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Isaac Williams Biography

Who was Isaac Williams?

A Reverend, Isaac Williams is well known among certain circles but his works are still unknown to the world at large. His name appears alongside that of John Keeble and other prominent Tractarians as he was a celebrated member of The Oxford Movement. An author as well as a poet, he was also famous for his Tract: On Reserve in Communicating Religious Knowledge.

Early Life 

Isaac Williams was born on 12th of December, 1802 to Isaac Llyod Williams and Anne in Cwmcynfelyn, Cardiganshire. His father was a Chancery Barrister at Lincoln’s Inn which required him to stay away for work for months at length. Williams spent his early childhood in Bloomsbury, London and later went to Harrow.

This is when he became aware of his ability to be proficient in Latin and fell in love with composition. He describes his time at Harrow as ‘filled with happiness and warmth’ and the memories made here were something he carried on with him for the rest of his life.

Isaac Williams
Isaac Williams

By the time Cwmcynfelyn had turned from a vacation house to a permanent home, Williams had begun his studies at the Trinity College, Oxford. This was when he first made the acquaintance of John Keble who would eventually become his idol.

Their acquaintance seemed short-lived until Williams won the Latin verses prize for a poem on ‘Ars Geologica’ after which John Keble made it a point to visit him for the same. Williams mentions in his autobiographical account that the turning point of his life was when Keble told him that he was leaving Oxford and asked if he wanted to come with him.

During this time, Isaac fell ill due to overworking and had to content himself with a pass degree instead of a first-class which he was aiming for under Keble’s tutelage.  He went on to do his M.A in 1831 and B.D in 1839. In the meantime, he was appointed as a deacon at the curacy of Sherborne. Williams thought so highly of Keble that he’d write a sermon but would end up preaching one of Keble’s.

The Oxford Movement and Williams

His academic career soared with a Fellowship at Trinity College and a resident tutorship in philosophy soon after. This path led him to become a rhetoric lecturer and eventually the Vice-President of his college.

Meanwhile, just like Keble, he became quite fond of John Henry Newman and was later ordained as the curate to him at St. Mary, Oxford. This is when he had his first attack of asthma which stayed with him for the rest of his life.

The religious revival of the Church of England, that is the Oxford Movement, advocated reinstatement of some older Christian Traditions and Newman as well as Williams were prominent members of the Movement. It is popularly known as the Tractarianism after a series of publications called the ‘Tract for the Times’ to which Williams had a significant contribution. His Tracts not only made him popular among the members but also invited animosity from some.

His kinship with Newman, Keble and Froude led to them publishing work together called ‘Lyra Apostolica’ which had his verses as well as translations. With the news of Keble’s retirement in 1841, it was only natural for Williams to succeed him as the next Chair of poetry at Oxford.

But it did not go as planned. Unfortunate arguments with people he was close to led him to withdraw from the position and someone else was appointed. The bitter incident carved a wound so deep in Williams’ heart that he resigned from his position at Oxford and left to live a quiet life. Do read about some other famous Victorians.

Collected Works of Isaac Williams

About thirty-seven works are accredited to Williams including ‘Thoughts in past years’ (1838), ‘Hymns translated from the Parisian Breviary’ (1839), A Sermon [on Rev. xxi, 2-3] preached at the consecration of the Church of Llangorwen, (1841), ‘The Gospel narrative of Our Lord’s Ministry’ (1848, 1849), A Harmony of the Four Evangelists (1850) and other similar ones.

Later life of Isaac Williams

After his withdrawal from public life, he got married to Caroline Champernowne in 1842 and became a father to seven children. In Dartington, he worked as the curate to his lifelong friend Thomas Keble. He moved to Dursley later in 1848 and lived there till his death in 1865.

Today, a stained glass window stands in his memory at the Trinity College Chapel – a place he dedicated his school and professional life to; a place he worshipped.