An A-Z of Hymnwriters: Thomas Kelly
Sermon at Saint Mark’s Church, Borris-in-Ossory on Wednesday, 3rd August 2011
A Laois man, from Ballintubbert on the Kildare border, Thomas Kelly was probably unfortunate to live when he did; had he been in ministry in our own times, he might have been a major presence in our church, a formidable advocate of his views at General Synod and a powerful preacher welcome in many pulpits around the country.
The son of a High Court judge, Kelly was born in 1769 and was educated here in Laois at Portarlington and at Trinity College, Dublin. Following his father’s example, he went to London to study law at the Middle Temple. He moved in influential circles, being a friend of Edmund Burke, the great philosopher and parliamentarian. However, Kelly was influenced by the work of William Romaine, an evangelical priest of the Church of England. Back in Dublin, he was challenged by evangelical leader John Walker about his need for ‘inward conversion’. Against the wishes of his family and instead of continuing his studies for the bar, he chose instead the path of ordination, being ordained in the Church of England, at the age of 23.
Kelly embraced the evangelical ‘doctrines of grace’ and was anxious to share the truths he had discovered. He became a popular preacher in Dublin and drew large congregations to Saint Luke’s church until stopped by the rector.
It was Kelly’s misfortune that his ministry in Dublin coincided with years when the Archbishop of Dublin was Robert Fowler, a man who seems to have had a particular dislike for evangelicals. Fowler, as a member of the Irish House of Lords, had voted in 1782 against removing the legal discrimination against Dissenters. He was a man concerned with his own political influence and power and at one time had pursued the British Prime Minister for an hereditary peerage in the British House of Lords. Fowler disliked what he regarded as the ‘certain strange and pernicious doctrines’ preached by Thomas Kelly and he barred Kelly from the pulpits of his diocese.
It would seem odd that an archbishop would ban a priest who was preaching to full churches, but Kelly would have been inspired by an 18th Century evangelicalism, influenced by the Wesleys, that stressed personal integrity and righteousness in the nation. It was the evangelicals who were championing the campaign for the abolition of slavery, the evangelicals who sought better social conditions, the evangelicals who were concerned about the poor. Furthermore, there was an egalitarianism in evangelicalism that would have threatened Fowler’s liking for hierarchy and privilege and power. Preaching justification by faith would have threatened the influence of the Established Church, which required people be members of it, or suffer all sorts of legal disabilities. Kelly’s preaching of salvation by grace would have suggested that we all stood as sinners in need of a Saviour; an alarming doctrine to those who regarded themselves as the social betters of everyone else. Thomas Kelly would not have thought so, but there is something deeply republican and revolutionary in much evangelical preaching.
Kelly was untroubled by the archbishop’s ban on his preaching (though he was deeply hurt by the opposition to his ministry that came from his family). There were venues outside the archbishop’s writ. Bethesda Chapel in Dublin’s Dorset Street had been built in the 1780s as a chapel to the orphanage, but was not officially licensed for use in the diocese until 1828—it provided a city centre location for Kelly. For some years he preached at the principal evangelical churches and chapels around Ireland.
In 1795, Kelly married Elizabeth Tighe of Rosanna, near Ashford in Co Wicklow. Elizabeth came from a family of great wealth, her father’s family owning the house and estate at Rosanna while her mother’s family owned Woodstock in Co Kilkenny. The marriage provided Thomas Kelly with financial security that he used in the furtherance of his ministry. He built chapels in Blackrock, Co Dublin, in Wexford, Portarlington and Athy, in order to have places where he might preach the Good News.
Outside of the Church of Ireland, Kelly never aligned himself with any other grouping. For a short time, from 1802, there were a group known as ‘Kellyites’, but they disappeared, presumably absorbed by other evangelical groups.
Thomas Kelly never became reconciled with the Church of Ireland. His separation continued not because his preaching continued to be banned, but because he believed that the status of a church as a ‘national’ church, as the ‘established church’ of a country was something deeply unscriptural.
Kelly was blessed with great prescience. The political role of the Church of Ireland, its ties with power and privilege and its association with power and government, compromised its preaching and did untold damage to attempts to preach the Good News to ordinary people. The church became seen as an arm of the British state; even now there are people who believe that Queen Elizabeth is head of the Church of Ireland. Instead of the preaching of grace, the church became associated with an establishment that was resented by the mass of Irish people. In times since Thomas Kelly, there have been numerous evangelicals who have parted company with churches they have seen as too close to state politics.
Thomas Kelly continued to minister to congregations that met in Dublin and at Athy until his death in 1855—sixty three years of preaching in which he held fast to the faith that had inspired him in his early years.
Thomas Kelly wrote more than even hundred hymns during the long years of his ministry. In a preface written late in life to a collection of his hymns, he says:
‘It will be perceived by those who read these hymns, that though there is an interval between the first and the last of near sixty years, both speak of the same great truths, and in the same way. In the course of that long period, the author has seen much and heard much; but nothing that he has seen or heard has made the least change in his mind that he is conscious of, as to the grand truths of the Gospel. What pacifies the conscience then, does so now. ‘Other foundation can no man lay than that is laid, which is Jesus Christ'”.
It seems almost as though Kelly felt a need to apologize for being constant in his faith. In a world that between 1769 and 1855 changed beyond recognition, was there perhaps a mood that what sufficed in the past would no longer do? Do we encounter a similar mood in our own times that our faith must somehow be rewritten, redefined? Is there a sense that what was true in the past is somehow no longer true?
Kelly suffered a stroke about a year before he died and never completely recovered, though his faith never wavered. In the closing moments of his life he declared, “My great High Priest supports me now.” To which, someone responded, “The Lord is my Shepherd.” Kelly then quietly added, “The Lord is my everything.” His final words were, ‘Not my will, but Thine be done’.
Thomas Kelly had sought God’s will from the earliest years of his ministry. He accepted the loss of his career, being banned from churches, being opposed by his family, being always an outsider, because he believed that God’s wish was for a church very different from that of Nineteenth Century Ireland. Had Kelly’s voice been heard, had the church become detached from politics, we would find ourselves today with a very different Ireland and a very different church.
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