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"'O'er the Gloomy Hills of Darkness'", also titled "'O'er Those Gloomy Hills of Darkness'", is a Welsh Christian hymn by William Williams Pantycelyn written in 1772. The hymn was written as a missionary hymn; there are conflicting accounts of why the hymn was written. The hymn was later published in 374 hymnals worldwide, though it was censored and altered in the United States by slaveholders for evangelising to slaves. The hymn later fell out of favour with hymn book editors in the 1960s.
There are conflicting accounts of why the hymn was written. According to one account, George Bowen was converted to Christianity through hearing a Welsh girl singing hymns. He later went to stay at Llwyn-Gwair Manor at the same time that the Welsh Methodist Association were there. While there, he met Williams and asked him to compose some verse about the Preseli Hills. "O'er the Gloomy Hills of Darkness" was written as a result of these requests. Though it is possible that this story may be correct as Llwyn-Gwair Manor and Williams' bedroom at the manor did overlook Carn Igli, in the 19th century an alternative story arose. In this version, Williams was travelling to Pontrhydyfen and composing a new missionary hymn as part of a commission from Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon. Upon passing the ruins of an old Cistercian abbey and seeing the mountains he would have to cross on a stormy night, the view inspired him to write "O'er the Gloomy Hills of Darkness" for the Countess.Kirk, 100 The hymn was first written in Welsh as English was not Williams' first language so it was later translated into English by his son John Williams. This was because Williams did not know enough English to fully express the intent of the original Welsh verses in translation.
In 1836, "O'er the Gloomy hills of Darkness" was reviewed in an issue of 'The Eclectic Review'. In a remarkably snide review, the hymn, among many others, is criticised for a lack of grammatical correctness as well as a lack of rhyme in the first verse, " ...inane verbiage preferred by worthy people to the noblest compositions of sanctified genius; and to blot it out from our hymn-books would be a species of sacrilege". This was attributed to Williams' lack of English as a native language gave rise to "a stiffness apparent" in the hymn. The New York Times stated it had gained popularity because of Williams' "ease and sweetness" in his hymn writing.
The second verse of the hymn begins with the lines "Let the Indian, let the negro, Let the rude barbarian see". Williams included this after hearing stories of promising missionary contact with Cherokee tribes and with slaves in the Province of Georgia.Kirk, 108 When the hymn became established in the United States, slave owners changed the line referencing "Indian" and "negro" to "Let the dark benighted pagan". The abolitionist Ebenezer Davies claimed The altered reading, I learned, prevails universally in America, except in the original version used by the Welsh congregations. Slave-holders, and the abettors of that horrid system which makes it a crime to teach a negro to read the Word of God, felt perhaps that they could not devoutly and consistently sing "Let the Indian, let the negro ... see. With its original words, the hymn 'was' understood to speak to the experience of slavery, even if in an evangelising frame, and Pantycelyn had previously written critically of the transatlantic slave trade. E. Wyn James (2007) notes that the hymn "was sung with gusto, for example, on board the ships which took former slaves from America to the colony of Sierra Leone in the 1790s, as part of the attempt by members of the Clapham Sect and others to create a homeland for freed slaves back in Africa".
In the 1850s, the Baptist Union of Great Britain dropped the hymn from usage. The reason published in the 'Baptist Magazine' stated "But the verses are too rude and unfinished to be generally accepted in modern day". In later years in the 19th century churches, including the Church of England, started to publish the hymn replacing the second verse with the American slave owner's amended version. In the early 1900s, the second verse would often be omitted altogether from hymnals.
"O'er the Gloomy Hills of Darkness" first appeared in published hymnals in 1792. Jeffrey Richards states that "William Williams's 'O'er the Gloomy Hills of Darkness' of 1772 (sung variously to Thomas Clark's 'Calcutta', by Baptists; to Henry Gauntlett's 'Triumph', in 'The Scottish Hymnal'; to Edwin Moss's 'Ulpha', in the 1982 'Presbyterian Church Praise') did not make it into 'Hymns Ancient and Modern', but it was in Bickersteth's 'Christian Psalmody' in 1833 and was still to be found complete in the 1933 Baptist Hymnal This very much set the tone for missionary hymns." After being published in 374 hymnals throughout history, in the 1960s the hymn stopped being published in all Christian hymnals. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints retained the hymn in their hymnals from 1927 until dropping it in 1985. This was because its members in modern times felt that the hymn connected Native Americans and black people with barbarians.
The hymn's lyrical style set the tone for future missionary hymns. "O'er the Gloomy Hills of Darkness" inspired the founder of Methodism, Charles Wesley, to write "Sun of Unclouded Righteousness" for missionaries working with "Mahometans".
The lyrics of "O'er the Gloomy Hills of Darkness" as published in 'Gloria in Excelsis: or hymns of praise to God and the lamb' in 1772.
* See Chapter 5: E. Wyn James, "'Blessed Jubil!': Slavery, Mission and the Millennial Dawn in the Work of William Williams of Pantycelyn".
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