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Torchbearers of the Truth: William Grimshaw (1708-1763)

J Brown, Peterhead

The village of Haworth, situated amid the bleak Pennine moorland of the West Riding of Yorkshire, is internationally famous as having been the home of the Brontë sisters when their father, Patrick Brontë, was curate there. Charlotte, Emily, and Anne were the authors respectively of Jane Eyre, Wuthering Heights and The Tenant of Wildfell Hall. Two generations earlier a man of God, William Grimshaw ministered at Haworth church. His name may not have become as well-known as Whitefield’s, or the Wesleys’ who travelled more widely, but he was greatly used of God, particularly in Yorkshire during the "Great Awakening".

Grimshaw was born in Brindle, a hamlet to the south-west of Blackburn in Lancashire. In early life he had some spiritual impressions, but these waned as he grew up. After education at a public school in Blackburn he went up to Christ’s College, Cambridge, where for two years he was a sober and diligent student before falling into bad company and habits. After graduating he was ordained curate for a short time at Rochdale, and then, in 1732, at Todmorden about eight miles west of Halifax. His ungodly lifestyle was at that time no bar to ordination by the Church of England. Like not a few of its clergy he had little sense of vocation and enjoyed the pursuits of the local gentry such as hunting, shooting and card playing. Occasionally Grimshaw suffered pangs of conscience, but these were smothered until an extraordinary experience befell him. James Scholfield was a local hill farmer whose wife Susan bore a son after ten years of marriage. Their delight gave way to despair when the child became sick, and, fearful for his life, they arranged for his baptism when he was just five weeks old. The parents were distraught when their son died on the day of his baptism and being devout and regular in their attendance at church it was natural for them to look to the Rev Grimshaw for solace and spiritual comfort. They found neither, for Grimshaw being unregenerate was incapable of helping. His shallow advice was: visit friends, eat, drink and make merry.

Grimshaw began to feel remorse and shame for his own inadequacies. He recognised his utter failure to help his parishioners and the incident marked a turning point in his life. The story had a happy ending as the Scholfields lived to over eighty and had two more daughters and two healthy sons. Most importantly, they both became earnest Christians and Grimshaw later wrote to them: "What a blind leader of the blind I was when I came to take off thy burden, by exhorting thee to live in pleasure and to follow the vain amusements of the world! But God has in His mercy pardoned and blessed us all three. Blessed be His great name!".

Grimshaw forsook his easy going lifestyle and began to devote himself seriously to his religious duties. His sermons warned his congregations of their spiritual danger, and urged upon them upright living to obtain favour with God. He began to record his conduct in order to monitor it more strictly, and this continued for seven years but brought no rest to his troubled conscience. During this period Grimshaw married a young widow, Sarah Sutcliffe, in 1735. A son was born followed by a daughter, and domestic happiness distracted him for a time, but soon heart searchings reasserted themselves. He was nigh overwhelmed by sorrow when Sarah died in 1739. The children were cared for by his wife’s relatives and Grimshaw, now alone in his parsonage, desolate and broken in spirit, despaired of ever finding an end to his spiritual conflict. An itinerant minister frequently passed through the area and rebuked Grimshaw for his legalistic views of salvation telling him often, "Mr Grimshaw, you are building on the sand". The words burned in his mind. One day in 1741 he saw in a friend’s home a book titled The Doctrine of Justification by Faith written by the Puritan, John Owen. Reading this book Grimshaw found the answer to his problem. As he described later, "I was now willing to renounce myself, every degree of fancied merit and ability, and to embrace Christ only for my all in all. O what light and comfort did I now enjoy in my soul, and what a taste of the pardoning love of God". New life infused his ministry as extempore prayer mingled with the set prayers of the liturgy, and as he preached Christ as the Saviour of sinners.

Like many another Grimshaw was assailed by doubts and fears but was greatly helped by a Scotsman, William Darney, known as "Scotch Will". Darney, a shoemaker and peddler travelled around the villages preaching the gospel. Grimshaw initially had reservations about Darney’s preaching, possibly because the latter was not ordained. However, he warmed to Darney and in humility was willing to learn from him. He found that Darney enjoyed the assurance that he was "sealed unto the day of redemption", a truth at the time little known, and Grimshaw learned not to lean upon his own feelings but on the unchanging Word of God.

His move to Haworth took place in the spring of 1742. The small town and the surrounding area were to become the scene of a remarkable outpouring of revival showers upon dry ground. News of the earnest and powerful preaching of the new curate at Haworth spread abroad and before long the congregations were so large that hundreds had to stand in the churchyard. The spiritual conflicts of earlier times brought a depth and warmth to his ministry. Though well educated he addressed his congregations in basic terms ensuring that his message was understood: "If you perish, you will perish [and in broad Yorkshire dialect] wi’ t’ sound o’ t’ gospel i’ yer lugs!". He preached with passion and solemnity: "God still waits to be gracious to you and takes pleasure in showing mercy. His patience bears, His justice forbears, His mercy entreats. Christ stands offering His blood and merits freely to you. The Holy Spirit is persuading you; ministers are calling and praying for you; your conscience is accusing you; yea, and the devil is waiting for your death that he may have you into hell". Those who heard his pulpit prayers were gripped by their reality. "He was like a man at times with his feet on earth and his soul in heaven. He would take hold of the horns of the altar and he would not let go until God had given the blessing." Little wonder souls were being saved!

For a time Grimshaw was reluctant to cross parish boundaries, but as people from neighbouring parishes continued to come to Haworth, so the demand for him to preach elsewhere increased. Convinced of the need, he began to exercise an evangelical and pastoral ministry through Yorkshire and into neighbouring counties. Grimshaw had the care of souls at heart, visiting the scattered societies of believers. Though his admonitions were stern, his pleadings were tender, and his devoted care endeared him to all believers. Thus he became greatly loved and respected.

He experienced opposition, sometimes instigated by clergy jealous of his popularity. This broke into open violence during a visit by John Wesley in 1748 when rioters disrupted the preaching and one man struck Wesley across the face while another hit him over the head with a stick. Grimshaw too was roughly handled but was able to shake off his assailants.

William Grimshaw bore much sorrow in family life. His second wife Elizabeth died only five years after their marriage and subsequently his daughter died aged twelve. He had been a strong robust man but in his early fifties he suffered increasing ill-health. He preached from his own pulpit for the last time on 20th March, 1763. On the following day he realised that he had contracted typhus in an epidemic of the fever which had broken out in Haworth. In his weakened state he was unable to resist the ravages of his illness and on 7th April went to be with the Lord. As he wished, he was buried in a poor man’s clothes and in a poor man’s coffin with the words of Philippians 1.21 inscribed upon the lid. He had asked that the funeral address be based upon that text. It was a fitting epithet: "For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain".

And there was a happy postscript! Grimshaw’s son John, a wastrel and a drunkard, had broken his father’s heart, but now, overcome by remorse and regret, the prodigal found mercy and forgiveness. He exclaimed before he died just three years later, "What will my father say when he sees me in heaven!"

To be continued.

William Grimshaw of Haworth by Faith Cook, and published by Banner of Truth, provided much of the information for this article.


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