THE LIFE, WORK AND IMPORTANCE OF WILLIAM GADSBY
An Address given by Mr. B. A. Ramsbottom at Evington Chapel on March 8th, 1969
We have a most precious heritage handed down to us by our godly forefathers. We do well to remember this, especially as we find at present on every hand there are violent assaults being made against the ministry of men like Kershaw, Warburton, Phil-pot and William Gadsby. We are exhorted to “Call to remembrance the former days.”
Recently I glanced at that most remarkable sermon John Booth preached in 1920 at the Centenary of the Old Gower Street Chapel from this text. He said, “If we call to remembrance former days, as we are exhorted to do, we must call to remembrance former men” and he said that if there was one person he must speak of in the history of our Denomination and Gower Street Chapel, then it must be William Gadsby.
Most Strict Baptists are well acquainted with the lives of John Warburton and John Kershaw. Surprisingly (or perhaps not so surprisingly) few seem to know anything of the life of William Gadsby, though he was really the first link in that chain of three. The reason is that, whereas Warburton and Kershaw left excellent accounts of their own lives, William Gadsby never wrote anything concerning his own early days or his life. All that is known was compiled after his deathÂ—extracts from sermons he preached, and especially an address he gave to his congregation at Manchester in the New Year before he died.
His early days. It was about 200 years ago when Gadsby was bornÂ—not far away from hereÂ—in the parish of Attleborough, now part of Nuneaton. He belonged to a very large family. His parents were extremely poor so he had little opportunity for education. One thing recorded of the poverty of his early days, when he had to go about barefooted, refers to the time when he attended a local Church School. One day he was late and hurried along eating a piece of bread which was all he could have for his breakfast. As he neared the school, he feared that he would be beaten for entering the place still eating, so he threw the piece of bread on the ground. This was found out, and so precious was bread in those days, that he was severely punished and was compelled to eat it, though, by this time the bread was mixed with quite a bit of gravel that broke his teeth.
As he grew up, he became well known for his fondness of fun. One little anecdote recorded of him is this. He tired of being at home, thinking it was wearisome being brought up so strictly, so he ran away and, in order that no-one would find him, gathered a lot of old rags and straw and stuffed them down his back and acted the part of a hunchback. The cry went through the neigh
bourhood that William Gadsby was missing, but no-one could find him; the only reports that came in were that there was a hunchback to be seen wandering about the district.
As he grew older, it was not merely fondness for fun, but he sank into many evil ways and seemed to be bent on a life of wickedness, though he had peculiar feelings at times concerning heaven and hell and said later that he used to wonder if one day he might have to preach.
The beginning of the Lord’s dealings with him. After he had started work as a ribbon weaver, one day he was visiting Coventry and witnessed a sight never seen nowadaysÂ—a public execution He saw three men dressed in shrouds being led through the streets to a public scaffold. He saw those three men taken and hanged, and was much affected by the awful sight, especially as one of these poor men was so thin that someone had to pull heavily on his feet to make sure that his neck broke. The impression of this he never forgot, and the Lord used it to bring him into solemn concern about his soul and eternity. This was really the beginning of the work of grace in his heart. Of this he later wroteÂ—”When the set time came He arrested me, broke my heart and brought me to stand and bow before His throne as a guilty criminal and brought me to sign my own death warrant.”
His deliverance. He began to attend the old Independent Chapel in Bedworth and, after some time, his soul was delivered. The actual details of this are not clearly known, but the substance he himself gives in one of his sermons. This is what he says: “Oh God’s peculiar love that was shed abroad in my heart by the blessed Spirit, when He brought me to feel the love and blood of Christ, led me to trace something of the wondrous work of His wonderworking grace! I was then solemnly and blessedly led to believe in God’s free mercy and pardon and could look up and say ‘He loved me and gave Himself for me’.”
After this there were many assaults by Satan and one or two sore falls. For a time he was brought into dreadful darkness and bondage. One day the Lord led him to Ezekiel 16. He felt the child cast out in its loathsomeness and blood in the day of its nativity entirely described his case. He felt the experience at the beginning was his caseÂ—the time of loveÂ—and then the vile back-slidings that followed. He felt this described exactly where he had been and so he cried out aloud, “If this one goes to heaven, then I go to heaven, and if this one goes to hell, I go to hell.” Then, when he came to the closing verses of that long chapter and read the sweet assurance of the Lord’s unchanging faithfulness and eternal covenant, his deliverance was complete.
Baptism. He began later to attend Cow Lane chapel in Coventry. He was convinced that baptism by immersion was the right order, so, leaving the Independent Chapel, he began to walk seven miles each Sabbath to the Baptist Chapel in Coventry. He was asked to take part at the Prayer Meeting. He continually refused, but one day he felt he was sure he could manage. They
had a very early Prayer Meeting on the Sabbath morning. On the seven mile walk he prepared a beautiful prayer, “a prayer seven miles long,” and that morning, when they asked him to take part, he agreed, but when he stood up, everything had gone, and he says, “The Lord will never allow me to slip into public things that way.” His minister at Coventry (John Butterworth) took special notice of him. His illiteracy and his almost clownish appearance were evident; but so was the depth of the work in his heart and the real ability which he showed.
His call to preach. It was laid upon him that he must preach and he felt he could not get away from it, but once he went and sat on the cold steps of the cellar all night long hoping to catch a cold so that he might be ill, to escape having to preach. The sore point with him was his illiteracy and felt unworthiness, but the Lord settled the matterÂ—settled it very clearly by the word, “God hath chosen the weak things of this world to confound the mighty, the things which are not to bring to nought the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence.” “Well,” he said. “Lord, if Thou ever hadst a ‘nothing’ to use. Thou hast one here.”
The first sermon he preached was from “Unto you therefore which believe He is precious.” He read the first chapter of the first Epistle of Peter and, when he came to the long names, “Strangers scattered abroad throughout Pontus, Galatia, Cappa-docia, Asia and Bithynia,” he had to slur over these as he could not read them, but, immediately the godly marked something special in his ministry.
He was then living at Hinckley and had changed ribbon weaving for stocking weaving and by this time was married. It was at Hinckley that he first preached.
Manchester. Gadsby is best known as the honoured pastor of the chapel at Manchester (1805-1844). Really, the first time he ever went up, he invited himself. He was begging money for a chapel at Hinckley and, hearing that the Manchester church was without a minister, and also knowing that they were sorely divided, he ventured to write and offer to preach to them. He received a cold reply inviting him to go and he hoped that, when he arrived, he would be allowed to spread the case of the Hinckley chapel before the people and obtain some financial help from them. His first visit to Manchester caused something of a sensation. He said there wasn’t a bit of black about him except in his heart. He was dressed in brown clothes with a coloured scarf. The hearers were more amazed at the weight and power and savour of his utterances and how clearly he contended for the truth. When he started with:
“Awake my soul in joyful lays
And sing thy great Redeemer’s praise”,
some of the godly were immediately persuaded that this was to be their pastor. There were many in that divided church who could not bear the sentiments he brought forward; there were others who loved them. Among those who heard him on his first visit to
Manchester was John Warburton. He at that time was attending the Independent Chapel in Manchester and had refused to go to hear Gadsby, having no friendliness toward the Baptists, but there were such good reports after the morning and afternoon services that he was prevailed upon to go at night. These were Warburton’s honest impressions of his first sight of Gadsby as he appeared as a young man of about 30 on that memorable first visit:
“I think I shall never forget the first time I heard him. When I got into the chapel I thought to myself, ‘What a poor, gloomy, miserable place this is, and, as the people came in, I felt such a hatred rise up in my heart against them as I have never felt against any people before, so much so, that I was just ready to take up my hat and walk out when Mr. Gadsby got into the pulpit. I was truly surprised to see so poor and mean looking a fellow (as I thought him) attempt to preach. I despised him in my very soul and thought he looked like an ignorant fellow that had not any sense. He arose and gave out a hymn, but it was in so droll a way that I verily thought he could not read. Oh how the devil rose up in my heart! I even wished that someone or other would raise a disturbance in the chapel, for I thought I could kick him out of it with all the pleasure in the world. My prejudice was so strong that, when he went to prayer, I do believe that I actually hated the sound of his voice. He appeared to me to stutter and stammer as though he could hardly get a word out of his mouth. My soul boiled with rage and I called myself a thousand fools for coming to hear such a fool. When he had finished his prayer, which was very short, I thought to myself, ‘Poor creature, thou canst never preach, I am sure’ and I felt a secret pleasure in the hope that when he had read his text he would be obliged to tell the people that he could not preach. The words of his text were “A good man out of the good treasure of the heart bringeth forth good things, but an evil man out of the evil treasure bringeth forth evil things” and he was so long in reading them that I dropped my head down and thought that I would try to go to sleep. He then made a little pause and I looked up to see what he was about and he was looking all around the chapel and rolling his eyes in such a way that I really thought him crazy. The first words he spoke were “Perhaps you will be ready to say that, according to our sentiments, we cannot find a good man upon earth, but, by the help of God we will, or we will ransack the Bible from Genesis to Revelation.” Oh how my prejudice was knocked down at a blow! My soul melted like wax before the sun and I exclaimed “God bless thee; the Lord help thee to find the good man.” He concludes like this, “My soul was so overcome that I cried out in my feelings, “Where thou goest I will go and where thou lodgest I will lodge; thy people shall be my people, and thy God my God; where thou diest I will die.” My very soul was knit to him as closely as Jonathan to David and my ears were nailed to the doorpost.”
On Gadsby’s second visit to Manchester John Warburton was the first person he baptized.
Manchester in those days was a remarkable, rapidly growing town. On the one hand there were many poor hand loom weavers without work; on the other hand there were many business men and merchants. It was a time when there was much discontent in the country and Manchester was the centre of many disturbances. To this town Gadsby came, and there he remained for nearly forty years. Year by year there were many additions to the church and his ministry was made most profitable.
In the town he became one of the best-known citizens. One thing in which Gadsby differed from many other godly ministers was his public work. It was said that he was the only one that could speak in the old Free Trade Hall and be heard in every corner of that building. It was well known that Mr. Gadsby could always be prevailed upon to get the best collection for any good cause. He once spoke at a public meeting in Manchester. One or two wealthy people left all their money at home, apart from a very small sum, but when Gadsby made his concluding appeal for help for a worthy cause, these people either borrowed from neighbours, or else wrote notes to put in the collecting box, promising their help.
He was a brave opponent of the evils of his day, such as:
I. The King’s divorce. George IV at that time was seeking to divorce his wife, and Gadsby spoke out so boldly against this that at times the Deputy Constable of Manchester used to come and sit in his congregation wondering if the chapel would become a centre of rebellion.
II. Temperance. He felt that drink had such an evil influence that he would willingly appear at meetings to speak on this point.
III. He spoke against the cruel Corn Laws when they were causing so much suffering to the poor.
His Ministry. But it was as a minister in Manchester, the surrounding district and throughout the country that Gadsby was especially raised up by the Lord. As a preacher he was eminent. Mr. J. C. Philpot contended that Gadsby was the greatest minister since Huntington, stressing that he had never known a minister who dealt so clearly with doctrine, experience and practice. He felt perhaps some excelled him on one of the three points but, taking the three together, Gadsby excelled all others. He delighted to speak of the eternal union of the church with Christ and every blessing as flowing from it. Romans 5 was one of his favourite portions. “The law entered that the offence might abound”Â—he would show the aboundings of sin; and then he delighted to speak of: “Where sin abounded grace did much more abound.” He would begin with the Eternal Covenant, then trace the flowings of grace through the work of Jesus and in the experience of a sinner. in teaching him his need and leading him to Christ, finally bringing him to eternal glory. Two of his favourite expressions were,Â— “Oh,
the riches of matchless grace!” and, when speaking of the glories of Christ, he would break off his discourse and exclaim “Honours crown His head for ever!”
The cripple boy. There was a time when William Gadsby used to look upon two young men (the sons of a wealthy hearer) and feel what a wonderful thing it would be if the Lord were to bless them and bring them into the church. Week by week, he would preach with an eye towards them, hoping that the Lord might bless his word to their hearts, but weeks passed without any effect. One day, being asked to visit a poor cripple, boy, he found him in a dying condition, in squalor and poverty. The boy expressed his delight on seeing the good minister and immediately began to pour out his heart concerning the blessings he had received under the sound of the gospel. Mr. Gadsby thought there was some mistake. He said “I have never seen you in my life.” The little boy said, “No, Sir, you never have seen me. I was ashamed, to come into your chapel, but, when the service started, I used to hide in the gallery steps.” The amazing thing to the preacher was that the points the little boy made in his sweet testimony were the very things that Gadsby had stressed in the hope that they would be made of some profit to the two young men sitting at the front. “Lord,” said William Gadsby, “Thou hast been at work on the gallery stairs with this poor cripple, while my thoughts have been among the gentlemen in a baize-covered seat.”
“Lord help me”. There was an occasion when Gadsby was bitterly tried throughout the Saturday, having no text for the next day. There was also a debt of Â£20 which must be paid by Monday morning. In this distressed condition, he felt all he could do was to venture to preach from “Lord, help me”, and he gave it out in the afternoon and again in the evening. He felt he was certainly helped through the services, but Satan tormented him about the debt. At the close of the evening service a young man came to him and gave him Â£20. He said that many years ago, his mother had left this Â£20 to be given to Mr. Gadsby and the young man had kept it for himself, but the services that day condemned him through and through and he had to bring it. So Mr. Gadsby says, “I got my text and I got my debt paid.”
His Death. In his death he was much favoured and, though he was sorely tried by Satan, in the end the Lord appeared. Almost the last thing he said was, “I shall soon be with Him shouting ‘Victory, Victory, Victory’ for ever. Free graceÂ—free graceÂ—free grace.”
He died at the age of 71, just over 120 years ago.
John Kershaw preached a remarkable funeral sermon at Manchester. The text was, “Less than the least”. This was the way Gadsby always thought of himself. On his grave this epitaph was written, composed by himself:Â—
“Here rests the body of a sinner base
Who had no hope but in electing grace;
The love, blood, life and righteousness of God
Was his sweet theme, and this he spread abroad.”
I wish to say three things concerning his importance.
I. By the blessing of the Lord he was instrumental in commencing almost forty causes of truth. This is an amazing thing. We read of many eminent ministers who have been much blessed, but of very, very few can it be said that they founded causes of truth, which for a time at least have continued and have prospered. In Lancashire, Yorkshire and Derbyshire there were about forty causes of truth which came into being through the ministry of William Gadsby. Week by week he journeyed throughout the country preaching, often walking over barren moors in severe weather. There were three ways in which these causes of truth came into being. I. A number of people would walk to Manchester Sabbath by Sabbath and then, for various reasons began to feel that it would be a good thing to have a chapel nearer home. They were so many they could worship by themselves, so the Manchester church honourably dismissed them and Mr. Gadsby formed them into a separate church. Such was the cause of truth which was established at Middleton (half way between Manchester and Rochdale). II. In a place where there was no cause of truth at all, perhaps one person invited Gadsby to preach there and friends gathered round and a few of them were blessedÂ—such a cause was Chariesworth. III. Some of the members at a chapel would be dissatisfied at the lack of gracious experience in the preaching and, hearing Gadsby preach, formed a separate cause in the town where the truth might be preached in its fulness and purity. Such a case was Rochdale.
II. The “Gospel Standard” and “Gadsby’s Hymnbook” both had their beginnings in his life. A few years before Gadsby died his son, John, who was a very energetic printer, suggested to his father that they should start a magazine that would be clear on the truth, and also insisting upon vital experience. At first his father was hesitant, but in the end complied and, as a result, we have the “Gospel Standard” magazine which has continued until today.
Then we have the Hymnbook. In those days the Baptist Chapels used Dr. Rippon’s Selection. There were difficulties in the set out of the book, and also, as Gadsby says in the interesting Preface to his Hymn Book, some of the Hymns of Watts and Rippon had a very legal sound. The great desire of William Gadsby was to have a selection of hymns in one book, free from Arminianism and sound in the faith, that the church might be edified and God glorified. How well he succeeded under the blessing of the Lord, time and experience have proved!
III. At the time of the Reformation in this country, one church, the Reformed Church of England, was sound in the truth. In the years that followed, three different kinds of Dissenters appearedÂ—
Presbyterians, Independents and Baptists. The early Baptist Churches were sound in the faith and for the most part were sound in their order. But as years passed away, at the time when William Gadsby was raised up by God, the old Strict and Particular Baptist Chapels were weakening in the truth preached; some of them were sound in the truth, but the doctrine was preached in a very dry, lifeless way. On the other hand, some of the Baptist Churches were infused with Fullerism, teaching duty-faith and duty-repentance. Gadsby spoke out unflinchingly against these errors. He insisted, on the one hand, on gracious experience; his was a ministry which touched a living soul, and those of the living family of God who had been starved and dissatisfied embraced Gadsby, Warburton, Kershaw and Philpot. Gadsby sweetly preached gospel invitations. There is not a clearer hymn on the gospel invitation than 587. But he delighted to point out that hungering, longing, thirsting, willing souls alone would receive the invitations. Really it was under the ministry of Gadsby that our churches today were brought out as a separate Body. Almost all the others, whether they were Fullerite or whether they were just doctrinally sound, have long since drifted into generalism. So this is a very precious heritage we have received from the Lord through William Gadsby.
What was the secret of Gadsby’s witness, his success, and the influence he had on his generation?
The first thing, of course, was that he was used by the Lord and the Holy Spirit wonderfully owned his labours, especially his ministry. But the one thing which stands out above everything else is the character of the man. He was so real in everything he did, there was not a shadow of hypocrisy. He was as firm as a rock on the truth, yet there was no trace of bigotry. He maintained his position as an eminent man, and yet he had the friendliest of spirits. Above all, there was the holiness of his life. His opponents called him an Antinomian; they said his doctrine would lead to licentiousness, but there, in the city of Manchester, he was a bright and shining light, and even his opponents had to confess that there was not a more beautiful example of Christian living. It was his life, his holy life, as upheld by the Lord, which was the condemnation of his opponents. Another thing was his great humility. He was marked by extreme humility. He was never once heard to speak of his many labours, his vast congregation, his great success. He was generous to a degree. When he died, a poor Irish woman said, “He kept me from starving when the priest refused to give me a farthing.” It was said after he died that he gave away Â£100 a yearÂ—a vast sum in those days. (To the end of his life the highest income he received was Â£230 a year).
We remember these things, not to exalt the man, but to exalt the grace of God which shone through him. It would be a wonderful thing if this spirit as seen in Gadsby was more known and felt in our midst and experienced in our own hearts.