The humour of William Gadsby was unmistakable. When commenting on Acts 20:37: ‘they [the Ephesian church] fell upon Paul’s neck’, he remarked: ‘it did not mean a building of stone, for if it had been our old collegiate church, it would have broken his neck!’
On another occasion he noticed some boys misbehaving in the church, he stopped his sermon to warn them that he would tell their father, not realising that their father was actually asleep in his pew!
Some criticised him for such flashes of wit in the pulpit, and considered him coarse. Gadsby also had a powerful, clear voice. He was one of the few men able to make himself heard in the vast old Manchester Free Trade Hall, which was capable of holding 8,000 people: ‘the voice of the old man rolled like an equable wave of sound across the great hall and filled the ear of every auditor’.
His power in preaching was immense — as the younger John Warburton, minister at Southill, remembered: ‘I can almost fancy I see him in the pulpit, his face shining as the effect of the love of God, and in powerful voice directing sin-burdened souls, ready to perish through the guilty and soul-distressing fears under which they laboured, to the God-man mighty to save’.
Others noted how his preaching was directly personal, speaking relevantly to their needs and concerns. One woman was asked why she attended Gadsby’s ministry, and she simply replied: ‘When I was a girl, I had to pass under an aqueduct and when I shouted my name, it kept echoing back to me, “Betty! Betty! Betty!” Mr Gadsby’s preaching is just like that. When he speaks, his preaching keeps coming at me all the time, “Betty! Betty! Betty!”’
His preaching usually revolved around three themes: laying bare the depravity and helplessness of human nature; tracing out the beginnings of God’s quickening to spiritual life with the cries and desires of the soul, along with its trials and temptations; and depicting the glories of the Father, the saving work of the Son, and the operations of the Holy Ghost in the heart.
Speaking of the riches of God’s grace was what thrilled his soul. John Kershaw commented: ‘Finished salvation, all of grace, from first to last, was the joy of his heart and the boast of his song, as he often exclaimed, “Honours crown his brow forever!”’
It was not just the content of his preaching that attracted his hearers. His sermons were delivered with a burning earnestness that hearers found compelling. Although his doctrine was high, Gadsby did not want it to be abstract: ‘I have always proved that the glorious truths of the gospel preached in an experimental way are most blessed to the family of God’.
His power of illustration was also striking, as his son remembered: ‘To some his style might occasionally appear too familiar; but the graphic skill which he displayed was attractive and useful to many’.
He gave clear examples of the truths he preached or the failings he was lamenting. Illustrative, experimental preaching, rooted in the themes of God’s eternal sovereignty and providence, proved an attractive message to the poor and unlearned of the Manchester area.
Such powerful and relevant preaching was instrumental in many remarkable conversions. A poor woman, overwhelmed with the misery of her condition, who had been planning to drown herself in the river, passed Gadsby’s chapel. She went inside, ‘and was brought to the blessings of salvation’.
On another occasion he was asked to attend a poor and severely disabled boy who was dying. When he visited him, Gadsby could not ever remember seeing the boy, but the lad described how, unknown to the preacher, he had attended the chapel ‘many a time and many a blessed hour I had there … I used to sit outside till all the people had gone in, and then crept on the gallery stairs’.
Two men who had attended a meeting run by infidel preachers in Manchester, in which it had been asserted that Robert Owen was greater than Jesus Christ, came to hear Gadsby preach, and he spoke on the subject of unbelief.
When during the course of the sermon he pointed in their direction, shouting, ‘That’s the man, that’s the man’, they were deeply shaken. On their next visit, the power of the message was so great that they were overwhelmed with conviction of sin and both fainted, and had to be carried to the vestry. They later explained to Gadsby what had happened.
His preaching at St George’s Road Chapel could be extremely direct on issues of the day. He was remembered by the Baptist Reporter in 1844 as ‘the friend of freedom, civil and religious; and the inhabitants of Manchester have had frequent opportunities of listening to his withering denunciations of tyranny and oppression’.
Some felt he was too direct from the pulpit on these matters. After one sermon on oppression, a wealthy hearer accosted him and rebuked him: ‘You knew that such a thing had taken place in my establishment’.
Gadsby’s reply was clear: ‘Indeed, I did not. I have never heard a word about it. So you see I have only to draw the bow, the Lord will direct the arrows’. Here was a gospel filled with certainties that could both arrest the godless world and strengthen those facing a difficult life.
Popularity brought unwelcome notoriety. Disturbances in the congregation from those who came out of curiosity or to mock were frequent, and on occasion local constables had to be called to remove them. Some of those intent on mockery found themselves arrested by what they heard.
One day as Gadsby walked to the chapel he passed some young men and overheard their remarks: ‘That’s old Gadsby! Let’s go to his chapel and have some fun’. Gadsby reached the chapel before the young men, and told the doorkeeper to show them to a pew at the front of the chapel.
His text was ‘The wicked shall be turned into hell, and all the nations that forget God’. During the sermon he paused and looked at them: ‘Young men, what fun will there be in hell for you?’
Several months later Gadsby was approached in the vestry by a young man who admitted that he was one of those who had come to mock. That day he had been convicted of sin, and he had now come to seek membership of the church, into which he was received.
Others drawn to Gadsby’s ministry had been converted through other preachers, but found that there was something missing in their understanding and experience. Although trusting in salvation by grace, they lacked assurance, or felt that the Christian life remained a path of burdensome duty.
One young man who laboured with this sense of uncertainty and dissatisfaction was Edward Blackstock, who also attended the Manchester ministry of William Roby. Blackstock had a great suspicion of Gadsby, and his father had published a book which denounced him as an antinomian.
One day, although strongly prejudiced against him, he felt compelled to hear Gadsby, and listened from the foot of the gallery stairs where he would not be seen. When he heard Gadsby pray, he was startled: ‘His prayer was to me like a glass of wine to a fainting soul, and at the conclusion of it I felt compelled to go where I should be able to get a sight of him’.
As he heard the preacher emphasize the grace of God, and the nature of genuine Christian experience, Blackstock found ‘power, light, unction and peace’ in his soul such that set him free, and he was drawn to Gadsby’s ministry.
Blackstock eventually became a preacher himself, holding several pastorates in the English Midlands and then at Gower Street in London, although in future years he became estranged from Gadsby.
As he had done in the Midlands, William Gadsby did not confine his preaching activities to his own church. He covered many thousands of miles on foot in his itinerancy, crossing wild moors, ascending steep and forbidding hills, and tramping miles often in inclement weather.
He preached in chapels, cottages and barns — wherever people gathered to hear him. With him he took a small pocket Bible, which he called his ‘pocket pistol’. When he had this with him he had nothing to fear on dark nights or in the presence of dubious-looking strangers.
The results of this activity were notable, and a number of new churches were started, and other small groups encouraged.
Ian J. Shaw
This extract is from the author’s recent Bitesize Biography on William Gadsby (EP Books, 128 pages, £6.99; ISBN: 978-085234-931-1)