"An influence on our land": William Grimshaw
Years before the Brontës moved to Haworth, people were flocking to the town to hear the words of one man and his hellfire message...
Today William Grimshaw is no longer a household name but 250 years ago this Haworth parson was known across the north of England and beyond. Mick Lockwood, minister of Hall Green Baptist Church in Haworth, says its difficult now to know how many people turned up to hear Grimshaw's sermons: "I read one thing that said 10,000 but certainly there were crowds of two or three thousand...When he first came to Haworth there were 12 people who would take communion." However, within a few years of Grimshaw's arrival people were crowding into the churchyard to hear him.
But what was it about Grimshaw that brought out the crowds? Mick says: "William Grimshaw was the Church of England minister during the evangelical revival. For those of us who look at the evangelical revival, with the Wesleys and Whitefield, as an influence on our land, Grimshaw was so influential that John Wesley [founder of the Methodist movement] wanted him to take over the running of the Methodists. That never happened but it just shows how influential he was."
Mick believes what Grimshaw had to say would have transformed the lives of many who heard him: "Methodism was an Anglican movement but the message was the main thing because it was this world view that there is a God and judgement. Heaven and Hell were very real. Lives were short and there was a seriousness which really was a message that if we are going to face God we need to be forgiven and the only way to be forgiven is through faith in Jesus Christ. So there was an urgency to this message and for anyone who believed it, it actually changed their lives."
Mick Lockwood at Hall Green Baptist Church
Mick's chapel, Hall Green Baptists, was built in the 1820s and he believes that we probably have William Grimshaw's life-transforming message to thank for this: "I think the evidence is just in the number of old chapels and buildings. In the north of England, that's what we are known for, isn't it? Fish and chip shops, moors and chapels - it really stemmed from this period. There's a quote by Ted Hughes - 'To judge by the shockwave which could still be felt well into this century he [Grimshaw] struck the whole region like a planet.' His observation, I think, was interesting - it's not just a transformation of people in the 18th century but we've actually got Grimshaw's legacy in the buildings. Hughes felt he was brought up amongst the ghosts of these people because they so influenced the geography of the area."
Grimshaw wasn't a man to be tied down by religious denomination. Despite being Haworth's parson, he built the town's Methodist Church. Mick explains: "In the early 18th century there had been a falling away from attendance at church and then came this revival, and it was a remarkable thing because different people like Grimshaw really had a Methodist lifestyle and way of ministering before they ever met the Methodists. It was a number of people in different places who became Christians and were very zealous and eager to tell other people about Christ with this urgency which marked the evangelical revival. Grimshaw was very much part of that and it wasn't just affecting Haworth. It was the whole of the country." But Mick wonders if people like Grimshaw may have unconsciously played a very important part in English history: "I've heard it say it was the evangelical revival which prevented a Parisian style revolution...but I don't know about that."
Plaque on Grimshaw's Parsonage at Sowden, Haworth
And it may be that for those hearing him for the first time, Grimshaw's message was indeed revolutionary. It certainly carries a warning: "There's a judgement day, we are guilty before God and we'll end up in Hell if we are not forgiven. That was the urgency - you've really got to believe in Christ to be forgiven and once you are forgiven Heaven is yours, not Hell. This was the clear message."
Although Cambridge educated, it’s likely that Grimshaw had enough of the common touch to make him a popular orator as a quote from Mick suggests: "He famously said, 'If tha's goin' to 'ell, tha'll go wi' Gospel ringin' in thi lugoyles.'" But while we can only imagine what Grimshaw sounded like, Mick points out that now, 300 years after Grimshaw's birth, we can read his words for ourselves: "Although regarded as one of the great Evangelical leaders of the 18th century, William Grimshaw's writings have been inaccessible to successive generations. Paul and Faith Cook are to be greatly commended for presenting today's readers with a sampling of what made Grimshaw the important leader he was. The brief biographical introduction, coupled with selections from Grimshaw's previously unpublished manuscripts, make a perfect introduction to him."
But for Mick the evangelical message is also about love: "It's this message of the immensity of the love of God - we have rebelled against him and have deserved this punishment but actually He's loved us to the extent that Christ gave his life for us. If Christ was crucified and suffered in our place, that shows the immensity of that love and the change of life that comes about when a person realises Christ has done everything. It's not a case of I must start living better and try to get to Heaven, but actually the motive is that Christ has done everything and it's a free gift, so in gratitude I'm going to show God how much I love him and the motive is this changed life of love, responding to the love of God. That was at the heart of the evangelical revival and it's still a message today, isn't it?"
William Grimshaw: Living the Christian Life, selected by Paul and Faith Cook, is published by EP Books.
last updated: 25/02/2009 at 12:56