William Gadsby

With Pastor Kevin Price of Cumbria. 

The Life and Times of William Gadsby

(This short talk on William Gadsby does not claim to be an academic study or to cover all points of his life and work, but simply to lay before you those things that the Lord may use to be a blessing and encouragement to you in your Christian lives. At the end there will be an opportunity for questions).

Up until recently there was very little available about William Gadsby, apart from a memoir written by his son, John Gadsby which was more of a collection of personal anecdotes than a chronological history - but in fairly recent years a few more in-depth studies of William Gadsby have been made so there is now plenty of further reading for those who wish to pursue further study.


Early life and conversion:

William Gadsby was born in Attleborough, near Nuneaton, in Warwickshire, in January 1773.  He was the second member of the second family of his father, John Gadsby.  John had seven children in his first family, and the same number with his second wife, Martha, who was William's mother.  The old father lived until he was 96 years of age - a remarkable man who was largely occupied in work upon the roads at that period.

John Gadsby was regarded as one of the quietest men in the village, whereas his wife was just the opposite.  William Gadsby was brought up in poverty, spent much of his time playing the part of nurse to his infant brothers and sisters, and largely went about barefooted and dressed in rags.

These trials did not quench his natural spirits; he was usually lively and frolicsome, so that he grew to be the ringleader of his companions. 

Two or three days at the church school in Nuneaton was the extent of his education; he was 'taught a little to read, yet in those days of youth and folly, I in a great measure forgot it, so that when I was called by divine grace I was not able to read tolerably one chapter in the Bible'

While he was quite young he experienced some qualms of conscience but they were not of a spiritual and lasting nature.  There were times when he determined to reform his ways and be a good lad, as he thought, and on one occasion when going to church on a Sabbath morning, a lady who had forgotten her prayer book asked him to run back and fetch it - he received a penny for his trouble as well as the lady's commendation.  His parents attended the Independent Chapel and for a time he joined them for worship there.

At the age of 13 he was apprenticed to ribbon-weaving for five years and served his time out fully.  However, he increased in his evil habits, lying and swearing, he also increased in mischief and folly, but this proved to be the time when sovereign grace got hold of him.  When he was only a teenager he went to Coventry to see three men hanged for house-breaking, and this only brought home to him more of the things of eternity and caused him to try to forsake his ungodly ways.

He says

'When God the Spirit came and manifested sin in my conscience and opened a little of the mystery of iniquity, I then found that all my nature and practice had been nothing less that one constant heaving-up of rebellion against a holy, just and good God. And there was I with all my sin and guilt torturing my mind, feeling myself as an accountable being to a holy God, whose mercy I had abused, whose goodness I had despised.  If the blessed Spirit had not loved me with a peculiar love, He would never have taken so much pains with so hard-hearted and vile a young as I was........But oh the mercy, the special mercy and love of our covenant God!'

When he was 17 years of age, the Lord began to work in his heart.  He wrote of this conviction of sin:

'When the set time came, He (God) arrested me, broke my heart and brought me to stand before His throne as a guilty criminal, brought me to sign my own death warrant.  I gave God leave to damn me if He would, I had nothing to offer, and I could do nothing to save myself'.

He began to attend regularly at the Independent Chapel in Bedworth with his parents; he couldn't keep away.  His mother thought that the only pair of shoes he had would be worn out with his constant journeys there!

In due time, his deliverance came

But oh, God's peculiar love was shed abroad in my heart by His Blessed Spirit, and which brought me to feel the love and blood of Christ, led me to trace something of the wondrous work of His wonder-working grace!  Then how my hard heart was melted!  I was brought to His footstool with all humility, simplicity and godly sincerity, filled with gratitude and thanks for God's unspeakable mercy in opening these great mysteries to my poor soul.  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.  I recollect the time when God was graciously pleased to reveal pardon to my poor soul at first.  Oh what sweetness and solemnity, and blessedness there were in my poor heart!  I sang night and day the wonders of His love, and I never dreamed that I should go singing all the way to heaven.  I never expected to hang my harp upon the willows, or even to find it out of tune.

Later on, he joined the Baptist Church at Cow Lane in Coventry and he was baptised there by James Aston with 21 other men and women on 29th December 1793.  The pastor said of Gadsby at that time that he could

 'see something in the young man, although so illiterate and uncouth, that seemed blessedly to prove that he would sometime or other be made useful to God's dear family'.

In 1795 Gadsby moved to Hinckley, took up stocking weaving, and joined a small Baptist meeting in a barn in that town, where he became friendly with a fellow member, Elizabeth Marvin, eventually marrying her on 16th May 1796. 

Together they had three daughters, born before he took the Manchester pastorate in 1805 and three sons, born after, including John (1808-1893), who became a well-known printer, and was the publisher of Gadsbys Hymns for many years.


Call to the ministry

William Gadsby preached his first sermon in a room in Bedworth on 27th May 1798.  His text was 'Unto you therefore which believe, He is precious'.  Preaching was no light matter to Gadsby; in fact he asked the Lord that he might die rather than preach, but this word was powerfully applied to his soul, thus:

But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise: and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; and base things of the world, and things that are despised, hath God chosen, yes and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are; that no flesh should glory in His presence'

To this word Gadsby replied:

'Well, Lord, if this is the way Thou workest, Thou never hadst a better opportunity, for Thou never hadst a bigger fool to deal with'.

Gadsby preached for the Hinckley congregation regularly in the barn but in 1800 a chapel was built for him at Desford, after which he preached at both places each Lord's Day.

The old pulpit from Gadsbys chapel was very recently retrieved from the attic of a Strict Baptist pastor and was to be offered as a possible museum artefact, but tr proved to be too far gone.  However, we are told (by a local history group) that 

There are blue plaques being manufactured at the moment for William Gadsby for Hinckley and Desford.  The Hinckley plaque will be placed next year by the entry to the yard in which he lived in Upper Castle Street. The other blue plaque is destined for Desford, at the site of his chapel.  In addition in Desford there will be an information board prepared by Desford Local History group.

There is story told about this pulpit and the vandalism that was inflicted upon it:

Perhaps the prime piece of hooliganism was when the roughs dragged the pulpit out of the building and cast it into a pit full of water. They then tried to sink it by throwing stones into it, but the weight of the stones caused the bottom to give way so that they fell out and once again the pulpit floated. So, not being able to sink it, they said the devil was in it, for they could neither destroy the parson or his pulpit.

Gadsby was ordained to the ministry at Desford in 1800 although he despised what he regarded as the Popish part of the Baptist ministry at that time, namely the laying on of hands at ordination and the use of the title 'Reverend'.

A chapel was, in due course, built at Hinckley, to replace the old barn.  It was the necessity of raising money for chapel building that eventually brought Gadsby to Manchester, where he was invited to preach at the Back Lane chapel in 1803.

The Baptist cause was in a very low state when Gadsby arrived (for, it is believed, a four-week preaching visit); at his first morning service there was no more people than pews in the congregation!  He preached the great and glorious truths of the Gospel with the ability God gave him, and the power of the Lord rested upon his labours.  During the interval between the morning and afternoon services, several of the folk had gone around  (like the Samaritan woman the Lord met at Jacob's well) saying 'come hear a man the Lord has sent to the chapel.  By this means the place was tolerably filled in the afternoon and in the evening it was crowded with attentive hearers.  He remained with them for the four Lord's Days, so that the old veterans connected with the place said 'this is the man for us, arise and anoint him.


The Manchester Pastorate

In 1805, at the age of 32, Gadsby and his family moved to Manchester, then the foremost industrial town in the world, and where he would remain for the next 38 years.  During this time, all those things that he is most remembered for originated, including of course Gadsbys Hymns which we shall look at shortly. His salary at the time was £125 each year.

As well as being the pastor, in due course, of a large church he continued his itinerant preaching work as many Strict Baptist pastors have done ever since.  Beside his three services each Lord's Day, he would walk to Rochdale on a Monday morning for a service in the afternoon at a place a little further on; he would return to preach at Rochdale in the evening.  On Tuesday he would walk back to Manchester for his own mid-week service.  On Wednesday he would walk to other places such as Bolton, Oldham, Bury, Stockport etc for the evening service and then on Thursday to preach at another place, returning home on Friday.  On some weeks he would make a preaching tour in Lancashire, Yorkshire, Derbyshire or Cheshire and so he influenced as many as 40 chapels that were established around that time.  It is said that:

'hundreds of sinners, many of whom are now gone to glory were brought under his ministry out of darkness unto light and from sin and Satan unto God'.

Gadsby was known at that time, not so much for his writings (although 'the Complete Works of William Gadsby was eventually published)  but for his preaching.  He attracted crowds to his ministry and the congregation in Manchester is estimated to have been in excess of 1000.  Seven years after his death the 1851 census reveals that there was still a vast congregation.

They were not coming to hear a learned scholar but the simple Gospel of Gadsby's Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.  As one of his hearers said 'he does not preach a new Gospel; it is the old Gospel blessedly calculated to meet the cases of the Lord's tried family'

The Manchester church was divided in their opinions on the recently published teachings of Andrew Fuller with regard to 'Duty Faith' - more of which later.  Gadsby's arrival caused a stir among the 'Fullerites' but the majority gave him a warm reception.  He made his position clear and said 'I am not a Fullerite'.

There was soon a secession and a group left to form a new church in York Street, but the additions to Gadsby's congregation soon made up for the losses.

From 1807 to 1812, between five and ten new members were added to his church every month.  It became the largest Dissenting congregation in Manchester and one of the largest Protestant ones.

Robert Halley, Principal of New College, London wrote of him:

'He seemed a preacher made on purpose for the working classes. His popularity with the factory people of Manchester was extraordinary, as he was not a Lancashire man'

'Illiterate as he was, he sometimes attracted men of learning and culture (I could mention remarkable instances) who heard him with great pleasure.  His thoughts were natural, closely connected, logically arranged and lucidly expressed.  Quietly earnest, never impassioned, never vehement, but always arresting attention, he is said to have presented in manner as well as in doctrine, a remarkable contrast to the popular Methodist preachers of his early days.  He voice was wonderful and he knew well how to manage it'..


Controversies and Doctrinal distinctives

William Gadsby was no stranger to controversy.

His first pamphlet was 'The Gospel the believer's rule of conduct'.  This was a reply it is thought to Andrew Fuller who had written a tract entitled 'The Moral Law, the Rule of Conduct to believers'.

Gadsby believed that the glorious Gospel is a revelation of Jehovah's will for Zion, that the Old Testament Law was inadequate for a Christian as it did not even insist upon baptism and the Lord's Supper.  Gadsby emphasised that 'love is the fulfilling  of the law'.

He was thus called an Antinomian (ie one living without law) but was at pains to point out that this was not the case.  It was said that his teachings led to to sin.  But Gadsby replied:

'I no not contend for the believer's freedom from the law with a view to encourage sin, neither in myself nor any other person, but quite the reverse, for if I know anything of my own heart, I find nothing such a blow to sin as a sweet manifestation of the love of God to my soul, which makes me feel that I am dead to the law by the body of Christ, and if this does not cause the soul to love holiness, nothing will'.  Others, too, agreed. 

Dr Robert Halley, referred to already, said of Gadsby 'no minister in Manchester lived a more moral life or preached to his hearers a more beautiful example of Christian discipline and self-control'

But rumours continued to fly about Gadsby and this doctrine.  It is recorded that

'The ministers were everywhere preaching to put down Antinomianism .  Some of them told their people to keep their cupboards locked; for they must expect to find them emptied if they admitted (me) into their houses;'

Sandemanianism - this controversy revolved around the Scottish theologian, Robert Sandeman.  Sandeman was the one who, with his father-in-law John Glas, had met with Benjamin Ingham (whom I spoke about here a couple of years ago) and it was Sandeman's teaching that effectively destroyed the Inghamite churches, the only remaining one being at Wheatley Lane.

Sandeman taught that bare assent to the work of Christ was alone necessary for salvation whereas Gadsby taught that faith is the result of regeneration and not vice versa.  Gadsby preached that a heart knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ was absolutely necessary for salvation and modern 'decisionism' (very similar to Sandemanianism) is not  sufficient for salvation.

Duty Faith and the Free Offer of the Gospel:

Duty faith is the teaching that it is the duty of all to repent and believe savingly on the Lord Jesus Christ.  Gadbsy denied this and was dubbed a 'Hyper Calvinist'.

This is too big a subject to get into just now.  Dr Martin Lloyd-Jones said of such:

A hyper Calvinist is one who says that the offer of salvation is only made to the redeemed, and that no preacher of the Gospel should preach Christ and offer salvation to all and sundry'.

For Gadbsy, the Gospel was the proclamation that Christ has saved His people and is bringing them all to glory.

Unusually for a Strict Baptist, Gadsby involved himself in social good works and reform.  There was desperate poverty all around Gadbsy's chapel but there was also controversy surrounding Gadsby's actions.  He was a vigorous opponent of Catholic Emancipation and expressed himself so strongly that stones were hurled at him through his chapel windows and for a time his friends had to escort him to his house.

Although he had friends who were Anglicans, he was incensed against what he considered to be the unfair impositions of the Established Church.  Church rates he opposed, and was almost sure to be present at any town's meeting to oppose them being levied.  He was equally opposed to the levying of tithes, writing that 'tithes and their appendages are rather a curse than a blessing to the religion of Christ',

In 1820 he raised a furore a the time George IV was seeking a divorce from his wife, Queen Caroline.  He preached a sermon and published it 'The Nature and Design of the Marriage Union'.

He had regular collections for the poor and oppressed, raising what was then the large sum of £40 for the starving Irish during the potato famine.  He spoke out publicly against the Corn Laws which artificially inflated the price of bread and caused starvation among the poor.  He was also active in the Temperance Movement.

Gadsby went with John Kershaw in about 1842, to preach in Bradford, at the behest of a group of believers who worshipped at the Westgate General Baptist church in the city.  This visit caused controversy in the church, so much so that the group who had invited them were told not to invite them again, or they would have to leave the church.  They chose the latter option.

John Kershaw continued to preach in Bradford and in April of the following year, 1843, formally constituted the church that still exists.  A few months later this church adopted Gadsbys Hymns.


Gadsbys Hymns

It was first published in 1814 in Manchester.  Gadsby published a later edition in 1838.  After his death a further enlarged edition was published including a second supplement selected by J C Philpot, another Strict Baptist Minister.  It was written to counteract what Gadsby believed to be Arminian and legalistic tendencies in Isaac Watts' Psalms and Hymns.

The hymnal contains 1156 hymns by various authors. These are primarily, but not exclusively, from the Calvinistic stream of Protestant thought.

The edition currently available includes the following authors, here listed by number of hymns used. Joseph Hart (219); William Gadsby (173); Isaac Watts (145) John Berridge (72); John Newton (63) John Kent (51); Charles Wesley (41); Thomas Kelly (34); Samuel Medley (31); Anne Steele (27); Augustus M. Toplady (24); Richard Burnham (22); Henry Fowler (20); William Cowper (18); Joseph Swain (18); Daniel Herbert (12); Benjamin Beddome (10); John Fawcett (10); William Hammond (10); John Stevens (9); John Adams (9); Phillip Doddridge (8); John Cennick (6).

There are other authors with fewer hymns in this book, as well as eight anonymous contributions.

The hymnbook is still in print today and is probably one of the oldest English hymnbooks.

Gadsby also published Nazarene's Songs, containing about 250 of his own hymns.

The only two hymns from Gadsbys that sometimes appear in other collections are 'Immortal honours rest of Jesus' head' and 'Oh what matchless condescension'.

The hymnbook has been traditionally almost exclusively used by Strict Baptists in England and by a few Old School or Primitive Baptists in the United States.

However, in recent years there has been a renewed interest in the book; some of the Netherland Reformed Congregations, although largely singing only metrical versions of the Psalms, are believed to be using Gadsbys at some week night services at some of their churches and fellowships.  I  even heard recently of a charismatic congregation in East Anglia that does the same!

As a personal aside, I have a friend of many years standing who is a retired Pentecostal minister.  On a recent birthday, his son-in-law (who is also a Pentecostal minister, bought him a copy of Gadsbys Hymns for his birthday.  My friend is delighted with it, reading one hymn each day and meditating on it!

Critics of the hymnbook assert that it is 'too preoccupied with the diseases and distempers of the soul', and fails to balance the many 'subjective' or 'experimental' hymns with 'objective' ones.

But Hymn 633 (one of Gadsby's own, and one I always find quite sublime, and it means so much to me, says):

'Love has redeemed His sheep with blood

And love will bring them safe to God

Love calls them all from death to life

And love will finish all their strife.


He loves through every changing scene

Nor aught can Him from Zion wean

Not all the wonderings of her heart

Can make His love from her depart'


Final days

In September 1840, while planning to go on holiday to Buxton, Gadsby fell and broke his leg.  It is understood that he was a heavily built man and this no doubt accentuated the injury.  Although he recovered his last years were marked by weakness and shortness of breath.

For many years, his wife had suffered great mental affliction; it has been said that Gadsby sometimes composed hymns while nursing one of their young children, so the years of this strain had undoubtedly told on him by now. 

He preached right up to his final Lord's Day, taking his morning text from Isaiah 43:2 'When thou goest through the water, I will be with thee'.  It is said that he took four minutes to ascend the pulpit steps - he was so weak.  In the evening, he spoke of Abraham wanting a place in which to bury his dead, and remarked that it would soon be said of himself 'Let me bury my dead out of my sight'

Two days later he grew weaker and took to his bed.  The family were sent for; he desired that his afflicted wife should come upstairs, and then commenced to pray in a solemn manner.  He prayed for the church and for his family, that they might be kept low at the feet of Jesus, that He would appear for them, that the fear of the Lord might be lively in their hearts, that they might be blessed with a tender conscience, that they might be kept from pride and that they might know nothing but Christ, concluding in his usual manner 'Amen and a-men'; and on Saturday 27th January 1844 he uttered his dying words:

'I shall soon be with Him, shouting 'Victory! victory! victory!' for ever, and after a short gasp, 'Free grace! Free grace! Free grace!' before falling softly asleep in Jesus.

His funeral was conducted by John Kershaw, Pastor at Rochdale for many years and who had been baptised as a young man by Gadsby.  Forty-one coaches followed the hearse and thousands lined the streets of Manchester.  The graveside at Rusholme cemetery was attended by over three thousand people.

At Gadsby's request, the following lines were placed on his gravestone:

'Here lies 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'.

Gadsby's gravestone was eventually removed (presumably when the cemetery was developed/built upon?) and can now be seen at Charlesworth Chapel graveyard.