William Williams (1717-1791) was concerned over the obvious lack of good hymns in Welsh. This constituted a continual challenge to produce better ones, which this enthusiastic Welshman did to such effect that he became known as the “Welsh Watts” and the “sweet singer of Wales.” He wrote this hymn in Welsh, and it appeared in his Alleluia in 1745 under the title “Strength to Pass Through the Wilderness.” It was translated into English by Williams’s friend Peter Williams and was printed in his Hymns on Various Subjects, 1771, using stanzas 1, 3, and 5 of the original hymn. William Williams being bilingual, then made his own translation; this appeared first in leaflet form and then in 1772 in Collection of Hymns Sung in the Countess of Huntingdon’s Chapels. Both the SDAH and CH use Peter’s translation of stanza 1 and Williams’s own translation of stanzas 2 and 3.
The hymn likens the Christian life to the march of the Israelites through the wilderness of Sinai to the Promised Land of Canaan, let by a powerful God who provided for their sustenance.
William Williams was born on February 11, 1717, at Cefn-y-Coed, northeast of Llandovery, in what was then the county of Carmarthen. The son of a wealthy farmer, he intended to study medicine at the Llwynllwyd Academy in Carmarthen. But he forsook this goal after hearing Howell Harris, one of George Whitefield’s preachers, at one of his open-air meetings. Williams dedicated himself to the ministry and was ordained deacon in the Established Church in 1740. He served as curate in the small villages of Llanwrtyd and Abergwesyn, near Llandovery. However, his evangelistic views prevented him from further progress in that church. He joined the Calvinistic Methodists and became an itinerant preacher, traveling extensively in his native Wales and covering about 3,000 miles (4,800 km) a year. Harris encouraged him to write hymns, and his first book Alleluia was so successful that he continued until he had written more than 800 hymns in Welsh and more than 100 in English. He also wrote two long poems, some tracts, and many elegies. After more than 45 years of preaching, he died at Pantycelyn, near Llandovery, on January 11, 1791.
Peter Williams was born on January 7, 1722, at Llansadurnin, a small town near the inlet into Carmarthen Bay. He was educated at the Grammar School in Carmarthen and while there was converted by George Whitefield. He trained for the ministry and was ordained in 1744, serving first as curate at Eglwys Cymmyn, where he founded a school. However, being too vehement in his preaching to suit the staid established church, in 1746 he left the Church of England and joined the Welsh Calvinistic Methodists. He became an itinerant preacher, fervent and eloquent, but because of a charge of heresy, was expelled from the Methodists. So he built a chapel of his own in Carmarthen and continued preaching there until his death on August 8, 1790, at Llandyfeilog, Wales. From 1767 to 1770 he published a family edition of the Welsh Bible with a commentary, and with a concordance in 1773. He also published a Welsh hymnbook in 1759, and his Hymns on Various Subjects in 1771.
SDAH sets the words of this hymn to the tune CWM RHONDDA by John Hughes (1873-1932). CWM RHONDDA is one of the most used of the great Welsh tunes, and has been very popular in America. Cwm is Welsh for valley, and Rhondda is the name of a river that runs through the heart of the coal-mining area of south Wales. The tune was written by John Hughes for a Baptist singing festival held at Capel Rhondda, Pontypridd, Wales, about 1905. The Welsh name for the hymn singing festival is Cymanfa Ganu; it is still a much-loved event in Wales, United States, and Canada.
John Hughes was born November 22, 1873, at Dowlais, Wales, but in his first year his parents moved to the mining village of Llantwitfardre, south of Pontypridd in Glamorganshire. Here he spent his life, and followed his father as deacon and precentor (leader of the singing). Even though he had no formal music training that we know of, his natural musical gift resulted in the writing of several hymn tunes, anthems, and Sunday school songs. He died on May 14, 1932.
CH sets the words of this hymn to the tune CAERSALEM. That tune appeared in leaflet form in 1837 and owes its preservation to a kind deed. The composer, Robert Edwards (1797-1862), a precentor at the Bedford Street Calvinistic Methodist church, Liverpool, was ill, and the manuscript was discovered in his desk. Unknown to him, the choir practiced it, and sang it as a surprise to him when he had recovered from his illness. Lines 3 and 4 are an exact repetition of lines 1 and 2.
BAdapted from Companion to the Seventh-day Adventist Hymnal by Wayne Hooper and Edward E. White, 1987, pp. 511, 512, and 249; and Singing With Understanding by Edward E. White, 1968, p. 288.