Ejected from the Pulpit and Subjected to Pain: Benjamin Keach (1640-1704) and Dissenting Ministers in Seventeenth-Century England
Written by: Matthew Stanton
As our title suggests, there were many dissenting ministers in seventeenth-century England who were ejected from their pulpit and subjected to persecution as exemplified by Benjamin Keach. This paper, whilst noting some of the persecutions faced by these ministers, will focus on Keach’s suffering and, more importantly, how he dealt with the persecution he faced.
On August 24th, 1662 the Parliament of England established the Act of Uniformity (14 Car 2 c 4). This act caused all ministers in England to conform to the prescribed form of public prayers, administration of sacraments, and other rites of the Established Church of England including the use of the Book of Common Prayer (1662). Puritan and dissenting ministers who neglected to adhere to these changes were forced out of their pulpits during what is known as the Great Ejection (1662). It is estimated that up to one/third of all congregations in England lost their minister on this day. N. H. Keeble writes, “A total of 1,909 ministers, lecturers, teachers and university college heads and fellows were ejected”
The Act of Uniformity effectually stated that a dissenting minister was to be considered a lesser class of person. They could not graduate from Oxford or Cambridge, they could not obtain political power hold public office, or become an officer of the army or navy. The penalties these men faced for continuing to preach after their ejection varied. Some were imprisoned for their nonconformity. John Bunyan (1628-1688), author of the Christian allegory The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678), was imprisoned for a total of twelve years. In his work A Relation of My Imprisonment in the Month of November 1660 (1660), Bunyan commented that even though he informed the magistrate that he had no intention to “disturb the peace of the nation”, he was still harshly sentenced. In some situations, minister’s wives and children would be ‘permitted’ to live with the men in jail. For example, Margret Baxter (b. 1639), the wife of English Puritan preacher Richard Baxter (1615-1691) joined her husband in jail bringing with her a bed to sleep on during his times of imprisonment in the 1660s. Again, the penalties varied but one of these ministers was Benjamin Keach.
Benjamin Keach (1640-1704) was born at Stoke Hammond, Buckinghamshire, England. He lived through perhaps the most revolutionary period in English life. Keach was an influential Baptist minister whose theology and worship practices were adopted and normalized within the emerging denomination.
On the 9th of October 1664, Benjamin Keach appeared before Lord Chief Justice Hyde. Keach was arrested for publishing a controversial instruction book for children. Unfortunately, no copies of this work are in existence; however, it is assumed that this work contained an attack on the Church of England’s established practice of infant baptism. On this day, Judge Hyde sought grounds to impose a sentence of death on Keach. The Judge could not find such grounds and the jury found Keach guilty only of misquoting a single verse of Scripture. Judge Hyde then persuaded the jurors to find the defendant guilty of other charges.
As soon as the guilty verdict was reached, the judge declared, “Benjamin Keach, you are here convicted for writing, printing, and publishing a seditious and schismatical book, for which the court’s judgment is that you go to jail for a fortnight without bail, and the next Saturday stand upon the pillory at Aylesbury in the open market for the space of two hours, with a paper upon your head with this inscription, ‘For writing, printing, and publishing a schismatical book entitled The Child’s Instructor, or a New and Easy Primer, and the next Thursday to stand in the same manner and for the same time in the market of Winslow; and then your book shall be openly burnt before your face by the common hangman in disgrace of you and your doctrine. And you shall forfeit to the king’s majesty the sum of twenty pounds; and shall remain in jail until you find sureties for your good behavior and appearance at the next assizes, there to renounce your doctrines and make such public submission as shall be enjoined upon you.”
Two questions naturally arise from reading this verdict. (1) How did Keach respond? And (2) How did the witnesses react to this overtly unjust sentencing? James Hamilton in his, Our Christian Classics: Readings from the Best Divines (1858), has provided a narrative of what occurred next. He said, “On the pillory at Aylesbury Mr. Keach defended himself and the truth with great boldness. The jailer frequently interrupted him, and finally the sheriff himself threatened to have him gagged. The people, contrary to custom, had no words of mockery for the good, persecuted minister, and no offensive missile was hurled at him. An Episcopal minister who ventured to assail Mr. Keach in the pillory was immediately reproached by the people with the ungodliness of his own life, and his voice was drowned in laughter…until he retreated amongst them. Again at Winslow, where Keach was then living, he suffered the same shameful penalty, and a copy of his little book was burned.”
A person in the pillory could expect to be jeered at and even pelted with stones. But this was not the case for Keach. Instead the crowd attentively listened to him preach from the stocks as his wife stood by him holding a copy of the Scriptures for him to see. Pain and suffering did not stop Keach from public preaching. Neither did the other arrests or the fines which he had to pay deter him. Once he was even seized by a troop of horsemen. They bound and threw him in the street to trample him to death with their horses. An officer stepped in and saved his life bringing him instead to prison where he was kept as punishment for preaching.
Keach’s Approach to Suffering:
Excerpts from several of Keach’s works will be assessed below in an effort to understand how he accounted for the pain and suffering inflicted on him and other dissenting ministers. Keach argued that the suffering he experienced -the political persecution of un-sanctioned religious behaviours- was only a finite pain and a temporary inconvenience. The hallmark of faith was one’s willingness to lose everything and undergo the greatest possible suffering rather than sin against God. This was the ethos which led Keach into suffering and the ethos which many other dissenting ministers followed into persecution.
Central to Keach’s position on enduring pain was the reality of hell. In Keach’s A Golden Mine Opened (1694), he outlined his beliefs as to what hell would be like. He said:
“Fire is a most cruel and dreadful tormentor; if a man be cast into a fire, what intollerable [sic] pain and anguish doth it put him to! but alas, alas, that’s nothing to the Wrath of God, when God kindles it in the Consciences of men, nor to Hell fire. You will say, O ’tis a fearful thing to fall into a furious fire, into a burning Furnace, but O Sirs, how much more dreadful is it to fall under the Wrath of God! It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God: For our God is a consuming fire. (Heb. 2. 12.) If it be terrible to have a finger, a foot, or a hand to be burned off, or to have the whole body cast into a Furnace of boyling [sic] Oil, (as some of the holy Martyrs were) how then can sinners, who are as chaff, bear the Thoughts of God’s wrath and vindictive Vengance [sic], which is far more intollerable [sic] than any fire into which any Mortal was ever cast?”.
In this section of the work he is endeavoring to prove the point that the wrath of God and hell is intolerable and far greater than any wrath let out on earth, either on the body or on the soul. Keach’s approach to pain was twofold. First, there was to be considered earthly (physical pain). This pain was realised in the moment of its affliction yet could cease in time. Secondly, there was pain which was eternal. It was this pain that Keach focused his efforts on. Whilst he recognised the peril of early pain, as will be shown below, his focus was altogether on this infinite pain to come for those who were ‘enemies of God’. Keach was a hymnist and wrote many hymns. A survey of several of his hymns shed further light on how Keach dealt with pain and suffering in light of the existence of hell.
One such hymn is found in Keach’s The Banquetting-House (1692). This work was a reprint of his Spiritual Melody (1691) which was a collection of three hundred hymns. In Hymn 8 (Job 16:14) Keach talks about the relationship between earthly and eternal pain. Stanzas seven through nine read:
7 “And Satan might be silenced,
Who does God’s Jobs [sic] accuse,
Whom hence, as you have heard and read,
God thus his Saints does use.
8 And that Examples God might have
Of patience, to sustain
Some others of his Children, who
May meet with such like pain.
9 Then do not mourn, ye godly ones,
When on you God does run,
Single illegible letters pities you, and hears your moans,
In mercy will return.”
Keach claimed that saints -believers- who were met with earthly pain would be sustained by God. His call then was for the saints to mourn no more as they experienced pain because they would be delivered. The antidote which Keach prescribed for earthly pain was an awareness of eternal peace. One way that Keach administered this antidote was by reminding believers that they were not alone in experiencing earthly pain. He held that Christians had a legacy of pain. Regardless of who was inflicting pain upon them, be it political motivated or by other religious groups, Keach’s prescription for pain was patient endurance. In part six of The Banquetting-House Keach wrote a hymn based on Psalm 117 which speaks to this idea. It reads:
3 “God’s Saints did suffer grievous pain,
Great tortures did endure
Before they would part with the Truth,
Such peace it did procure
4 Unto their Souls who faithful were
Unto the Truth alway;
O it will make you holy, bold
In the great Judgment-day.”
The hope narrative that Keach put forward is one of a lasting endurance. He calls upon those who went before him and ‘suffered grievous pain’. These ‘role models’ of the faith are meant to show a proper approach to suffering by their actions of enduring. Their faithfulness to the truth despite their circumstances proved them holy unto the day of judgment. Keach had put forward a similar idea earlier on in his writings. In his work Distressed Sion Relieved (1689) Keach wrote that these persecuted Christians even had cheerful looks about them as pain was inflicted upon them. He said:
“What chearful [sic] looks this excellent Christian had,
Single illegible letters through the Streets he his last Journey made?
To that in triumph he did seem to go
To death, as if he certainly did know
That Angels thence would carry him to bliss,
And place him where no pain nor sorrow is,
To be a Courtier to the King of Kings,
Single illegible letters seeding on joy that from Christ Jesus springs.”
According to Keach, the ‘excellent Christian’ noted in this hymn realised the reality of Hell and exemplified the Christian legacy of pain and suffering. Keach, being a minister of reformed theology, believed that death was not the end. Therefore, earthly pain was not the end. As such, Keach focused on the reality of eternal pain. In order for Angels to ‘carry (the believer) to bliss’ as this hymn indicates, eternal pain had to be dealt with presently. Keach most directly addressed eternal pain and the abstention from it in the sermons he preached at funerals. A brief account will be given of two of Keach’s funerals sermons. These instances further reveal his position on approaching and dealing with pain and suffering.
The first sermon is found in his A Feast of Fat Things (1692). This sermon included a brief hymn aptly titled “Saints Happy at Death”. It was sung on June 26th, 1692 at the funeral of Mr. John Lyons who drowned in the River Thames. Stanzas six through eight read:
6 “But blest are they, who die in Christ,
their Death to them is Gain;
Their Souls do go to Paradice [sic];
the Wicked go to Pain.
7 Praised be God for Jesus Christ,
who gives such Victory
Unto thy Saints, o’er Sin and Death;
sing Praise continually.
8 The Godly ly [sic] in a sweet Sleep,
they sleep in Jesus do;
And no more Pain, nor Sorrow shall
for ever undergo.”
The great hope believers had in earthly pain was eternal peace. Keach held this hope to be evangelical in nature for if there was rest from such pain, all should be made aware. He dealt with death and pain both introspectively by elevating eternal pain and diminishing the presence of physical pain, and outwardly as he strived to share through his sermons that everyone had to face the reality of eternal pain. At John Lyons’ funeral Keach declared that though the river had taken Lyons physical body, he was taken to a ‘sweet sleep’.
This hope that earthly pain would cease as eternal peace was obtained was crucial to Keach’s funeral sermons. In a sermon he preached for the funeral of a Mrs. Elizabeth Westen on March 20th, 1699 he said:
“God is the object of Fear in his Vindictive Justice, his Wrath is terrible, and from hence he might cry out and speak these words, that we may know the evil of sin, and the greatness of that Wrath which he bore that was due to us; and also to deter all wicked men from their sins, and to make them sensible of that pain and anguish they are like for ever to undergo, that so they may fly to Jesus; and that Believers may prize and love their Saviour with the greater affection.”
Keach first addressed God as the object of fear rather than man’s persecution. Pain was not an adequate deterrent for him; therefore, he continued to perform politically unsanctioned religious behaviour. Keach’s theology of pain led him to evangelise, and therefore continue to preach throughout the 1660s, 1670s, and 1680s. This typified the actions of many of the dissenting ministers- some of whom would again return to pulpits.
On May 24th, 1689 the Act of Toleration reached ascension granting religious freedoms to dissenting groups such as the Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Independents, and Baptists. Though they were still barred from holding public office, these ministers were permitted to hold services and worship freely. Assemblies such as the General Assembly of Particular Baptists ran for multiple years as groups began to solidify their own identity. To that end Benjamin Keach worked in establishing hymn-singing as a normalised practice for public worship.
Keach wrote the majority of his hymns after the persecution ceased. His later hymns reflected on suffering in a personal way and challenged believers to live in light of eternal peace. According to the life and works of Keach, persecution was temporary and not to be feared. This ethos pervaded the thoughts of dissenting ministers who continued to preach after their ejection. Temporary pain breathed a lasting evangelical witness into England during a century of social, political, and religious instability.
Hamilton, James. (1858) Our Christian Classics: Readings from the Best Divines. London : James Nisbet and Company.
Keach, Benjamin. (1691) The Counterfeit Christian or the Danger of Hypocrisy. London : John Pike.
______________(1692) The banquetting-house, or, A feast of fat things a divine poem, opening many sacred Scripture mysteries. London : Printed by J.A. for H. Barnard.
_____________ (1696) A feast of fat things full of marrow containing several Scripture songs taken out of the Old and New Testaments, with others composed by t[he author] : together [with o]ne hundred of divine hymns, being the first century. London : Printed by B.H..
______________(1697) The Glory of a True Church, And its Discipline display’d. London: [s.n.].
______________ (1699) A call to weeping: or A warning touching approaching miseries In a sermon preached on the 20th of March, 1699. At the funeral of Mrs. Elizabeth Westen, late wife of Mr. John Westen, who departed this life on the 17th of the said month, in the 38th year of her age. London : printed for, and sold by John Marshal.
Keeble, N. H. (2002) The Restoration: England in the 1660s. Maine : Blackwood Publishing.
 N. H. Keeble, The Restoration: England in the 1660s (Maine: Blackwood Publishing, 2002), p. 141.
 Austin Walker, The Excellent Benjamin Keach also notes on page 39 that Keach was born ‘as a son of the Church of England’. Walker makes this point as he spends much the rest of the work showing how Keach sought to separate from his parent church.
 Tom Nettles, The Particular Baptists. P. 97 The 1600’s, Nettles argues, was without a doubt the most revolutionary period in English life. Between the War of the Roses, two civil wars, numerous heads of the monarchy, shifts in church power (Church of England), and the ever-changing relationship between church and state, the era was one of great turmoil to which Keach and the English Puritans would face.
 James Hamilton, Our Christian Classics: Readings from the Best Divines, (London: James Nisbet and Co., 1858), pp. 264-267.
 Benjamin Keach, A Golden Mine Opened, or, The glory of God’s rich grace displayed in the mediator to believers, and his direful wrath against impenitent sinners containing the substance of near forty sermons upon several subjects, (London : Printed and sold for the author by William Marshall, 1694), p. 33.
 Benjamin Keach, The banquetting-house, or, A feast of fat things a divine poem, opening many sacred Scripture mysteries, (London : Printed by J.A. for H. Barnard, 1692), p. 20.
 Ibid, p. 247.
 Benjamin Keach, Distressed Sion relieved, or, The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness wherein are discovered the grand causes of the churches trouble and misery under the late dismal dispensation : with a compleat history of, and lamentation for those renowned worthies that fell in England by popish rage and cruelty, from the year 1680 to 1688, (London : Printed for Nath. Crouch, 1689), p. 39.
 For more on Keach’s reformed theology see: Jonathan Arnold (2013) The Reformed Theology of Benjamin Keach (1640-1704), (University of Oxford : Regent Park College’s Centre for Baptist History and Heritage).
 Benjamin Keach, A feast of fat things full of marrow containing several Scripture songs taken out of the Old and New Testaments, with others composed by t[he author] : together [with o]ne hundred of divine hymns, being the first century, (London : Printed by B.H., 1696), p. 91.
 Benjamin Keach, A call to weeping: or A warning touching approaching miseries In a sermon preached on the 20th of March, 1699. At the funeral of Mrs. Elizabeth Westen, late wife of Mr. John Westen, who departed this life on the 17th of the said month, in the 38th year of her age, (London : printed for, and sold by John Marshal at the Bible in Grace-Church-street, 1699), p. 17.