250 years after the death of William Grimshaw, his biographer Faith Cook commemorates an unsung hero of the Evangelical Revival.
With any mention of the eighteenth-century Evangelical Revival, the names of George Whitefield, John and Charles Wesley, Howell Harris and others instantly spring to mind — instruments in God’s hands of that great work.
But one name is frequently missing from the list — one whom William Romaine described as ‘the most indefatigable preacher that ever there was in England’: William Grimshaw of Haworth.
Grimshaw died at the relatively early age of 54; a short life compared to that of John Wesley who outlived him by 28 years, even though he had hoped that Grimshaw might become a future leader of the burgeoning Methodist movement.
Nevertheless, Grimshaw’s life was packed with astonishing activity right up until his death in a typhus epidemic in April 1763. ‘I expect my stay on earth will be but short’, he had predicted, adding, ‘and I will endeavour to make the best of a short life and so devote my soul to God as not to go creeping to heaven at the last’.
This year we mark the 250th anniversary of Grimshaw’s death, and it is well to step back and see why Romaine’s description of this rugged northern preacher was indeed true.
Newly converted in 1741, even though he had already been a curate for almost 10 years, William Grimshaw could not forget the debt he owed to the grace of God. It had rescued him from the hypocritical life of a godless cleric as he ‘embraced Christ for my all in all’.
Now he could declare from a full heart, ‘I can never do enough for my Lord Jesus who has done so much for me’. And, with that aspiration in mind, he moved in 1742 from his previous curacy in Todmorden, Yorkshire, to nearby Haworth.
By the time Grimshaw died 21 years later, there had been an amazing transformation in that bleak Yorkshire village and the whole surrounding area. Drunkards had become sober, wasters had been changed into industrious family men and the gospel flame spread far and wide.
Instead of the mere handful of communicants who attended his early communion Sundays, by the end over 500 battled wind and winter snows to join the congregation for the communion services; while, in the summer months, about 1000 would regularly attend, all waiting with eager expectation to share the blessing of those occasions.
When Whitefield or Wesley were due to visit Haworth, as many as 6000 would pack the large surrounding graveyard, some even clinging onto the church steeple.
Summing up Grimshaw’s ministry, John Newton could write: ‘The desert soon became a fruitful field, a garden of the Lord … and the barren wilderness rejoiced and blossomed like the rose’.
Nor was this all. The influence of Grimshaw’s dynamic and passionate ministry stretched far wider than Haworth. Towns, villages and hamlets throughout the area saw him arriving on his sturdy white pony to preach in barns, chapels and the open air, wherever he could get a hearing.
The ‘Great Haworth Round’, as it was dubbed, was established in 1748, a ‘circuit’ stretching initially from places as far flung as Hartlepool and Sheffield, with hundreds of preaching stations dotted in between.
Sometimes Grimshaw would preach up to 20 times a week, gathering the converts into small societies, which he or his itinerant helpers would visit on a regular basis. And always he was back in Haworth on Sundays, sometimes preaching there four times a day.
John Wesley said of Grimshaw, ‘A few such as him would make a nation tremble. He carries fire wherever he goes’.
Described as ‘a natural orator’, we read that Grimshaw preached in a ‘lively and impassioned manner … riveting the attention … and attracting the more curious who had barely ever entered a church’.
Love for the brethren
Sadly, none of his manuscript sermons have survived. But, throughout his writings and from the recollections of his hearers, we have ample illustration of his priorities and style.
His own advice as to the sort of preaching we need is significant: ‘Hear the best men. Hear a soul-searching, a soul-winning, a soul-enriching minister; one who declares the whole counsel of God … one who makes hard things easy and dark things plain’.
One of Grimshaw’s outstanding characteristics was his genuine love for all true believers, whatever their denominational label. ‘I love them and will love them and none shall make me do otherwise’, he declared roundly.
Once he told his friend John Newton that at least five Dissenting congregations had sprung into being from his own ministry. Men whom he had influenced and who had been converted later became either Baptist or Independent pastors, often drawing many of their members out of Grimshaw’s own congregation.
He was more disturbed, however, when his young convert James Hartley began a Baptist cause in Haworth itself. Yet, when they met unexpectedly, he could still say with generous exuberance, ‘God bless thee, James; God bless thy undertaking. Perhaps God has given thee more light than he has given me — God bless thee’.
Although Grimshaw remained a staunch member of the Established Church all his life, one of his converts, founder of Westgate Baptist chapel in Bradford, spoke of him in glowing terms, calling him the ‘father of Yorkshire Dissent’, and adding, ‘he may well be considered the parent of nearly all the religion in that part of the country’.
Grimshaw’s influence was no mere passing phenomenon, despite the comparative shortness of his life. When his biographer James Everett visited Haworth 60 years after Grimshaw’s death, he exclaimed, ‘He seems to meet us at every point, like a sword turning every way to guard the way of the tree of life’.
Certainly, if there had been no Grimshaw in Haworth, there would have been no evangelical Patrick Bronte to follow him nearly 70 years later.
This in turn has led to today’s ceaseless visitors to Haworth, who come to marvel at the creative genius of the Bronte sisters giving the English language such masterpieces as Wuthering Heights and Jane Eyre.
Even Ted Hughes, England’s former poet laureate but no friend of the gospel, was amazed at the continuing effect of Grimshaw’s ministry upon the whole area well into the twentieth century.
He had been brought up in the nearby village of Heptonstall, and after visiting his home village could exclaim: ‘To judge by the shock-waves which could still be felt well into this century [the 20th], he struck the whole region like a planet … His heavenly fire … shattered the terrain into biblical landmarks; quarries burst open like craters, and chapels … materialised, standing in them’.
And Grimshaw’s influence lives on. Hall Green Baptist Church stands prominently at the foot of the steep hill leading to the parish church, where Grimshaw once thundered out his long and passionate sermons.
Hall Green still bears faithful testimony to the gospel and to the fiery preacher’s legacy. Mick Lockwood, the present pastor, explains: ‘I think the evidence [of Grimshaw’s ministry] lies just in the number of old chapels in the north of England … they really stemmed from this period’.
William Grimshaw was tireless in his labours. His friend, Henry Venn of Huddersfield, complained: ‘He uses his body with less compassion than a merciful man would use his beast’.
But, by 1762, even Grimshaw recognised that his strength was failing. So when an epidemic of typhus fever swept through Haworth in 1763, he was not surprised that he succumbed to the infection.
Hearing that Grimshaw was seriously ill, Benjamin Ingham visited him. ‘My last enemy has come’, Grimshaw declared, ‘the signs of death are on me, but I am not afraid! No, blessed be God, my hope is sure and I am in his hands’.
Life in eighteenth-century Haworth was tenuous, with an average age of only 26. Grimshaw had constantly taught his people to prepare for death and to meditate on the joys of the world to come. ‘Today is your living day’, he would say, ‘tomorrow may be your dying day’. And Grimshaw himself faced this last enemy without flinching.
Despite a burning fever and violent headaches, he confessed to Henry Venn, who was visiting him, ‘I am as happy as I can be on earth and as sure of glory as if I were in it’.
His words are indeed heroic. He asked Venn to conduct his funeral and to preach on words of the apostle Paul that had been his own guiding beacon ever since his conversion: ‘For to me to live is Christ and to die is gain’.
And on 6 April 1763, suffering intense pain, this tireless servant of Jesus Christ could only whisper, ‘I have nothing to do but to step out of bed into heaven. I have my foot upon the threshold already’. And so it proved.
On this anniversary of William Grimshaw’s death, we do well to thank God for such a man and to pray that God will favour his church and our needy generation again with leaders of like zeal and godliness.