William Kelly (1821-1906)
Howard A. Barnes, Bromborough, Merseyside
William Kelly, born two hundred years ago this year, has been called ‘the last prominent survivor of the first generation of Brethren (so-called)’, 1 and was widely acclaimed as an outstanding biblical scholar. For example, the late Prof. F. F. Bruce wrote, ‘It is this manifest mastery of Greek usage which makes William Kelly’s New Testament commentaries, especially those on Paul’s epistles, so valuable’. 2
There were a number of quite distinct stages of Kelly’s life.
Kelly was born into a family of landed gentry in the eastern part of Northern Ireland. He was educated nearby and eventually – like John Nelson Darby before him – entered the prestigious Trinity College Dublin and there, at the age of nineteen, graduated top of his class with a first-class honours degree in Greek, Latin, and Hebrew studies.
Channel Islands (1840-1871)
His intention had then been to enter the Anglican ministry, but he was too young by a year, so he took a short-term job as a private tutor to the family of the head of the government of the small, isolated island of Sark in the Channel Islands; it was there that he was converted. He stayed on in the Channel Islands on the larger island of Guernsey, joined an assembly, and married. Then began his lifelong work of studying the scriptures in their original languages and publishing his findings. Obviously, his financial position allowed him the freedom to do this, possibly receiving a private income at twenty-one, as was often the case in those days for young men in his social position.
Using his skill in biblical languages, he offered his help to various well-known evangelical scholars. These included Dr. S. P. Tregelles, who was working on ancient manuscripts to establish a better Greek New Testament text. Kelly was eventually asked to edit The Bible Treasury magazine, which was to occupy him for the rest of his life, often taking up controversial topics of the day such as the issues raised by ‘Higher Criticism’. Even scholars of the established church and their like in nonconformist groups, eventually expressed their respect for this publication.
During these years he travelled little but on one rare visit to the mainland he met John Nelson Darby, whom he had come to appreciate from his writings. They became close associates, with Kelly eventually acting as editor of all Darby’s works, which, it appeared, needed some editing!
During his time in Guernsey, he published much of his own material, as well as overseeing the publication of the writings of other authors in the magazine. His first major book was in 1860, a commentary on the book of Revelation, based on his own Greek text. This was to set the standard of his later publications, of which most were produced while he was in Guernsey.
In 1871, Kelly moved his family to the very opposite kind of life, to Blackheath, then just a few miles south of London. Kelly and his family settled into a large assembly at Blackheath and he soon took the opportunity to start a series of Tuesday evening Bible addresses at Bennett Park Hall. These went on for the rest of his life. They gained for him a great reputation around the country. The subjects usually formed the basis of later publications.
It was here that he was drawn into the mainstream of Exclusive Brethren affairs, and, although previously isolated from these things, he now found himself having to take a public stand on various issues. Given his now considerable reputation, anything he said was taken up by others. Towards the end of his life, Darby adopted certain controversial positions and a split occurred. People rallied around their champions, and it wasn’t too long before there was a division into Darby Brethren and Kelly Brethren.
Kelly wrote over one hundred commentaries on individual Bible books, and also printed lectures about particular theological subjects, as well as numerous pamphlets. He was a great correspondent and was in touch with leading evangelical scholars in the UK and Europe. He remained active all his adult life, and several of his best expositions were published during the last fifteen years of his life. Over the years he had accumulated an extensive library of some 15,000 books. Concerned about what would happen to it, Kelly took the advice of his friend the Archbishop of York, and left it to the Middlesbrough Public Library, where it is until the present day!
When Kelly died on 27th March 1906, one old friend, an aged clergyman, wrote, ‘He was pre-eminently “a faithful man, and feared God above many”, Neh. 7. 2’. 3
Readers will be happy to learn that all of William Kelly’s works are available free online (and downloadable) at www.stempublishing.com/authors/kelly/.
1 E. E. Whitfield. William Kelly, in The Brethren Writers Hall of Fame, found here: www.newble.co.uk/writers/Kelly/biography.html.
2 F. F. Bruce, In Retrospect: Remembrance of things past, Marshall Pickering, 1980. Ebook published by Kingsley Books.
3 Quoted in E. E. Whitfield, op. cit.