January 16, 2018

A Ministry of Necessary Controversy (4)

Mark Minnick

This is Part Four of four parts • OneTwo Three

In Part One, Dr. Minnick introduces Benjamin Keach and some of the features of his life and times which produced Benjamin Keach, the controversialist.

In Part Two, Dr. Minnick covers Keach’s early ministry as he faced imprisonment and persecution for preaching the gospel.

In Part Three, Keach’s initial ministry in London is discussed, still amidst trials, until the relief granted to Dissenters by Charles II.


Thomas Crosby, who married Keach’s youngest daughter, is our primary source of information about his fatherin- law. He wrote of the challenge of restoring Scriptural positions, “It must be confessed, that reformation is, and ever was, an hard and difficult work; and no easy thing to restore lost ordinances, especially such as have been for many years neglected, and strangely corrupted.”

We are grateful that Keach was courageous to restore lost ordinances, since one for which he successfully argued was the duty of churches to support their ministers adequately.

The title page to my book, A Golden Mine Opened, states that it was “Printed, and sold by the Author at his House in Horse-lie-down”—a notice encouraging me to think that he held this particular book in his own hands, but also reflecting the well-known fact that he himself, though at times pastoring hundreds of people, was constrained to supply his family’s needs by running a press and bookshop out of his home.

In The Gospel Minister’s Maintenance Vindicated, issued just prior to the famous 1689 Assembly of Baptists in London, Keach used reason, wit, and most of all, Scripture, to convince the Baptist churches that some of their pastors were laboring “under unsupportable burdens” and that it was the duty of their people to free them to devote their time to “careful and diligent study” and the “great duty” of pastoring. So helpful was this book to the churches that nearly 30 years later they were still officially recommending it to one another.

One of the greatest controversies among early Baptists was over the neglected practice of congregational singing. Only a few Baptist churches in England allowed singing of psalms or their paraphrases in public worship. None seem to have approved of singing hymns of uninspired composition. Keach was again Scripturally compelled to swim upstream.

Beginning soon after the founding of the work in Horse-lie-down, he introduced the practice of singing a single hymn at the conclusion of the Lord’s Supper. Crosby wrote that “he laboured earnestly, and with a great deal of prudence and caution, to convince his people thereof.” For six years the church allowed only this minimal practice, until at last the people consented to adding an additional hymn to their stated thanksgiving days. For 14 more years Keach contented himself with this arrangement lest he offend by further reformation. Then, after these 20 years of almost inconceivable patience, he proposed that his church sing the praises of God every Lord’s Day. Most approved. A few objected so strenuously, however, that they not only fled the church themselves but soon influenced others to leave as well. This group subsequently formed itself into a separate assembly at Maze Pond, subscribing in its constitution to the exact same principles as Mr. Keach’s church with the single exception of singing, which they called a gross error.

Adding to Keach’s burden during this period was the fact that just a year or so before this split he endured his greatest health crisis. So bleak was the outlook that physicians pronounced his case terminal and friends gathered to bid last farewells. But Hanserd Knollys, a fellow Baptist pastor, felt constrained to offer an extraordinarily earnest prayer for his friend’s recovery, asking God to grant him the same number of additional days that he had given to Hezekiah. So certain was he of being heard that as soon as he had ended he said to the dying man, “Brother Keach, I shall be in heaven before you.” Remarkably, Knollys died within two years. Keach recovered and lived exactly 15 more years—years during which he was forced to continue in the role of controversialist.

The hymn-singing debate divided London’s Baptist churches for the whole decade of the 1690s. Keach was called divisive. Isaac Marlow, a prominent member of the Mile End Green Baptist Church wrote some 11 books arguing pragmatically against his position (it smacked of formalism, compromised the purity of the church when unbelievers joined in, violated the Scripture’s prohibitions against women speaking in worship, etc.) and accusing him of undermining the Reformation. Others who did not openly attack Keach nevertheless urged the status quo for the sake of unity.

In response, Keach did what his opponents did not. He exegeted Scripture faithfully (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16; James 5:13), showing that what he practiced was commanded. Among other works in which he proved this was a book published in 1691 under the title The Breach Repaired in God’s Worship: or, Singing of Psalms, Hymns, and Spiritual Songs, proved to be an Holy Ordinance of Jesus Christ. The title page quoted Job 6:25, “How forcible are right words! but what doth your arguing reprove?” In the end, careful exegesis of right words proved truly forcible, doing what it will always do when ministers fear God more than one another; it turned the tide. Even Maze Pond learned to sing.

As we near the close of considering this noble brother, we must ask ourselves what it was that gave him such confidence, even when having to differ with brethren. He himself provided the answer in an extended testimony to his personal persuasions about the Bible (“The Divine Authority of the Holy Scriptures”), first issued in the 1680s during the maturity of his ministry. In 17 precisely reasoned points he ably defended the inerrancy and all-sufficiency of Scripture. But as in our day, so in his—unbelievers mocked such confidence with cleverly crafted objections. Keach responded with the same factual and believing considerations Bible believers continue to argue three centuries later.

To the objection that the Hebrew and Greek manuscript texts might have become untrustworthy, corrupted through centuries of transmission, he argued that this was “to blaspheme the providence of God, and also lay an insufferable scandal on the Church” to whose care the Scriptures were committed to guard lest any part of them be lost or corrupted. The Old Testament, he pointed out, was transmitted with strict care by the Jews who “took an account how oft every letter in the alphabet was used in every book thereof.” As for the New Testament, Keach acknowledged that “it is true, there have in ancient manuscripts some various readings been observed.” “But,” he contended, these were “not such as to cause any dispute touching the sum or substance of the doctrine therein delivered, or considerably to alter the sense of the text.”

To the further objection that believers could not be sure that the translations they had were “well and honestly done,” Keach responded, “The Word of God is the doctrine and revelation of God’s will, the sense and meaning, not barely or strictly the words, letters, and syllables.” This message of the doctrine and will of God, he wrote, “is contained exactly and most purely in the originals, and in all translations, so far as they agree therewith.” He continued reassuringly that “though some translations may exceed others in propriety, and significant rendering, the originals; yet they generally, (even the most imperfect that we know of,) express and hold forth so much of the mind, will, and counsel of God, as is sufficient, by the blessing of God upon a conscientious reading thereof, to acquaint a man with the mysteries of salvation, to work in a true faith, and to bring him to live godly, righteous, and soberly in this present world, and to salvation in the next.” And to the objection that some translators might have slyly slipped denominational bias or even gross error into their work, he asked tellingly, “Now if we consider how many men of different persuasions, have translated the Bible, and harmoniously agree in all things of moment, is it possible to imagine that they should all combine, so impertinently, as well as wickedly, to put a fallacy on mankind, which every one, that has but bestowed a very few years in the study of the languages, can presently detect?” “All who are really converted unto God, by the power of the Word,” he concluded, “have that infallible evidence and testimony of its divine original, authority, and power in their own souls and consciences.” So, Keach is telling us, it was his conviction about the Bible, confirmed by its power over his own soul, that sustained and fueled him through his many troubles.

One last, but not least, aspect of his example in controversy that we must note is that in all these conflicts the embattled pastor maintained, for the most part, an exemplary spirit. His son-in-law wrote of this, “How would he bear the infirmities of his weak brethren! That such as would not be wrought upon by the strength of reason, might be melted by his condescension and good nature.” Certainly it is this spirit, as much as his Scriptural stand, which we must emulate if we are truly to serve the Lord Jesus Christ in the heat of necessary controversy.

Dr. Mark Minnick is the pastor of Mount Calvary Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, and serves as adjunct professor of preaching and exposition at Bob Jones Seminary.

(Originally published in FrontLine • May/June 2001. Click here to subscribe to the magazine.)

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