Gadsby, William


b Attleborough nr Nuneaton, Warwicks 1773, d 1844. The 9th of 14 children, he spent his childhood in great poverty, attending the church school at Nuneaton so briefly that he later forgot what reading skills he once learned. Though a wild and mischievous lad, he used to say he would be a parson one day. At 13 he became an apprentice ribbon weaver; as a teenager he remembered being sobered by seeing 3 men hanged at Coventry for burglary. At 17 he was converted and began to attend the Independent Chapel at nearby Bedworth, rarely missing a prayer meeting. He then joined the Cow Lane Baptists in Coventry, where he was baptized in Dec 1793 at the age of 20. He would make the 16-mile round trip on foot, Sundays and weeknights whatever the weather. Two years later he moved to Hinckley, Leics, learning stocking weaving and joining a Particular Baptist ch who met in a barn in Hogg Lane. Reluctantly at first, he began to preach, first at Bedworth in 1798, aged 25. Receiving many more invitations, he was ordained in 1800 for ministry at Hinckley and at Desford nr Leicester. The Hogg Lane congregation grew to 100, not without opposition; the pulpit was once removed by invaders, loaded with stones and thrown into a pond. But as the bottom had fallen out it did not sink, and was rescued and is still preserved. A new ‘Ebenezer Chapel’ was opened in 1803, and by the sale of drapery goods Gadsby was able to buy some nearby land and build a house for himself and his family. But the congregation had various homes in future years; at one of these, Trinity Lane Chapel, a visiting preacher in the 1960s was Martyn Lloyd-Jones who had never before heard Immortal honours and asked for the last verse to be repeated. Still in 1803 Gadsby preached at Back Lane Particular Baptist Chapel in Manchester; following a mixed response, those in favour won the day and in 1805 he began a 38-year ministry as their pastor. The building was known later as Rochdale Rd Chapel, and was filled with great crowds. He once preached to some 8000 in Manchester’s old Free Trade Hall, but loved to travel on foot throughout the north of England, speaking mainly for the poorer and labouring classes. As a result of this itinerant ministry covering some 60,000 miles and preaching 8 or 9 times a week, 40 new churches were planted in four counties. His pulpit and open-air manner was strikingly distinctive and his teaching often provoked argument; he was a powerful but gracious controversialist so that even opponents recognised his saintly life and conduct, and some were eventually reconciled to him. He was a keen advocate of Sunday Schools, and appeared on public platforms on issues such as the Corn Laws, poverty, temperance, and the known immorality of King George IV. He founded the strongly Calvinistic Gospel Standard magazine, issued a catechism, booklets and tracts.

He wrote over 150 hymns, publishing his first Selection of Hymns for Public Worship (or The Nazarene’s Songs, being a Composition of Original Hymns) in 1814. ‘The Nazarene’ was his nom-de-plume when writing for The Gospel Magazine. The 1st edn contained 670 hymns, the last 157 being his own and the other main authors Watts and Hart, with a substantial number of Newton’s; the book aimed to be wholly purged of Arminianism—but some of Charles Wesley was permitted. And free from ‘legal’ (i.e. legalistic) sentiments—in spite of the perceived dangers here in the collections from Watts and Jn Rippon. The book did, however, contain many mistaken attributions. 10 years later came a new edn with a further 112 hymns and many of his own ‘curtailed’ except for their opening stzs; and in 1838 a 3rd edn added 102 more, in a total of 772. The opening hymn sounds a not an entirely happy (or even Biblical) note to modern ears: ‘Great God, how infinite thou art!/ What worthless worms are we!’

In his Preface, WG specially commends the work of Hart and Berridge; he remained averse to the use of any instrumental accompaniment to singing. On some doctrinal points he was for a time opposed by J Stevens (qv), whose Selection of hymns had been available since 1809, but the two men later met in friendship. His view of authentic evangelism was ‘to preach the gospel to all, but not to offer it to all’–as if the sovereign God was at the mercy of an unbeliever’s ‘decision’. (The Arminian Jn Wesley, by contrast, frequently ‘offered Christ’ to the crowds, as his Journal testifies.) Gadsby’s last sermon was preached in Jan 1844 and he died 12 days later. For all his godliness, he seems to have founded or at least fostered a culture of deathbed anxiety rather than of dying Christianly, calmly, and ‘in sure and certain hope’. In 1882 his son John published a revised edn of his hymnbook, retaining his father’s 157 texts in a total of 1138, and a volume of his sermons with a memoir in 1884. In Julian, the Baptist editor W R Stevenson is somewhat dismissive, being critical of Gadsby’s rhymes and lack of poetic fervour; at the other end of the scale some of his own persuasion have compared him with John Bunyan. See also John R Todd, Immortal Honours: The Life of William Gadsby, Loughborough 1999, and the most recent major study, William Gadsby by B A Ramsbottom (2003). This last book noted that the latest edn of ‘Gadsby’s’ was probably the oldest English-language hymnal still in use, as it is in some 150 ‘Gospel Standard’ congregations in the UK and some overseas. Nos.272, 302, 753.