William Williams

Aria W. Zeitler

“Guide Me, Oh Thou Great Jehovah”

Praeludium & Fuga in Eb from “Ariadne Musica” J.C.F. Fischer (1656-1746)

William Williams (1717-1791) is generally considered to be Wales’ most famous hymn writer. As a writer of both poetry and prose, Williams is today considered one of Wale’s greatest literary figures. He was equally distinguished as one of the key leaders of the 18th century Welsh Methodist revival.

Williams originally intended to become a doctor, but in 1737 he heard Howell Harris preach and set his heart on the ministry. (Howell Harris (1714-1773) was more or less the Welsh counterpart to Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) here in the colonies — Edwards, president of Princeton University, is best known for his sermon “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”). Williams was ordained an Anglican deacon in 1740, but in 1742 he became involved with the Methodist movement and disapproving parishioners reported his activities to the Archdeacon’s Court. In 1743 his application for ordination was denied (“Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Methodist movement?”). His choice was between a comfortable but conformist career in the Anglican Church or the hard and impoverished path of an itinerant Methodist preacher. He chose the latter path.

Taking all of Wales as his parish, Williams traveled on horseback almost 100,000 miles in 43 years, preaching and singing the gospel in the Welsh language. (That averages to about 6 miles of travel a day. Horses walk about 4 miles an hour, so he spent on average about 1.5 hours every day on horseback, not to mention the interminable Ye Motel Six’s and the other boundless joys of being “on the [dirt] road” in the 18th century.) He died peacefully at age 74.

Williams was a persuasive preacher, and his hymns were quite influential. He wrote about 800 of them, earning him the moniker “The Isaac Watts of Wales.” (Isaac Watts wrote hymns a century earlier in England.)

When published in 1745, Williams’ original title for “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah” was “Strength to Pass Through the Wilderness.” Originally written in Welsh, it has been translated into over seventy languages.