It would be hard to overestimate the impact of William Grimshaw’s ministry in northern England. He was one of the most conscientious parish pastors of his day, yet also an itinerant preacher who turned his parish into a center of Wesleyan Methodism. His “catholic spirit" enabled him to embrace all factions of the awakening and his ministry had an impact on the Church of England, dissenting denominations, and Methodism. His fervent piety and Methodist practices led many to call him “Mad Grimshaw.”
None of this could have been predicted during the first half of his life. Born in 1708 in humble circumstances, Grimshaw was a good student and in 1726 was accepted into Christ’s College, Cambridge University. Like the Wesley brothers saw at Oxford, the academic and moral standards at Cambridge were low. But unlike the Wesley’s, after a couple of years of serious study Grimshaw gradually entered into a social life marked by gambling, drinking, and swearing.
This was how he was living when he was ordained deacon in 1731, and elder in 1732. As the pastor at Tedmordon he continued his life of hunting, fishing, and socializing, fulfilling only the required responsibility of leading worship.
It was in 1734 that Grimshaw had a spiritual awakening. He was shaken by his own sinfulness, sought to reform his life, and his change in behavior was noted by those around him.
Grimshaw married Sarah Sutcliff in 1735 and had two infant children when Sarah died in 1739. Her death drove Grimshaw to despair. Now he struggled with doubts about God’s mercy as well as his own sin.
Another minister convinced Grimshaw that he had yet to believe in Jesus Christ. Then in 1741 Grimshaw read The Doctrine of Justification by Faith (1677), written by the Puritan, John Owen, which showed that salvation was by God’s initiative and received by faith in Jesus Christ. As Grimshaw told Henry Venn, “I was now willing to renounced 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 own soul, and what a taste of the pardoning love of God” (Cited in Frank Baker, William Grimshaw [Epworth Press, 1963], 46). Grimshaw became an avid reader of the Bible and the theme of his sermons moved from purely warnings against sin to salvation by faith.
In 1742, Grimshaw was appointed to the parish church in Haworth, where he would live out the rest of his ministry. The people there were largely employed by the textile industry and lived in dire poverty. Death and disease were common, and immorality and violence prevalent.
Grimshaw’s passionate sermons denouncing sin and calling for faith in Christ had an immediate impact on the desperate people of Haworth and beyond. He drew so many listeners that the church had to be enlarged. By 1742, Grimshaw was also visiting each of the three hundred families in his parish annually.
In 1744 Grimshaw had another powerful spiritual experience. Overcome by weakness, he collapsed during Sunday worship and was carried to a nearby inn. When he recovered, he reported a vision of Jesus showing him his wounded hands and feet. The effect was to give him an assurance of salvation that eliminated the doubts that remained after his conversion.
As the awakening in Haworth gathered strength, Grimshaw began itinerant preaching outside the bounds of his parish in 1747 and utilizing lay preachers even earlier, in 1745. Charles Wesley visited Grimshaw in 1746 and was impressed by his ministry and the new societies formed by Grimshaw’s lay preacher, William Darney. In 1747, John Wesley went to Haworth, and both Grimshaw and Darney’s societies became part of Wesley’s growing connection.
The “Haworth round” became the northern center of Wesleyan Methodism. While remaining a faithful pastor of his church, Grimshaw threw himself into Methodist work, overseeing lay preachers and societies, and organizing class meetings. Grimshaw was the first to employ circuit-wide Quarterly Meetings, a practice that would spread throughout Methodism.
Grimshaw became known as “the apostle of the north.” John Wesley chose him as his designated successor after brother Charles, but Grimshaw died of typhus in 1763 well before both of them, of typhus. But the impact of his ministry on both Methodism and northern England would be felt well into the nineteenth century.
Grimshaw preached the central emphases of Methodism: original sin, atonement, universal grace, the power of the Holy Spirit, justification, and sanctification. He endeavored to preach in the everyday language of his people, what he termed “market-language.” But he was clear about what mattered most: “A sanctified heart in a minister is better that a silver tongue” (119).