Immortal honours rest on Jesus’ head;
My God, my portion, and my living bread;
In Him I live, upon Him cast my care;
He saves from death, destruction and despair.
He is my refuge in each deep distress;
The Lord my strength and glorious righteousness;
Through floods and flames He leads me safely on,
And daily makes His sovereign goodness known.
My every need He richly will supply,
Nor will His mercy ever let me die;
In Him there dwells a treasure all divine,
And matchless grace has made that treasure mine.
O, that my soul could love and praise Him more,
His beauties trace, His majesty adore;
Live near His heart, upon His bosom lean;
Obey His voice, and all His will esteem.
We all know the hymn ‘Immortal Honours’. It is a favourite for many at Morton. But what do we know about the man who wrote it? For the last four years I have attended an autumn conference at the Baptist Chapel in Charlesworth, on the edge of the Peak District in Derbyshire. The graveyard contains the grave marker of William Gadsby, and his wife, Elizabeth. Their bodies are not buried there. They are now under concrete in Manchester, and the stone was moved to the chapel to save it from destruction. Gadsby was fond of the Charlesworth Chapel and preached there on many occasions. But what do we know about him?
He was born in Attleborough near Nuneaton in Warwickshire, in 1773. He was the ninth of fourteen children. His father was a road-mender, which was a very poorly paid job, and the family had many struggles. He had a poor education, and by his late teens he could barely read. At thirteen he became an apprentice ribbon-weaver. He had a strong sense of humour, but he used it in profane ways, and was known for his foul mouth. He still attended the local independent chapel with his parents, even though he continually rejected the things of God and tried to lose himself in the pleasures open to him. Aged 17 he witnessed an appalling public execution, where three men were hanged, and one survived the drop, writhing in agony until the hangman pulled his legs to break his neck. As he turned away, the unease he felt about his rejection of God was growing and growing. He could not escape the thought of eternity and the justice of God. He began to try to live a better life, but he was horrified by his own sin, and could not see how God could ever forgive him. For some time, he attended church without any hope of his own salvation. By God’s grace, he came to realise that he could do nothing to save himself, and that he must cast himself upon God’s mercy alone, and he finally saw that Christ loved him and had died for him.
He knew many struggles in his early Christian life, as the disadvantage of not being able to read weighed heavily, and his own feelings of unworthiness often surfaced. He met a young assistant pastor, James Aston from Coventry who often preached in his village, and who became a mentor to him. Gadsby began to attend the Particular Baptist Church at Cow Lane in Coventry. He was baptised in 1793, and began to gain in education with the help of his friend, the assistant Pastor. In his twenties, he slowly and painfully taught himself to read.
Gadsby often helped Aston in his visits to minister to a new church in nearby Hinckley, and there he met Elizabeth, who helped him when he had to give up ribbon weaving for health reasons and moved into stocking weaving. Elizabeth was able to pay off his debt to his Master and enable him to change careers. In 1796, when he was 23, he married Elizabeth, later joking that all they owned was an umbrella, which they sold to buy a table!
In time, three daughters were born. Now living and working in Hinckley, he transferred his membership there and began to share a few thoughts from the scriptures with others in the church. Simple working class folk, like him, were impressed with his straightforward explanations. Despite his reluctance, the Lord led him to preach, and his first sermon was preached in 1798. Life was tough as he combined low-paid hard work with ministry.
The Lord blessed the little flock in Hinckley despite local opposition, and churches were established in neighbouring villages as well. He was ordained in 1800, but didn’t like the idea of hands being laid on him and jumped to one side – he thought it was too Roman Catholic! The church he served spent a lot of money to build a new building, and to help pay it off he took many preaching engagements, one of which was in Manchester in 1803. After many visits, much acclaim, and heavy persuasion, he took the pastorate of Back Lane Chapel in 1805. A large minority of members left not long afterwards, due to theological differences, but the work slowly grew. Even after his death it would be the largest Baptist church in Manchester, with 800 attending the evening services (more than the morning).
Gadsby preached with great power, and it was said of him that he seemed ‘a preacher made for the working classes. The common people heard him gladly. His popularity with the factory people of Manchester was extraordinary’. He loved to speak of the grace of God, not holding back in exposing his hearers’ sin, and giving all glory to God. He was used of God in the founding of a number new churches around Manchester, mainly due to his willingness to preach the gospel wherever people would hear it.
He knew sadness in his life, as his wife Elizabeth descended into madness. He refused to commit her to an asylum, and kept her at home for twenty five years. She outlived him by a further six years, and gave a clear profession of faith before she died, proving the truth of what Gadsby had said years before ‘She is in the Lord’s hands, and whether she is sick or well, deranged or in her right mind naturally, I am sure she is on the Rock, and it will be well with her at last’.
At sixty eight, Gadsby fell and broke his leg. It was a hard recovery for him. Indeed, he never fully recovered, and would often lose entire nights of sleep due to pain. As the years passed, everything became a struggle, until even walking a few paces left him out of breath. He began to think about the seeming certainty that he would soon die. This did not trouble him, but instead, he had a great hope and expectancy. As 1844 began, he presided at the annual congregational tea in the school room of the chapel, and he preached the next day on Hebrews 13:8: ‘Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever’. His breathing was more and more difficult, but he managed three more weeks’ ministry, preaching for the last time on 21st January. That day it took him four minutes to climb into the pulpit. He was only seventy-one, but within a week he was confined to bed and his strength ebbed away.
As friends and family gathered round, and cared for him, he lamented his weakness, but commented that it would soon be followed by victory. When it was clear that his race was nearly run, the family were called for, and he asked for Romans 12 to be read. He had a few moments relief when he was able to sit up and pray for the church and for his family, then he sank back to his pillows and was heard to say “There is nothing too hard for Christ, He is the mighty God, from everlasting to everlasting. He was precious. He is precious.”
He smiled, and entered the presence of the Lord. His funeral was held soon after, and thousands of people lined the streets of Manchester. On the next Sunday, John Kershaw of Rochdale preached a memorial sermon in the chapel. 1500 crammed in and hundreds were turned away. That service closed with the solemn but resounding sound of our beloved hymn ‘Immortal Honours’.
The memorial stone, which stands at Charlesworth Chapel today, records that Gadsby’s last words were ‘I shall soon be with Him, shouting Victory! Victory! Victory! For ever. Free Grace! Free Grace! Free Grace!’ It also records that after his death a piece of paper was found in his desk, directing that these words be inscribed upon his stone:
Here rests the body of a sinner base
Who had no hope but electing grace
The love, blood, life and righteousness of God
Was His sweet theme –
And this He spread abroad.
His wife’s side of the stone carries a line from our beloved hymn:
In Christ there dwells a treasure all-divine
And matchless grace has made that treasure mine
Dear readers — in our congregation and beyond — do you know the Saviour? If you sing the words of Gadsby’s hymn, can you do so sincerely? Is your life truly dedicated to Christ? Have you repented of sin and believed the gospel? I am not bound by the limits Mr Gadsby placed upon gospel preaching, and so I call you directly — come to Jesus Christ, as He invites you. He is everything. Nothing and no-one compares to Him. He truly is that ‘treasure all-divine’. Lay hold upon the boundless, matchless grace of God.