reach of most families and that, in any event, Welsh Bibles were virtually unobtainable. He was also aware that his own fervor for spiritual knowledge was shared by increasing numbers of the ordinary people of Wales, but that the copyright for publication of the Bible was held by the Universities of Oxford and Cambridge, which made accessibility even more difficult..

However, the copyright would not extend to a Bible with included annotations. By producing a Welsh-language Bible with his summarising commentary added to the end of each chapter, Williams was not only able to obtain copyright, but he could also bring the scriptures to the common people of Wales in their own tongue. Williams also recognised the poverty of most of his countrymen and made his Bible available to them by printing and issuing it over four years in fifteen periodical parts costing one shilling each.  Some eight thousand six hundred copies of Williams’s Bible found their way into Welsh homes between 1767 and 1770, and by May 1770, the completed work had been delivered to the publisher. Lloyd’s History of Carmarthenshire says, “He benefited his countrymen, beyond any measure of words, by the issue of his family Bible” and goes on to state that “it was the first Welsh Bible published in Wales itself, and the first published with notes on every chapter. Among other merits, it undoubtedly became an auxiliary to the preservation of the Welsh language”.

During his lifetime, over eighteen thousand copies of the Peter Williams Bible were published in three editions of octavo, which sold at £2.5s.0d and one of quarto, complete with concordance and annotation. Lloyd describes the notes as “brief, pithy, and devotional in character; they were written in a simple homely idiom”. The year 1770 also saw the publication of his Trysorfa Gwybodaeth – Treasury of Knowledge, the first Welsh periodical. However, due to lack of support it was a short-lived affair of some fifteen issues only, but his Bible remained in print for many years. The evidence shows that there were thirty-eight issues made between the years of 1770 and 1895 from various publishing houses. Williams was also responsible for the translation and publication of several English works into his native tongue.

The following article has been reproduced from a Biographical Dictionary published in 1850.

Peter Williams, of Llandyfaelog, Carmarthen, was one of the fathers of Methodism, though the movement had been in the field some eight or ten years before he joined it. Through his conspicuous abilities and earnest efforts, he quickly rose to the front rank of those who laboured for its spread, through preaching the Gospel and seeking the overthrow of the prevailing ‘low and wicked habits of the people’. In many parts both of North and South Wales, he acted the part of a pioneer. As he had no personal charge, he was able to travel hither and thither continually, and make even long excursions. In his early visits to several districts, he suffered most severely at the hands of fierce persecutors. Let two or three instances suffice, one at Llanrwst, North Wales, and one at Kidwelly, South Wales, a few miles from his own home.

In the year 1746, he visited Llanrwst, purposing to preach near the Town Hall. When he began, a young woman pelted him with rotten eggs, until his clothes were in a pitiful condition. She only desisted when she observed a near relative of hers standing by his side, and that some of the eggs hit him. When she ceased her game, a number of rough men seized him and took him to the river, where, whilst some held up his arms, others poured water down the sleeves of his coat. As the weather was frosty, his life was endangered through the drenching he thus got.
Were it not for the deliverance brought him through the interference of a strong man who happened to be passing at the time, no doubt his life would have been in greatest peril. This stranger compelled the ruffians to desist from their in-human work, and took Mr. Williams to his own house, where he had every comfort for the night, and on the morrow he accompanied him for three miles on his journey, so as to make sure of his safety.

At Kidwelly, he stood up one Sabbath afternoon, on a horse-block near the house of one John Rees, to preach. Upon this, a number of men, primed with drink by the clergyman of the parish, they appeared on the scene for the purpose of disturbing the service. They were headed by a man named Daio Goch, and another. Mr. Williams had read a chapter from the Bible, and was about to lead in prayer, when this ruffian jumped at him, seized the Bible, and drew Mr. Williams from the horse-block on which he stood. They beat him mercilessly with sticks, and, having placed him on his horse, drove him along the marsh, compelling the horse to jump across broad and deep gullies, expecting that the horse would break its legs, and the rider his neck. They then took him to the tavern, and, if possible, compel him to drink and make him drunk, in the hope of bringing him into contempt. They got the drink, but he managed to pour it into his top boots secretly, until they were full.

Seeing that he was late in returning home, his wife sent a number of servants in quest of him. Through their timely arrival, he was delivered from the hands of the barbarians. These are but typical instances of the treatment he suffered many a time at the hands of the enemies of the Gospel, as preached by the little band of Methodist preachers in Wales.

His usual course was to suffer quietly the severest treatment and that without having recourse to the revenge of the law of the land. But on one occasion when he had returned home, and related to his friends how he had been maltreated at Denbigh and his pockets moreover rifled of what money he had, it was resolved to appeal to the law. The chief opponents in this case, eight in number, were summoned to appear in London to stand trial. One of the eight was the son of a most respectable family in the neighbourhood, and was able to secure the best legal advocate. The eight however were found guilty, and were proclaimed outlaws. Some of them it is said, died soon after of despondency; others withdrew from ordinary society and no more was heard of them.

The wealthy young man was in exile until his relatives ‘purchased’ his freedom, when he returned to the protection of the laws of his country. The action of the Court in London in this case, exercised an abiding influence for good on the treatment which the Methodist preachers received. For some years, however, Peter Williams quietly endured most inhuman treatment at the hands of the enemies of the Gospel.

Apart from the persecution which he and his co-workers suffered, it must be remembered that he had to put up with much hardship in the form of poor accommodation and fare. When starting forth upon his itinerancy, at the beginning of his labours, he had no fixed plan as to where he would preach, and no idea whose hospitality he should receive. All was uncertainty and he knew not whether he should be welcomed or rejected and reviled.

He was born in a farm house named Westmarsh, near Laugharne, Carmarthenshire, January 7th, 1722. His parents were respectable people. Peter was the eldest of three children, two boys and one girl, and was a great favourite with his mother, who frequently took him with her to Llanddowror church on Sundays to hear the renowned Rev. Griffith Jones preach. Her intention was that he should be trained for the ministry. But she died suddenly, when Peter was only eleven years of age. His father also died the following year. A complete change therefore took place in his environment. He was taken by his uncle, his mother’s brother, to live with him.

From a lad he was fond of reading, and took but little interest in the games of the youths of his district. His studies occupied all his thoughts and he made considerable progress in the acquisition of knowledge. When seventeen years of age he entered Carmarthen Grammar School, then under the charge of the Rev. Thomas Einion. He remained there three years, paying special attention to the Classics. During this period he began to be deeply concerned about his spiritual welfare, but his thoughts concerning the essentials of religion were vague.

Just then George Whitfield visited Carmarthen. When it was known that he was coming, Mr. Einion prohibited his scholars from attending the service. Peter, however, and three of his fellow students, managed to be present, attracted by the great fame of the preacher, and the excitement which his proposed visit awakened in the town. The doctrines of the fall of man, and the necessity of regeneration by the Spirit of God and justification by faith to which Whitfield gave prominence in his preaching, were distasteful to the Clergy. The service was blessed to Peter’s soul. It was for him the beginning of a new life. From this time forth he was a Methodist in spirit, though he did not join the Methodists at once. Indeed, there was no Methodist society in the town which he could join, but he was recognized as a Methodist and was forsaken by his former companions.

When about twenty-one years of age, he left the College, and opened a school at Cwnwyl Elfed, a village about five miles from Carmarthen, on the road to Newcastle Emlyn. At the same time he carried on his preparation for Holy Orders in the Established Church. In this he was successful, and was ordained by Bishop Burgess, of St. David’s, to the curacy of Cymmun, a parish on the borders of Carmarthenshire and Pembrokeshire, where he had the whole charge of the parish, as the rector lived in England, and visited the district but once a year, to receive the tithe-rent. Shortly after entering upon his duties, he started a prayer-meeting., which was held in various places in the parish.

At these he usually gave a brief address, seeking to stir up the people to a new and holy life. His efforts of this kind soon awakened a suspicion in the minds of the people of his Methodist sympathies, especially as he sought to repress some popish practices customary in the district in connection with funerals. The suspicion was confirmed in that he dared one Sabbath morning to reprove sharply a number of young men who behaved in an unseemly manner at the church service. This drew down, upon him the wrath of the gentry.

The rector’s wife happened to be present at the service and informed her husband of what had taken place. And, notwithstanding the blamelessness of his character, the faithfulness of his preaching, and his efforts for the moral and spiritual welfare of the people, he was summarily dismissed.

He appealed to the bishop, but from him he received scant courtesy. In his hour of need, the Rev. Griffith Jones proved to him a true friend, and informed him of a curacy that was vacant at Swansea, which he secured. But his stay there was short, as he gave offence to the Mayor, Corporation, and Member of Parliament for Swansea, who were present in Church one Sabbath morning.

On that occasion he presumed to deliver a sermon, whilst these officials had not been accustomed to any such thing, and he actually presumed to lecture the authorities upon their duties. His presumption cost him his post. He was at Swansea only one month. He then obtained a curacy at Llangrannog and Llantysilio, Cardiganshire. But his stay here again only lasted two months, his Methodist proclivities giving great offence to his patron. Upon this he resolved to quit the Establishment, and seek his sphere of work as a preacher of the Gospel with the Methodists. This, took place when he was about twenty-four years of age. First of all he went to a service conducted by the Rev. Howel Davies, at Castell-y-gwair. Mr. Davies on the morrow took him to a Monthly Association held somewhere on the borders of Pembrokeshire. Here his name was written as a member of the Methodist body. Shortly after he went to Abergorlech Chapel to hear Daniel Rowland, who made him preach, and after the service took him to Llangeitho, where he again preached with much fervour and success. He then went on his first itinerancy through what was at that time an almost untrodden territory by the pioneers of Methodism.

Such an enterprise involved him in many hardships and much danger. He had but little welcome anywhere, and in some places he had to escape for his life, for his opponents were numerous and fierce. He passed through Montgomeryshire, Carnarvonshire and Anglesea. He paid a visit to Anglesea in 1746. It appears that he was on this journey persecuted at Llanerchymedd. At Mynydd Mechell, the clergyman of the parish, a schoolfellow of his, said to him, “Ffei! Ffei! Peter! How can you dare to preach on unconsecrated ground.” Peter replied, “Forgive me my ignorance, I am under the impression that the whole earth has been consecrated since the first day the Saviour of sinners placed His feet thereon.” At Newborough, the vicar and his clerk and servants came to him when he was in the middle of his sermon and asked him for his license to preach. In reply Peter lifted up the Bible and said “Here is my license to preach the Gospel, and it is signed by three persons, the Father and the Son and the Holy Ghost.” The clerk and the servants had brought their pockets full of cockle shells to throw at the preacher, but the vicar prevented them from carrying forth their design. He returned through Denbighshire, and had a rough experience, sufficient, one would think, to damp his ardour, and lead him to break with the movement which he had so recently joined. But his hardships only served to weld him more firmly with the noble men who yearned to enrich the country with the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and sweep away the evils that were rife.

Upon his return, it became a question where should he reside. Ultimately he settled upon Llandyfaelog, about five miles distant from Carmarthen, on the Kidwelly road. Here he dwelt at a farm called Gellilednais, to the end of his life, except during a brief period, when he resided in the town of Carmarthen.

After casting his lot with the Methodists, he at once took a high position among the brethren. His intellectual powers, his learning, his unceasing labours, his undoubted piety, and his clerical orders contributed to this end. The main points of his preaching were the fall of man in Adam, his helplessness in himself, and his restoration through Christ. At the time he joined the Methodists, the unfortunate dispute between Rowland and Harris, which ended in a complete rupture between these two leaders, and in a wide cleavage between them and their respective followers, had not begun. Though he attended some of the Association meetings at which rather warm debates took place, he, apparently abstained from taking part in the discussion. Possibly, he considered that it would ill become him, a newcomer into the circle, to take sides in the matter. So far as he spoke, it was, so far as is known, for peace. However, when the cleavage took place, he co-operated with Rowland and his party. By the time the two leaders became reconciled, after a separation of about eighteen years, Mr. Williams was in the front rank of the leaders. Throughout this period he made frequent itinerancies, confirming the believers and seeking the conversion of the ungodly. He was physically, mentally and spiritually eminently qualified for the work. It seemed as if he were specially prepared for it. At the peril of his life and at the cost of much hardship as has been said he acted the part of a pioneer in many a district. He was instrumental in founding many a church. At Carmarthen, in a great degree at his own expense, he built the Water Street Chapel.

The work he did for Methodism and his country through the Press was important, especially, through the Bible with notes at the end of each chapter, which he prepared and published, and is known as Peter Williams’ Bible. This was the beginning of a new epoch in Welsh literature, and exercised a deep and wide spread influence upon the religious welfare of many. It was widely circulated and widely read. Eight thousand copies of it were sold, and this at a time when the population of Wales was not a third of what it is to-day, and the families of Methodism were in the main poor. It became a great success, and successive editions were published. It
was looked upon as a household treasure in religious families, the notes being looked at by many as almost equally inspired with the text itself. He also prepared and published a Biblical Concordance, which must have entailed upon him immense labour, and proved of much service to Biblical students. In 1770 also, he published the first Welsh periodical magazine, entitled ” Trysorfa Gwybodaeth, neu yr Eurgrawn Cymraeg.” It was issued fortnightly, and its price three pence. He also edited and published in Welsh an edition of John Canne’s Bible.

But whilst he created a new epoch in Welsh literature, he brought upon himself much worry and painful trouble through certain expressions in his expository notes regarding the Holy Trinity. His so-called heresy became a topic of discussion at several Quarterly Associations. His views were considered to be rank Sandemanian. And at an Association held at Llanidloes in 1791, it was resolved that he should no longer be considered a minister of the Connexion unless he would retract his views, and promise that he would no more teach them. Retract and promise accordingly he would not, so at the following Association held at Llandeilo, he was finally expelled, though he occasionally afterwards preached in Methodist chapels. It is not for us to enter upon the discussion between Mr. Williams and his friends. Suffice it to say, that there were those who were opposed to drastic measures being taken against him, though it must be admitted that his views on the Sonship of Christ and the Holy Trinity were utterly opposed to those accepted and taught by the Connexion. It was a sad affair, and caused much grief to many. The end of his life was not far off, for, at the time of his expulsion, he was 71 years of age. It is most painful to think that one who had been so pure in life, so faithful and successful a labourer in the Lord’s vineyard for so long a time, and had suffered so much through his work, should be sent adrift in his old age.

It should be recorded that shortly after he settled at Gellilednais, Llandyfaelog, he married Miss Mary Jenkins, the daughter of a gentleman who lived near Llanlluan, not far away from his own home. He had six children three sons and three daughters, the daughters were Deborah, Margaret and Betty. Two of his sons, Eliezer, and Peter Bayley, became clergymen of the Church of England, his son John died when young. One of the daughters married Mr. David Humphreys, the father of the Rev. David Humphreys, Llandyfaelog, and grandfather of Mrs. R. J. Davies, Cwrtmawr, Cardiganshire.

He died August 8th, 1796, aged 73 years, and was buried in Llandyfaelog churchyard.

Source: “Biographical Dictionary of Ministers and Preachers of the Welsh Calvinistic Methodist Body or Presbyterians of Wales: from the start of the denomination to the close of the year 1850” BY REV. JOSEPH EVANS, DENBIGH. (P.318)

“The Reverend Peter Williams- An abridged History” (1996) by Mr J Douglas Davies

Photograph: : with thanks

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