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William Grimshaw and the Revival at Haworth

Category Articles
Date December 5, 2002

He had hardly been there a matter of months before a great work of God began there. From the mid 1730s a great revival had broken out in England, Wales and America.

by Paul Cook

[An address at the Revival and Reformation Conference, Swanwick, November 20, 2002]

200,000 tourists go to Haworth every year in pursuit of the Bronte sisters legacy in English literature, out of love for English literature. There are some good books which the local Christians try to sell them, including the biography of William Grimshaw written by Faith Cook (Banner of Truth).

Haworth is a small town in west Yorkshire set in the Pennines. It is a town of great historic interest. Heptonstall is another nearby village which has kept many of its cobbled streets and 18th century flavour. There was a legend that was spread by Mrs Gaskill that Grimshaw horse-whipped his parishioners into the services. Utterly untrue. Ted Hughes the Poet Laureate was aware of Grimshaw and his impact on the community. Hughes said that Grimshaw had ‘changed the very landscape.’ He pays him a noble tribute. Grimshaw was the outstanding pioneer of the 18th century revival in the north of England. He did most to spread the gospel, preaching 20 times a week and sometimes 30 times.

Grimshaw was a Lancastrian; as someone said to me last night, ‘Grimshaw was a missionary over there.’ He was born near Blackburn and in early childhood he had some spiritual impressions. He was admitted to Christ’s College Cambridge at 17. For the first two years of his life he was sober and diligent, but in his third year he learned to drink and swear, but that was no obstacle to his ordination. He became a curate near Hebden Bridge where the inhabitants were wild. They lived barbarously and were punished barbarously. 23 year old Grimshaw was hardly any better then his parishioners, playing cards and fishing. His pastoral visits were times for heavy drinking.

During this time he had some pangs of conscience and longings to be better men. Remorse and self-remorse characterised him, but failing to preach the gospel he took up bizarre methods to attain reformation in the community. When a man refused to marry his pregnant girlfriend Grimshaw dressed up like the devil in dark clothing, horns and a tail and he concealed himself near the stile where this man walked home at dusk. As he mounted the stile Grimshaw rose from the shadows with terrifying grip and threatened to take him to Hades if he refused to marry the girl. The trembling man promised to do the right thing. That was his effort to heighten the moral tone of the village. When a couple had a cot death he came to the parents and told them to seek merry company. He was unable to help them and then a new seriousness came into his life and he began to seek the Lord. He looked into the bottomless pit and saw the devil’s face, and he heard the clamouring voice of his conscience. He had to address God where he finally found mercy. His turning to God first showed itself in a new scrupulousness in morals. He became diligent in his duties and he urged his congregation to b upright in their lives. “We are in a damnable state and I know not how to get out of it,” he cried to the congregation once.

A widow set his sights on him and she came on a horse and told him that she wanted him as husband. A short time later he was wed, and two children in the next years were born. His wife did not help his seeking for God. He returned to some seriousness and began a ledger on which he wrote his good works on one side and his sins on another and kept his accounts as sinner and creditor day by day, thinking he was thus keeping a good relationship with God. He thought at the end of each year that he was leading a balanced life. He did this for 7 long years knowing nothing of peace with God. In November 1739 his wife died leaving him desolate. His wife’s family took the children and he was left in despair. God was taking him to the end of a life lived without Christ.

A travelling preacher had heard him and rebuked him for his beliefs. This man told Grimshaw he was a Jew who was building on the sand. In 1742 he picked up a book written by a friend. A strange flash of heat struck him on the face as he read it. It was John Owen on Justification. He felt a flash of heat again as he read the title. He took the heat as a heaven sent sign. Grimshaw took the book and read it carefully. It became his means of life and salvation.

He married again, 6 months before his conversion, and soon they moved to Haworth. Here he was perpetual curate. But in 5 years she also died and Grimshaw cast lots to see whether he should marry again.

He had hardly been there a matter of months before a great work of God began there. From the mid 1730s a great revival had broken out in England, Wales and America. In the 1740s an awakening began in Scotland. In 1738 a work of God began in the Leeds area and John Nelson soon joined Benjamin Ingham in the West Riding and in Lancashire, and 50 religious societies were started. The revival in Haworth affected the whole area. Much work was done in local homes in worsted cloth manufacture.

William Grimshaw spoke directly to the villagers, and they appreciated it. The church building held a 1000 people, but soon they were crowds in the church yard to listen. Overflowing companies of men and women were listening, and when Whitefield visited and preached to them up to 6,000 gathered. As Whitefield announced his text on, ‘It is appointed unto man once to die,’ a person shrieked out and that person was soon dead. Whitefield needed to start again and after again announcing his text there was another shriek and another person died. There was something so stark about those days. Grimshaw resisted the encouragement of physical manifestations of that time. Conviction of sin and a love of righteousness were the marks he wanted to be seen in those professing conversion.

In 1743 Grimshaw began to organise his converts into little groups. He crossed parish boundaries to help new Christians in neighbouring parishes. Sometimes he preached for 2 hours to those who were longing to hear the word. In the local inn afterwards 100 people were eating and a visitor was struck with the fact that all the conversation was of the gospel. The whole tenor of living in the community changed. Bad language and immorality sharply declined.

There was an occasion when a group of teenagers had jostled some of the people on their way to a prayer meeting. They told Grimshaw about it. He dressed up, disguising himself as a youth and joined them. He inched the gang towards the door of the Prayer Meeting room and pushed them all into the cottage where it was taking place. He took out his horsewhip and chastised them, and then he fell on his knees and prayed for their souls.

Many amazing conversions took place. A woman refused to go to church with her converted husband. One day this man forcefully dressed her in her Sunday best and he took a rod and he drove her the 6 miles to Haworth, “as men drive a beast to market and I went, cursing Grimshaw all the way.” She was converted, and returned the next week going of her own accord. Grimshaw soon came to their farmhouse and returned regularly to preach.

He was a direct preacher: “If you perish you perish with the sound of the gospel in your lugs. Some of your are worse than the very swine. You say nothing over your food while the pigs make sounds.” Another quote when a prodigal returns – “Yonder he comes! Yonder he comes! Rag tag and bobtail he comes . . .” and the whole congregation turned to see the man coming in. He had a celestial eloquence, though unfortunately none of his sermons have survived. He was a ‘Puritan on the warpath.’.

At the annual horses race Grimshaw made representations to the organisers and he tried to stop it, but he failed. So Grimshaw prayed, and the rains fell for three days and the races were never held again. He preached against using the Lord’s Day for football (though he played with the boys during the week). He went looking for wanderers and he spoke to them.

At one time he was suspicious of the Methodists but he learned about them, and was led to them, and one of them helped him understand the Calvinistic faith. He met Wesley and then the Countess, and then Whitefield. There developed a string of preaching centres – the Haworth ’round.’ In 1747 he had a strong impression of God to set out on a preaching tour, the first of many to Manchester and Rochdale and other places on the way, preaching 3 or 4 times each day. But he was always back in Haworth for the Sunday. For the next 16 years of his life he advanced the gospel throughout the north of England.

On his pulpit he had the text written plainly, ‘I was determined not to know anything except Jesus Christ and him crucified.’. . . ‘At home and abroad,’ he said, ‘my work is the same . . .’

Lessons from his life

1. The importance of admonishing sinners to make the gospel an issue.
2. The need to maintain zeal in the work of God.
3. The wonderful way in which God raises up men of outstanding gifts during revivals.
4. His life illustrates the supreme importance of preaching in the spread of the gospel.

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