A Biographical Sketch—William Kelly

A Biographical Sketch—
William Kelly

Edwin Fesche

Some years ago I was invited to take away what books I chose from a deceased brother’s library. I selected a complete set of “The Bible Treasury” from 1856 to early in this century. A collector’s item indeed. Later I handed the volumes to a friend who happened to be a Kelly buff. He in turn showed them to a nephew visiting him from Holland who further appreciated their value. The nephew took them back with him to Europe where they were photographically reduced and printed on thin paper so that four years of publication could be condensed into one volume. The resulting small print became hopeless for this reader’s eyes. For over fifty years this magazine was edited by William Kelly. The bound volumes are now again procurable. In its day the “Bible Treasury” was appreciated by such reputable scholars as Dean Alford. An archdeacon referred to Mr. Kelly’s magazine as the only religious magazine worth reading. Most of Kelly’s expositions of the books of the Bible (it is claimed that he wrote on every book in the inspired canon) first appeared in serial form in the “Bible Treasury.” Fortunately, all of these noted expositions were published in books. Since most have long been out of print they also are being reproduced, especially by the letters of the “Serious Christian,” a committee that republishes what it considers the cream of Brethren writings.

The first introduction to Kelly’s works to come this writer’s way was his large volume on the Revelation. Contemporary with Kelly the four volumes of Horae Apocalypticae were published by Prebendary Eliot, an Anglican who was perhaps the most able exponent of the historical school of interpretation. Both authors were acquainted with each other’s expositions of the Revelation. It has been interesting to read the criticisms that each of these learned men has for the other’s position. Eliot could not appreciate Kelly’s application of Revelation chapter 2 and 3 to deal with nineteen hundred years of history and chapters 4 to 19 to take up only seven years — Daniel’s 70th week.

Mr. Kelly was perhaps the most erudite of all the chief men among the brethren. His library of 15,000 volumes was bequeathed to the city of Middlesboro, England. It still remains in the library there. Kelly lived when German higher criticism of the Scriptures had peaked. To such Kelly proved to be a timely and formidable foe. However, he was just as severe with his own assembly connections. One writes that “His sarcasm was the searching rapier of applied truth.”

In scanning the lives of the early leaders of the brethren movement we are struck with the longevity most were granted. We are thus reminded of a spiritual principle that cannot be ignored, “But godliness is profitable unto all things, having promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come” (1 Tim. 4:8). William Kelly was no exception to this rule; he was “put to sleep by Jesus” March 27th, 1906, in his 85th year. He was the last of the early brethren to leave this scene.

This gift to the church in these last days was born in Northern Ireland and was educated at Dublin University. He was saved soon after graduation and secured employment as tutor to the family of an Anglican clergyman in the Channel Islands. There a lady called his attention to 1 John 5:9-10 from which he gained assurance. In 1840 he embraced brethren principles and for the rest of his life became a keen expositor and polemist of such. William Kelly was fully aware of the objections to the Brethren’s position, especially regarding church truth. Among his most widely read books has been his exposition of Matthew. His remarks on the 18th chapter are particularly illuminating. He is dealing with the subject of church discipline; this is tied in with the oft repeated 20th verse, “For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there I am in the midst of them.” Such a gathering, so small, can act as a sovereign church and its prayers and decisions will be ratified in heaven. The mention of such a small number could be a comfort for some assemblies as the church age draws to a close. To Kelly such gatherings are always possible no matter to what extent Christendom may be in ruins. Here is a quote from the expositor’s remarks, “Now a person may ask, are any upon that Ground? I can only say that the Christians who fall back on Scripture, owning the faithful presence of the Spirit in the assembly on earth, are taking an immense deal of trouble for a delusion if they are not. They are foolish in acting as they do unless they are sure that it is according to the mind of God.”

The great Baptist preacher, Charles H. Spurgeon, a contemporary, wrote in his “Guide to the Commentaries” that Kelly had a mind for the universe but had been narrowed by Darbyism. Indeed Kelly collected all of Darby’s writings and systematically arranged them. This amounted to 34 volumes. No wonder that he used to advise young men to “Read Darby.” Dr. Wereford, who wrote a mini biography, mentions a characteristic incident in the life of W. K. (the early brethren were in the habit of identifying themselves by the use of their initials). We quote from the biography: “A young relative whom he had prepared. for Trinity College, Dublin, so distinguished himself that Mr. Kelly was urged by one of the professors to settle there, as by so doing he might make a fortune; But it was characteristic of the man that his reply should be summed up in the question: “For which world?” Fortunately it can be said of W. K. and his illustrious contemporaries that although dead, they yet speak through their writings. This writer would chime in at this point and advise, “Read Kelly.”

The writings of Kelly are certainly far more readable than those of Darby. What Darby would write in one paragraph Kelly would take three paragraphs. In fact, we might say that Kelly is Darby made plain. Someone observed that through the editing of Darby’s volumious writings Kelly “has done much by his own expositions to give currency to the views enshrined in them.” We do not intend to give the impression that Kelly’s works are a rehash of Darby. Indeed Kelly’s writings are the result of his own matured thinking, and when he contends for the faith, as he often does, his polemics are of a forbidding calibre. He was certainly widely read by the leading churchmen of the Victorian era.

In 1884 William Kelly severed himself from hard-core exclusivism. He now had the approbrium, or honor, of a group of assemblies named after him. Victims themselves of, and protesters against, authoritarianism, they have pursued a more healthy respect for evangelism and the autonomy of the local meeting. We understand through their missionary endeavours they are well represented in Egypt. Mr. Coad remarks about the present day Kelly groups, “It is little wonder that the basis of their ‘church principles’ has become so rarified that few can understand it.” At this late date new problems have arisen that cannot be solved by harking back to the past. We need each other. In this connection we quote Melanchton’s oft repeated maxim, “In essentials, unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity.”