William Gadsby 1773 – 1844

The following article is taken from The Sinner Saved, The Occasional Journal of the Huntingtonian Press No 47 Autumn 2023, edited by Matthew J Hyde

This year marked the 250th anniversary of the birth of William Gadsby. Raised in poverty, obscurity and a home that could not be called religious, he was separated at a young age by the Lord for himself, and commissioned to be a faithful minister of Jesus Christ.  In time he was called to pastor a congregation in Manchester, amongst which his ministry was greatly used. Today he is perhaps best known for his hymnbook and his editorship, along with his son John, of the Gospel Standard magazine.

In his own day Gadsby was better known as a champion for the poor, and as a controversialist for his major theological distinctive: the gospel and not the law being the believer’s rule of life. Far from being a theological embarrassment, Gadsby was regarded highly enough amongst his peers that his portrait was included in a widely published etching of the leading ministers of the day, and the oil portrait of him which once graced the walls of Baptist House, London, now hangs in the minister’s vestry at Galeed Chapel, Brighton.

Today, 250 years after his birth Gadsby’s legacy hangs in the balance. A few months before the anniversary, worship on the site of Gadsby’s chapel in Manchester ceased with its sale to developers. With falling numbers of users, the future publication of Gadsby’s Hymns is a cause for concern, and  a consultation on its future format is under way. Amongst the churches in which he ministered, his works lie largely unread, and his theological distinctives are at risk of erosion to the legalistic teaching of many modern reformed evangelicals. In the wider Baptist  community the name of William Gadsby is an embarrassment – indeed, the recording of an excellent lecture on Gadsby given at a recent conference was removed from public access within days of it appearing on the internet. One brighter note has been the work of Dr Ian Shaw whose PhD thesis and subsequent published biography of Gadsby have rediscovered Gadsby’s great commitment to the apostolic injunction: “that we should remember the poor.” (Galatians 2:10).

For us, it is less the man we want to remember, but to point our readers once more to the gospel he faithfully preached. Mr Daffyd Morris speaking recently on Gadsby stated that he knew of no other sermons like Gadsby’s. That is a high commendation when it comes from somebody outside Gadsby’s own churches. If you have never taken up Gadsby’s sermons to read, perhaps you should mark the 250th anniversary of his birth by doing so. His children’s catechism gives an introduction to the truths he delighted to preach that can be read within an hour. The excellent compilation of Gadsby’s writings on the believer’s relationship to the moral law: Freedom from the Law should be on everybody’s reading list. This reprint goes back to the unedited versions of Gadsby’s works (his son John took his editorial penknife to them when he produced two volumes of his father’s writings in 1851) and also includes extracts of the writings which Gadsby was answering. We could hope that the anniversary might prompt the production of the remainder of Gadsby’s writings in a similar scholarly edition.

Gadsby was beloved by the poor children of God in his day. The gospel he preached still speaks to the vilest sinner:

Come, whosoever will,

Nor vainly strive to mend;

Sinners are freely welcome still

To Christ, the sinner’s Friend.

What a mercy that gospel continues even when the men who faithfully preached it in their day and generation are long forgotten!