In the history of hymnody, Benjamin Keach is remembered for having been one of the first proponents of congregational hymn singing (as opposed to Metrical Psalm singing) in formal worship services in England in the 16th century. This was a time during the English Reformation when all hymns had been removed from the Service of the Anglican Church in preference to Metrical Psalms. This was the practice not only in the established Church of England, but also in the Dissenting Churches, such as Baptists and Congregationalists.
Keach was born at Buckinghamshire around 1640 and as a young man worked as a Tailor. He was baptized at the age of 15 and began preaching at 18. He was the minister of the congregation at Winslow before moving in 1668 to the church at Horselydown, Southwark where he remained for 36 years as pastor. It was as representative of this church that Keach went to the 1689 General Assembly and subscribed the 1689 London Baptist Confession of Faith. There was a secession from Horselydown in 1673 and the Old Kent Road congregation was formed.
Keach wrote 43 works, of which his Parables and Metaphors of Scripture may be the best known. He wrote a work entitled A Child's Instructor which immediately got him in trouble and he was fined and pilloried in 1664. His sentence was carried out with the following announcement:
Keach introduced the singing of his own hymns into his church at Horselydown about 1673. In 1690, Isaac Marlow published a book outlining his opposition to hymn singing called, Discourse Concerning Singing. Very Keach answered Marlow in 1691 with his The Breach Repaired in God's Worship, or Singing of Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs Proved to be an Holy Ordinance of Jesus Christ. In this book Keach describes various kinds of voices:
Hymn singing continued to be a very controversial practice, but Keach and others persisted and hymn singing eventually started becoming generally accepted after about 1710, thanks in large part to the publication in 1707 of an important collection by Isaac Watts -- Hymns and Spiritual Songs.
Benjamin Keach published two collections of his hymns, Spiritual Melody (1691), and Spiritual Songs (1701).
Keach's church (a Particular Baptist church -- see A History of Baptists) was probably the first Baptist church to introduce singing, being first used only at the Lord's Supper around 1673 and confined to the Communion services for about six years. The practice was extended to days of public thanksgiving, and that continued about fourteen years. After about twenty years the church, with some dissent, was persuaded to sing every Lord's Day, but only after the sermon and prayer. Some of the dissenters would leave the building and stand in the yard because they could not conscientiously stay and hear the singing. Even though they were not censured for leaving, the anti-singing people separated themselves and established another body exactly like the old church except without singing. When they had left, Keach and his church resolved to "let their songs abound" and voted "that they who are for singing may sing as above said." The new anti-singling church remained songless until 1793. Because of persecution, secret worship had made it necessary to avoid singing until around 1680. The whole question turned on one point, whether there was precept or example for the whole congregation, converted and unconverted, to join in singing as a part of divine worship. Yet they believed that those whom God had gifted to sing might do so, one by one, but only as the heart dictated the melody and not by use of rhyme or written note.
Despite his enthusiasm for hymn singing and hymn writing, practically all of Keach's hymns were of poor quality and only 1 or 2 have survived into current use. Here are 2 excerpts from the approximately 400 he published:
The hymn, Awake, my soul, awake, my tongue has been attributed to Keach, but was probably not actually written by him.
Keach is attributed with the writing of a Catechism commonly known as Keach's Catechism, although it is most likely that the original was compiled by William Collins.
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