Very few Christians can trace their spiritual awakening to the reading of a Hebrew concordance of the Old Testament! But that is exactly what happened to Thomas Kelly as a twenty-two-year-old Irish law student.
When he first came across the concordance (recently revised by William Romaine from an earlier edition) he was fascinated. More importantly, it led the student to seek out avidly anything he could find written by Romaine — a spiritual giant whose evangelical ministry at St Ann’s in Blackfriars had been transforming London society for twenty-five years.
Thomas Kelly, only son of an Irish judge, was born in 1769 in a village not far from Athy, south-west of Dublin. Like his father, Thomas planned a career in law and had graduated with honours from Trinity College, Dublin.
Pursuing legal studies at the Temple Bar in London, he came across this dry-looking Hebrew concordance, not realising that it would change his life. Before long, Romaine’s writings had so influenced the young Irishman that he began to seek the Saviour to whom those writings so clearly pointed.
Path of forgiveness
Brought up in the Irish Episcopal Church, Thomas Kelly had little understanding of the gospel and struggled to please God by his upright life. But the more he tried, the greater grew his sense of failure.
Long hours were spent in fasting, prayers and acts of self-denial in an attempt to gain salvation. Only when all hope of obtaining peace with God by his own merits had been stripped from him, did Thomas Kelly discover that the path to forgiveness and acceptance lay in the merits and death of Jesus Christ alone.
Little wonder he could later write:
The cross! It takes our guilt away;
it holds the fainting spirit up;
it cheers with hope the gloomy day
and sweetens every bitter cup.
With new joys and aspirations burning in his heart, Kelly turned away from a career in law and began to contemplate ordination to the ministry of the Irish Episcopal Church.
But the twenty-three-year-old had a shock awaiting him when he returned home. The truths that had revolutionised his life were strenuously rejected by Kelly’s own family. They could entertain no concept of forgiveness of sins apart from good works that would earn God’s favour.
To grieve and offend those he loved was a hard trial for the young Christian to bear. A sensitive man, Thomas Kelly declared that a martyr’s death at the stake seemed a preferable option — but he did not flinch from the cost.
Wherever he had opportunities he could be found preaching the liberating truth that the sinner must be justified by faith alone in the atoning work of Christ. The cross of Christ, as Kelly had now discovered in his own experience and would later write, ‘makes the coward spirit brave and nerves the feeble arm for fight’.
Not long after, in 1793, a battle-hardened warrior of Jesus Christ — Rowland Hill of Surrey Chapel, London — arrived in Dublin to join Kelly in the fight. Together the two men preached at gatherings across Dublin and the people flocked to hear.
But such preaching soon stirred the wrath of Archbishop Fowler of Dublin. Summoning Kelly before him, he rebuked him roundly for spreading such teachings. He issued a decree closing every Dublin pulpit to the earnest preacher.
Barred from the pulpits of the Established Church, and like John Wesley, George Whitefield and others before him, Kelly began to preach wherever he could get a hearing. Before long he took the radical step of joining the ranks of the despised Dissenters.
Coming from a wealthy family (and later marrying into an equally wealthy family) Thomas Kelly consecrated all his means to the service of Christ. Before long he embarked on a chapel-building programme, erecting a number of meeting places in the villages around Dublin where people could worship Christ without state interference.
Erudite in many fields, including oriental languages — a fact that explains his interest in a Hebrew concordance — Kelly was an earnest and lively preacher and an able Bible student. The chapels he built provided a natural outlet for his ministry, and many in that spiritually dark area had cause to thank God for his life.
But today, as we mark 150 years since Kelly’s death in 1855, the most enduring elements of his service to Christ are the hymns he wrote. A heart filled with joy will sing — and what greater reason to sing than to know one’s sins are forgiven?
Like Charles Wesley in England and William Williams in Wales, Kelly provided Irish Christians (and the English-speaking church) with songs to express their worship and spiritual desires.
A talented musician, with an ear for cadence and rhythm, Thomas Kelly composed no less than 753 hymns over a period of 53 years.
Hymns on various passages of Scripture(1804) was the first book to contain his work alone. It included 96 hymns. The last edition of that same collection, published 49 years later in 1853, incorporated all 753 that he had written.
Kelly’s hymns differ markedly from those of Wesley, Williams and other writers of the eighteenth-century Evangelical Revival. His chief desire seems to have been to provide hymns for the corporate worship of God’s people.
Although the work of Christ in his death, resurrection and triumphant ascension still lie at the heart of Kelly’s compositions, the intense personal and experimental note found throughout Wesley’s hymns is absent. Wesley’s question: ‘Died he for me, who caused his pain; for me, who him to death pursued?’ would have found no place in Kelly’s writings.
His lines are more objective, less experimental and less personal. This is undoubtedly a loss. Rarely does he use pronouns other than plurals such as ‘we’, ‘us’ and ‘ours’. Kelly is more anxious to turn the worshipper away from himself to the glories of Christ and the progress of his kingdom. Lines like these are typical of his writing:
In thy name, O Lord, assembling,
we thy people now draw near;
teach us to rejoice with trembling;
speak, and let thy servants hear;
hear with meekness,
hear thy word with godly fear.
John Julians masterly work
The dictionary of hymnology, whichwasfirst published in 1892, still stands as the final authority on any hymn written prior to his own time. He holds Thomas Kelly’s work in great esteem, regarding his hymns as among the first in the English language. One that receives top accolades from Julian has these triumphant words:
The head that once was crowned with thorns
is crowned with glory now;
a royal diadem adorns
the mighty Victor’s brow.
This note of triumph, aided by the bright fast-moving metres he often chose, characterises much of Kelly’s work. One metre he employs to good effect is 87.87.47. William Williams had used it in ‘Guide me, O thou great Jehovah’, but it was Thomas Kelly who popularised it in numerous compositions:
Glory, glory everlasting
be to him who bore the cross!
who redeemed our souls, by tasting
death, the death deserved by us:
spread his glory,
who redeemed his people thus.
Exuberance and generosity
There is a robust exuberance about Kelly’s work, achieved in part by the close-knit rhyming schemes he employs. His popular ascension hymn ‘Look, ye saints, the sight is glorious’ is a good example:
Hark, those bursts of acclamation!
Hark those loud triumphant chords!
Jesus takes the highest station:
O what joy the sight affords!
Crown him! Crown him!
King of kings and Lord of lords!
Kelly’s devotion to Christ found practical expression too. During the appalling sufferings of the Irish potato famine in the mid 1840s, his generosity to the poor became a by-word. He went from home to home, saving many destitute families from disaster and death, his heart moved with pity for suffering Christians:
Poor and afflicted, yet they sing,
for Jesus is their glorious King;
through sufferings perfect now he reigns,
and shares in all their griefs and pains.
Thomas Kelly’s life was marked by earnest prayerfulness, and one who knew him well said, ‘Of all the humble men, he seemed to be among the most humble’. For sixty-three years this well-loved poet preached faithfully. As his life drew to a close he could declare that the truths that sustained him at the first were those on which he rested throughout his life — and they upheld him still.
Although unafraid of death, he did fear dying — lest he should dishonour his Lord in that last severe trial. But God sustained him wonderfully at the end. When someone quoted ‘The Lord is my shepherd’, the dying poet interrupted saying, ‘The Lord is my
everything’. ‘Not my will but thine be done’, murmured the eighty-six-year-old Kelly just before he died.
We owe a debt of gratitude to the Irish hymn-writer for giving us some of the finest hymns in our language — hymns that have outlasted extensive changes in English usage and remain popular today.