Contender or agitator?
On 8 October 1902, John Kensit died in the Liverpool Royal Infirmary, having been struck down nearly a fortnight earlier by a heavy iron file. What led this former choirboy, Sunday school teacher and London bookseller to such a dramatic and violent end?
To many, John Kensit was a Protestant hero and martyr. To others he appeared a fanatic and agitator. The organisation he founded, the Protestant Truth Society, has been described as ‘an unpleasant nuisance’.
We can only understand these different reactions when we put John Kensit’s life in its historical context. In the quarter century before he was born in 1853, religious issues played a part in public life we can hardly imagine today.
In 1829 the Catholic Emancipation Act gave Roman Catholics a place in the national life long denied them. To many, this seemed a first step towards the disestablishment of the Church of England.
This fear was heightened in the 1840s by the Peel administration proposing that the grant to the Maynooth Seminary in Ireland should be increased and made permanent.
The use of public money in this way seemed to threaten the Protestant Constitution and give Rome a foothold in the establishment. The so-called ‘Papal Aggression’ of 1850, setting up a diocesan system in the UK, created more agitation.
At the same time, the Oxford Movement within the established church was perceived as a move towards Rome, and its later exponents strengthened that feeling by the adoption of Roman practices in their worship.
John Kensit was born into this environment and became a choirboy in a ritualist church. However, he was led to faith and evangelical principles in his late teens, and entered fully into the work of an evangelical parish church.
In 1885 he opened the Protestant Book Depot in Paternoster Row, and in 1889 founded the Protestant Truth Society with the aim of maintaining biblical and Reformation principles in the Church of England.
It was only when appeals to the church authorities failed to produce action against illegalities, that he took to more public protests in 1898. The reality of these illegal practices could hardly be denied.
The Public Worship Regulation Act of 1874 had been designed to deal with them. The Church Association had launched some unpopular but successful prosecutions.
The continuance of illegal practices eventually led to the Royal Commission of 1906 which recognised an internal pluralism in the Church of England. Now, of course, many of these practices have been legalised and are regarded as commonplace.
Not only did John Kensit protest publicly. He prepared a list of illegal actions, which he presented to the Convocation of Canterbury through the Bishop of London. He also spoke at the Church Congress of 1898 at Bradford.
In the same year he formed the Wickliffe Preachers — men called to preach biblical truth and awaken people to the spiritual dangers of the day.
In the late summer of 1902 the Preachers, led by John Kensit’s son, John Alfred, planned a series of meetings in Liverpool and Birkenhead. There were several ritualist churches in the area, but it also contained the highest proportion of Irish Roman Catholics in any city in Great Britain.
A former Chief Constable, Sir John Nott-Bower, wrote: ‘A large district of the town was quite as Irish as any district in Dublin, and “Nationalists” and “Orangemen” were as strongly represented and as antagonistic as in Belfast’.
A year earlier, George Wise, a fervent Protestant who had ministered in the city since 1888, was bound over to keep the peace for twelve months after violent clashes between groups of Roman Catholics and Protestants in connection with his meetings.
The Kensit meetings began on 1 August and there was no trouble until 29 August. Then, denied the use of St George’s Hall, John Alfred held an open-air meeting in Islington Square, speaking on ‘The Ritualistic Controversy in the Church of England’.
There was a disturbance and he was asked to abandon two further meetings. Pleading the right to free speech, he refused. Further fighting broke out at one of these meetings and the police had to clear the square.
More clashes took place at a meeting outside St George’s Hall on 7 September. Because it was reckoned other such gatherings might lead to a breach of the peace, John Alfred was summoned to appear before the magistrate.
He was offered the choice of being bound over for twelve months or going to prison for three. John Alfred chose prison, declaring: ‘As long as I have breath, I shall continue to oppose error’.
The reaction was extraordinary. There was a nationwide effort to secure his release, including the demand from a meeting in Everton of around 20,000 people, presided over by George Wise.
More meetings were held in Liverpool and Birkenhead. Some passed off peacefully, but on 21 September 3,000 Roman Catholics attacked the Hope Hall in Birkenhead, breaking windows, and the police had to escort the speakers to safety.
On 25 September John Kensit travelled from London to speak at the Claughton Music Hall in Birkenhead. There was no trouble in the meeting, and Mr Kensit, his wife, and his son’s future wife, accompanied by others, left with a small number of police.
On the short walk to the Birkenhead Ferry they passed through a crowd of young people. One of them threw the heavy file, which struck Mr Kensit on the left eyebrow. Bleeding, he collapsed to the ground and was rushed to the Infirmary.
There he seemed to be recovering until pneumonia set in on 6 October. Two days later he died.
The jury at the inquest was satisfied by the medical evidence that death was caused by blood poisoning set up by the wound. On the basis of other evidence, conflicting though it was, the jury concluded that the file had been thrown by a young man, John McKeever, who was committed to Liverpool Assizes on a charge of wilful murder.
The trial was concluded in December, when McKeever was acquitted. Junior Counsel for the prosecution was F. E. Smith, future first Earl of Birkenhead, who kept the weapon in his chambers until his death, together with a photo of the spot where the attack took place.
His widow presented the file to the family, and for some years it was kept at the Kensit Memorial College. It is now kept at the PTS HQ in Fleet Street.
Tributes to John Kensit came from all over the English-speaking world. The Evangelical Episcopalian of Chicago dismissed the idea of him being ‘a dangerous fanatic or a selfish seeker after notoriety’.
It went on to describe him as ‘a plain and industrious man of business … a devoted Christian, whose study of the Bible and of the history of the English Reformation had filled his soul with a profound abhorrence of the false and unscriptural tenets which were being taught in the parishes … When bishops and clergy were unable or unwilling to take action, plain John Kensit, the layman — the London bookseller — flung himself into the breach’.
Rev. F. S. Webster, Vicar of All Souls, Langham Place, preached at the funeral service in St Mary’s Church, Hampstead, and thousands lined the streets as the funeral service made its way to Hampstead Cemetery.
The cemetery gates had to be closed because of the gathering crowds, and before the concluding prayer, ‘Rock of Ages’ was sung round the grave.
It is hard for us today to grasp the passion that motivated such men to stand up for the truth of the gospel. It seemed at the time as though there would be a great resurgence of Protestantism throughout the country.
When John Alfred returned to Liverpool in January 1903 for a meeting in St George’s Hall, The Liverpool Post described how ‘the audience rose to its feet and cheered vociferously for several minutes’. He vowed to maintain his father’s stand for truth.
One hundred years later we know that his hopes for spiritual recovery in our land have not been realised. The challenge for us to contend for the faith still remains.
We are not called to imitate the methods adopted then. Indeed John Kensit himself did not enjoy public protests. Instead we must adopt those ways that will most effectively address our present dangers and that are appropriate to the truth we uphold. We are to speak the truth in love. But that truth must be made known.