Tuesday, June 19, 2018

Reverend Thomas Kelly

One of the leading hymn writers of the 19th century was Thomas Kelly who was born on 13th July 1769 and died 86 years later in Dublin. The only son of High Court Judge Thomas Kelly of Kellyville, he was educated in a private school in Portarlington and at Trinity College Dublin from where he entered the Middle Temple in London to train as a lawyer. While in London he fell under the influence of William Romaine, then one of the more fearless evangelical preachers who is now accepted as the strongest figure among 18th century evangelists. Kelly gave up his legal studies and proceeded to take Holy Orders, being ordained in 1792. Little is known of his early church career, but he was noted in the last decade of the 18th century as preaching in St. Luke’s Dublin. Kelly’s evangelical zeal attracted ever increasing audiences but also the attention of the Rector of St. Luke’s who objected to his ‘Methodist activities’. Within Thomas Kelly’s circle of friends and acquaintances were John Walker and John Nelson Darby, two clerics of the Established Church who like Kelly were powerful and popular preachers. It was their misfortune that the Archbishop of Dublin was Robert Fowler who had a particular dislike for evangelicals and dissenters. Thomas Kelly and his colleagues were prohibited by the Archbishop from preaching in any church in the Dublin Diocese. As a consequence Walker seceded from the Established Church and founded the Walkerites, a Dublin based religious sect which were last noted in Dublin in the 1940s. John Nelson Darby went on to found the Plymouth Brethren. Thomas Kelly, despite Archbishop Fowler’s withdrawal of facilities, continued to preach in unconsecrated buildings in Dublin, notably the Bethesda Chapel in Dorset Street, Dublin. Kelly returned to Athy where there was a recently formed Methodist congregation which shared services with the Established Church in the Parish Church in Emily Square. He preached in that church before returning to Blackrock, Co. Dublin. In time he seceded from the church in which he was ordained and formed his own group called the Kellyites. Being a man of wealth, he opened Kellyite churches in Athy, Portarlington, Wexford and Blackrock, Co. Dublin. It was around this time that he married Elizabeth Tighe of Rosanna, Co. Wicklow, whose mother was a friend of John Wesley and whose brother Rev. Thomas Tighe of Dromore Diocese was one of the earliest leaders of the Irish evangelical movement. The Kellyites were to remain a small yet active group outside the main stream of the Established Church for the next fifty years or so. The Athy meeting house was located at the rear of No. 5 Duke Street with the entrance approached through the archway between No. 5 and the adjoining premises. A letter of 1807 refers to the Blackrock Kellyites ‘being divided’, and seven years later the Blackrock meeting house was sold. In the meantime Thomas Kelly, now living in Kellyville, concentrated his attention on the Athy Kellyites who continued as a vibrant congregation for several decades. Church returns for 1834 indicate that the Kellyites, numbering 30 or 40, met every Sunday for prayers in their Duke Street meeting house. The 1844/’45 Parliamentary Gazette shows the meeting house was still in use. Thomas Kelly was described 14 years after his death as: ‘a man of great and varied learning ..... and an excellent bible critic. possessed also of musical talent and published work that was received with favour .....’ Today Thomas Kelly is remembered mainly as a hymn writer. In 1802 Kelly published a ‘Collection of Psalms and hymns by various authors’ containing 33 hymns. New editions of his hymns were published in 1806, 1809, 1826 and 1836, all containing hymns written by himself. The last edition of Thomas Kelly’s hymns published in 1853, two years before his death, included 765 hymns. On his retirement Kelly went to live with his son-in-law Rev. William Wingfield in Kingstown [now Dun Laoghaire]. An occasional preacher even in old age, he suffered a stroke in 1854. Described by R.S. Brooke as a man ‘with catholic spirit and a love for all good men’, Rev. Thomas Kelly passed away on 14th May 1855 at the age of 86 years. The following year the Duke Street premises which had housed the Kellyite meeting place was sold. The small religious group which had remained apart from the Established Church for almost 50 years went out of existence and many of the former Kellyites joined the Established Church or the Methodist Church.

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