William Gadsby’s Deep Concern for the Suffering

It has been falsely and unkindly stated that the [so-called by the religious world] “High Calvinists” had little or no concern for their fellow-men around them.

No one showed deeper concern for the suffering masses than William Gadsby – so that he was greatly admired and even loved by those who did not believe his doctrines.

Is there any minister who has Gadsby’s influence today?

It may seem strange that it was especially in the latter part of his life that William Gadsby ventured more and more into the political arena. The reason for this is not far to seek – the formation of the Manchester Anti-Corn Law Association in September 1838 in the York Hotel, to be followed, also in Manchester, by the Anti Corn Law League in the next year. The purpose of the League was simple: the abolition of the Corn Laws which forbade the importation of foreign wheat into England until the price of English wheat was 80 shillings a quarter – thus keeping bread dear, and having a demoralising effect on the poorer classes. Thus was launched one of the most intensive campaigns of political agitation of the 19th century – and Gadsby enthusiastically joined it.

First, though affecting the whole of Britain, this was essentially a Manchester
movement. “The League is Manchester,” wrote Richard Cobden, the leader, along with John Bright, of nearby Rochdale. So the events were taking place on Gadsby’s doorstep.

But more important, Gadsby had always felt very strong sympathy for the poor and the oppressed, and was only too glad to use his influence (which was now considerable) on their behalf.

This is why he ventured into politics. In a word, as he himself said, “I know what poverty is, for I have been so poor as to feel grateful for twopence.”

It was because he saw the Corn Laws as the epitome of aristocratic abuses that Gadsby became an active adherent of the Anti-Corn Law League. It was for him a theological issue; it concerned the honour and glory of God.

“The whole of his arguments,” was the comment after one Anti-Corn Law sermon, “were based upon Scripture.”

“He is an old and trusted friend of the rights of the people,” commented one of the League’s journalists, “and we are glad to see him lending the weight of his example in the cause of cheap bread.”

This is why he received such a rapturous reception when he spoke at the remarkable meeting held in the Town Hall in December 1839. No meeting held in the Town Hall had ever been more numerous, and not only was the Hall packed but it was an unruly gathering. The right-wing Chronicle said “a senseless and unreasoning mob”!

It seems incredible that any Christian minister could hold the attention of such a meeting for the length of three-quarters of an hour, speaking with all the moral indignation of an Old Testament prophet. Yet such was the respect in which Gadsby, now an aging man, was held in the town where he had preached for so long.

It is clear that he “occupied a very warm place in the affections of the people.” This “great borough meeting,” held on December 19th, 1839, was certainly stormy. The Manchester Guardian and Times gave a graphic account. Mark Philips, M.P., was met with mingled hisses and cheers – from Tories and Chartists. C.J.S. Walker, a county magistrate, said little but merely moved the resolution. Hugh Hornby Burley was heckled with cries of “Peterloo!” when he stood up to speak, and was not able to proceed.

“The Rev. Wm. Gadsby on presenting himself to second the resolution was received with much applause.”

To the delight of the audience, alluding to the black cap he always wore, he said he had come to pass the death sentence on the Corn Laws. Speaking not as a politician, but “one who, I trust, has been taught to preach God’s Word,” he stated that they were “directly opposed to the Word of God.”

He desired to be found among that number who can stand the scrutiny of God Himself, having an honest conscience.

As he proceeded he was greeted with cheers and applause, not least when, referring to Genesis 1:29, he declared, “That is God’s corn law!”

Most strongly did he speak against the landlords who say, “No, the labouring, the industrious people of England shall not partake of the fruit of the earth, if we can help it, for we are determined to keep the greatest part of the labour for ourselves.” (Further cheers.)

In this vein Gadsby continued, interrupted by “immense cheers,” “very long cheers,” etc. When he apologised for detaining them so long, there were cries of “Go on!”

At the end he said he must “come to my old standard, the Book of God. I have got none other to stand on.”

He then read Proverbs 11:26, adding, “I consider the Corn Laws degrading to every principle of humanity, and insulting to God and man.”

He then read Job 35:9; Exodus 3:7-8; and Proverbs 14:31, and soon afterwards sat down to “loud applause.”

The great Cobden, the next speaker, on rising declared, “After the address you have heard from Mr. Gadsby I can scarcely venture to bring down your thoughts.”

Not all God’s people, even in William Gadsby’s lifetime, thought it right for him to become so involved in political events. John Gadsby was aware of this when, in describing his father’s political involvement, he wrote: “We will offend some of Mr. G’s friends who could not agree with him in the part he took in the political world.”

With Gadsby himself, his conscience was clear; he could not look on the depths of human suffering, and merely stand by. One interesting sideline of the Anti-Corn Law League is that John Gadsby became the League’s printer.

Almost unbelievably, in those days of great political excitement and agitation, John Gadsby used the back page of the Anti-Corn Law League circulars profitably. So the circular that gave an account of the great meeting just described also advertised Tiptaft’s Fifteen Reasons for Resigning his living in the Establishment; J.C. Philpot’s Secession from the Church of England Defended; Gadsby’s Nature and Design of the Marriage Union, and his Sermon on the Glory of God’s Grace; and “a portrait of Mr. Gadsby 8v. size, beautifully engraved on steel by Mr. Freedman.”

Above all John Gadsby used the back page of the Anti-Corn Law League circulars to recommend the Gospel Standard “in which are advocated and set forth, experimentally and doctrinally, the glories and great truths of God in His Trinity of Persons, His discriminating grace, everlasting love and predestinating favour.”

The Gadsby’s certainly did not believe in hiding their light under a bushel. With them the things of God always had to come first.

By B.A. Ramsbottom

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