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Welsh outlook


Vol. 13, No. 4 Apr. 1926

David Williams, 1738-1816

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David Williams, 1738-1816.
By W. Philip Williams, M.A.
DAVID WILLIAMS was born at Watford,
near Caerphilly, 187 years ago, of Dis-
senting parents who had been strongly
influenced by the Methodist Revival.
What more natural, therefore, than that they
should decide to make a preacher of their son,
who accordingly spent four years at the Car-
marthen Dissenting Academy, an institution
which was at this period a hot-bed of Arianism.
After three years as minister at Frome, Somer-
setshire, the young heretic moved to Exeter,
where he imposed a Socinian (i.e., Unitarian)
Liturgy on his congregation; thence, in 1769,
he went to London as pastor of Southwood Lane
Chapel, Highgate, and forthwith plunged into
the political life of the metropolis, a form of
activity which he much preferred to the pulpit,
entered in the first place only from a sense of
filial duty. Before long, under the influence of
David Hume's writings, he completed his reli-
gious evolution, and became a Deist; a con-
summation which made further connection with
his church at Highgate impossible.
The relief with which he resigned his pastorate
was tempered by the fact that he had a newly-
wedded wife to support, so he turned school-
master, establishing a boarding school at
Chelsea, which proved entirely successful,
though he charged a fee of no less than £ 100
per annum. For that time, Williams' concep-
tion of his task as schoolmaster was noble, and
his methods were somewhat original his aim
was to produce good husbands and wives,
good parents, dutiful/ children, affectionate
relations and friends, useful members of com-
munities, and benevolent citizens of the world."
School government he entrusted to the pupils,
who met in general assembly to formulate
rules, which were, when occasion arose, enforced
by trial by jurv. There was no corporal punish-
ment. School work was mainly of a practical
nature, such as globe and map making, and
botanical study in the garden.
He abandoned the school on his wife's death
in 1776, but his interest in education grew
rather than waned with the years. At a later
date he delivered a series of lectures on the
subject, which were published in three volumes
in 1789. As a political philosopher, he came to
the conclusion that education alone would secure
political freedom for the individual (he was
writing in the days of the property qualification
and of rotten boroughs) and happiness for
humanity at large.
Meanwhile, he had become acquainted with
Benjamin Franklin; and, with eleven other
Deists, they established a Thirteen Club for
philosophical discussion. They further decided
to meet on Sundays for worship; and being dis-
satisfied with all existing liturgies, they com-
missioned Franklin and Williams to draw up a
new one. The-flatter displayed such zeal and
invention in the discharge of the mandate that
his admiring coadjutor dubbed him The Priest
of Nature."
Increasing tension between the Mother Country
and the American Colonies compelled Franklin to
return home in 1775. The following year
Williams, who had evidently developed the
Liturgy still further, published it as the "Liturgy
on the Universal Principles of Religion and
Morality," the following extract from which is
typical of the whole:-
MINISTER: 0 God, the Father of All Man-
kind, may Thy pure worship prevail
throughout the world; may wisdom and
goodness, liberty and peace, charity and
happiness everywhere abound, and Thy
Kingdom of Truth and Righteousness be
extended through the whole earth.
PEOPLE: We have all one Father, and one
God hath created us.
The author intended it for the use so he ex-
plained, of all who acknowledged the existence
of God, believed in the immortality of the soul,
and recognised the utility of public prayer and
praise otherwise, beyond stressing the necessity
for brotherhood and philanthropy, nice points of
doctrine were left to the individual conscience.
For the next four years Williams delivered
lectures on religion and morality to a score or so
of friends every Sunday morning, most of which
were published in 1779 under the title of
Lectures on the Universal Principles and
Duties of Religion and Morality."
Theophilanthropy attracted little attention in
England outside the author's immediate circle,
though it is interesting to note that Iolo
Morganwg, who considered David Williams his
good friend, and probably attended some of his
lectures, became a convert but on the Continent
both Frederick the Great of Prussia and the
French philosopher, Voltaire, who was better
qualified to act as judge, approved of the Liturgy
which was its foundation. "It is a great comfort
to me," wrote the great Frenchman, at the age
of eighty-two years, to see toleration openly
taught and asserted in your country, and the
God of all mankind no longer pent up in a narrow
tract of land. That noble truth was worthy of
your pen and your tongue. I am, with all my
heart, one of your followers and of your
admirers." The Prussian king's approval was
instrumental in getting it translated into German
in France, Voltaire's praise so popularised it that
during the Directory period 1795-1799, when,
at the end of the Reign of Terror, the Girondists
recovered the reins of power, Theophilanthropy
was adopted bv the elite of the nation." The
French, having abolished the Catholic Church,
and seemingly finding little satisfaction in the
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