Born in Antigua, the son of a barrister and nephew to Nathaniel Gilbert, he joined the Methodists at 15. In 1783 he offered for the itinerancy and served in Liverpool, Chester and Wolverhampton Circuits before following John Fletcher at Madeley in 1785. There was a degree of estrangement between him and the Methodists from 1791, when he ceased to appear on the stations. Between September 1792 and October 1793 he served as chaplain to the Sierra Leone Company at Freetown, explaining to his Madeley parishioners that he was compelled 'to forsake all I hold dear' so that 'the wretched sons of bleeding Africa may be brought to flee for sanctuary under the wings of the God of Israel'.
His mission failed for several reasons, but he used his experience to compose Letters on Missions; Addressed to the Protestant Ministers of the British Churches (1794, with several reprints), calling for a pan-evangelical response to missions. His work had a significant influence on the formation of the interdenominational (London) Missionary Society in 1795 and on the development of missions in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century.
After his return from Africa it proved impossible for several reasons for him to return to Madeley. He served in the parishes of Olney 1796-1799, Christ Church, Macclesfield 1799-1811, West Thurrock 1811-1814, Marazion 1814-1816 and Salford 1817-1823, when his health deteriorated.