Keach was born on February 29, 1640, to John and Fodora Keach, an Anglican couple residing at the time in Stoke Hammond, North Buckinghamshire. Raised an Anglican, he joined the group known to history as the General Baptists when he was fifteen. The General Baptists were Arminian in theology and had emerged from the womb of Puritanism in the second decade of the seventeenth century. Within three years of his baptism as a believer he was called to preach by the General Baptist congregation that met in Winslow, not far from Stoke Hammond. There is still in existence in Winslow an old Baptist meeting house dating from 1695 which is called Keach’s Meeting House. Whether or not Keach ever worshipped in this chapel is not known. Yet, it is an appropriate way to recall the connection of this great Puritan leader with this area of Buckinghamshire.
Around the same time as his call to the ministry of the Word, Keach married Jane Grove (d. 1670), a native of Winslow. During the ten or so years of their marriage the couple had five children, of whom three survived infancy. One of them, Hannah, later became a Quaker, which undoubtedly would have caused her father some distress.
The 1660s through to the 1680s was a time of great persecution for any who sought to worship outside the Church of England, and Keach found himself in trouble with the state on more than one occasion. For instance, in 1664 Keach was arrested on a charge of being “a seditious, heretical and schismatical person, evilly and maliciously disposed and disaffected to his Majesty’s government and the government of the Church of England.”6It appears that a children’s primer which Keach had written containing reading lessons, simple instruction in punctuation and arithmetic, and lists of words of one, two, or three syllables had been read by the Anglican rector of Stoke Hammond, Thomas Disney, and reported to the government authorities as not only unfit for children, but positively seditious. No copies of this primer exist today. At the time of his trial all copies of it were destroyed, though we are told Keach rewrote it later from memory and published it as The Child’s Delight: Or Instructions for Children and Youth. The original primer was deemed heretical, especially because of references to believers baptism and Keach’s interpretation of the Book of Revelation. Put on trial on October 8, 1664, Keach was found guilty, imprisoned for two weeks and fined 20 pounds, a considerable amount in those days for a poor Puritan preacher.
In addition to these punishments, Keach had to stand for two periods of two hours each in the pillory, a wooden framework that had holes for the head and hands of the persons being punished. Generally the pillory would be placed in the town or village square where the offender could also be subjected to various forms of public ridicule. On this occasion, however, Keach took the opportunity to preach to the crowd that gathered around. “Good People,” he began during his first time in the pillory,
At this point a Church of England clergyman, possibly the local minister, sought to silence Keach by telling him that he was in the pillory for “writing and publishing errors.” Keach, recognizing a golden opportunity for public debate and witness, quickly replied, “Sir, can you prove them errors?” But before the clergyman could respond, he was rounded on by others in the crowd, who knew him to be a drunk. Keach proceeded to speak in defense of his convictions despite a couple of further attempts by the authorities to silence him. Eventually he was told that if he would not be silent, he would have to be gagged. After this he was silent except for his quoting of Matthew 5:10: “Blessed are they which are persecuted for righteousness’ sake: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
On another occasion, when Keach, in the act of preaching, was apprehended by a troop of cavalrymen, four of them were so enraged with him that they swore they would trample him to death with their horses. He was accordingly bound and forced to lie on the ground. But just as they were about to spur their horses down upon their victim, their commanding officer arrived and prevented them from harming Keach, who almost certainly would have been killed.
A Move to London and an Embrace of Calvinism
In 1668 Keach moved to London, where he joined a General Baptist cause meeting on Tooley Street in Southwark, London’s first suburb located on the south shore of the Thames river. He was soon ordained an elder of this congregation. However, not long after his arrival in London he made the acquaintance of two Calvinists, Hanserd Knollys (1599-1691) and William Kiffin (1616-1701), both of whom were also Baptists and who would become two of Keach’s closest friends. By the time of his second marriage in 1672 to Susannah Partridge (d. 1732) of Rickmansworth, Hertfordshire — Jane, his first wife, had died in 1670 — he, too, had become a Calvinist. Of the details of this momentous theological move we know nothing. As the American historian, J. Barry Vaughn, has noted, the “date and circumstances of Benjamin Keach’s acceptance of Calvinism is the greatest puzzle of his life.” However, the fact that Knollys officiated at the marriage of Keach to Susannah Partridge certainly leads one to believe that this influential figure played a role in Keach’s coming over to the Calvinistic Baptists. It is interesting to note that while such a move from the ranks of the General Baptists to those of the Calvinistic Baptists was not uncommon during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, there was rarely any traffic the other way.
In the same year of his marriage, Keach and a few like-minded individuals, possibly former members of the General Baptist cause on Tooley Street, began a Calvinistic Baptist work in Horselydown, Southwark. A meeting house was eventually erected, which, after a number of additions over the years, could hold about a thousand people. Keach was evidently a powerful preacher, whose sermons, his son-in-law later noted, were “full of solid divinity.”
Adapted from: “The Reflections of a Puritan Theologian on Regeneration and Conversion”, Michael A. G. Haykin, found online at The Highway. com