Kiffin, Knollys and Keach

Kiffin, Knollys, and Keach

What is a Baptist? Primarily, a Baptist is one who trusts the Bible as his only ultimate source of faith and practice. He seeks to apply Scripture to every facet of life. Along with other distinctives1, this simple belief spearheaded our Baptist forefathers into a web of controversy and persecution.

During their formative years the foremost difficulty Baptists faced was persecution from many fronts: the monarchy, Church of England, and certain protestants who desired to maintain their political clout. These institutions and groups tried to restrict others from three basic freedoms2:

  • Freedom of conscience: The Baptists wanted to freely express their beliefs from the pulpits and in books without fear of punishment.
  • Freedom of religion: The Baptists wanted to freely practice their beliefs by attending to formal worship without government restrictions.
  • Freedom from the state: The Baptists wanted the church to be a separate entity from the state. That is, they did not want the state to impose laws that restricted their freedom to worship.

Baptists were not the only ones to face these difficulties. Yet, they shouldered the load and eventually brought religious freedom to England and America. They “paved the way” for future generations of Baptists.

The Rocky Road of English Politics


Under the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the Baptists enjoyed a period of liberty previously unknown in England. This taste of freedom, even though it was limited, gave them a desire for more.

King Charles I changed all of that. He was a dictatorial king who wanted sole power. He unilaterally took control of the Church and secular governing bodies. He called himself the “Supreme Governour of the Church” and established William Laud to oversee the Church of England. He dissolved the Parliament in 1629, which commenced a civil war. Note McBeth’s observation of these times in relation to the Baptists:

In this oppressive environment Baptists emerged as a separate denomination. They made their early witness despite dangers, persecution, and great personal risks. Numbers of early Baptist suffered loss of goods, whippings, and imprisonments for their faith. Some were physically maimed; cutting off the ears and slitting the nose were favorite ways to impress upon Baptists the disfavor authorities felt for their views. . . . Many had their death hastened by being crowded into filthy and disease-ridden prisons.3

King Charles’ “reforms” did not come without opposition. One Member of Parliament, Oliver Cromwell, had achieved leadership status by this time. He formed an army that assassinated King Charles 1, beheading him in the dead of winter at Oxford University.


Oliver Cromwell’s army restored liberty for the Puritans, Baptists, and many other groups. Baptists made up a large contingency in his army. Some of whom were high ranking officials and members of Parliament.

These were glorious years for Baptists. Their number grew considerably.


Upon Cromwell’s death, no one was suited to carry his agenda forward. Charles II who fled to “the wilderness” after his father’s execution, returned and took the throne. In five years, he completely abolished religious liberty by the means of several new laws.

  • Law 1 (The Corporation Act): No one could serve in public office without having taken communion in the Church of England and conforming to the church.
  • Law 2 (Act of Uniformity): Required officers of all corporations to be ordained by the Church of England. They were to sign a statement agreeing to the doctrine and practice of the Church of England. 2000 ministers were forced to resign.
  • Law 3 (Conventicle Act): No more than five people (non-family members) could meet for worship in one’s home.
  • Law 4 (Five Mile Act): Prohibited all ministers of dissenting groups not to come within 5 miles of their former churches. That is they were not allowed to preach, teach, or even live within five miles.

These acts did much to restrict religious liberty. Even so, Baptists still met and worshiped.


When William and Mary of Orange ascended to the throne in 1688, they found that the above laws were politically unpopular and practically impossible to continue enforcing.

  • Dissenters (including Baptists) still had to pay taxes to support the state church.
  • Dissenters could not serve in government or military posts.
  • Dissenters could not attend Oxford or Cambridge University.

The Early Baptist Pavers

It was during this time of history that the Puritans, and others fled to America to seek freedom – Religious and Political. However, three men (among many others) stayed in England – William Kiffin, Hanserd Knollys, and Benjamin Keach.4 Unfortunately one may only find their names in Baptist history tomes. Only Keach has received broader attention, and that because he is known primarily as a hymnwriter. These men deserve much attention for they were men who formulated the most defining confessions of Baptist belief. Each also contributed greatly to Baptist thought in various other writings. One defended the faith against the onslaught of mysticism. Another challenged the error of open church membership.5 They all contributed so greatly to the Baptist faith that their names ought to be commonplace among Baptists.

William Kiffin (1616–1701)

Young Kiffin was orphaned at the age of nine. His parents died as a result of the bubonic plague. Although Kiffin himself was infected by the plague, he was able to overcome the nine plague boils on his body.6

He apprenticed himself to a glover (brewer). Feeling dissatisfied with that occupation, he sunk into a deep depression. It was not long before he ran away from his master.

In God’s providence, Kiffin heard Thomas Foxley, a puritan preacher, speak on “the duty of servants to masters.” He returned to his master in deep conviction. Foxley’s message so impacted him that he would attend puritan preaching as often as he could. This soon led to his conversion.

As a young, single man, Kiffin showed an insatiable desire for God’s Word. He found other men who shared his passion. Note his testimony regarding their practice on Sunday mornings:

[We would] meet together an hour before service, to spent it in prayer, and in communicating to each other what experience we had received from the Lord; or else to repeat some sermon which we had heard before. After a little time, we also read some portion of Scripture, and spake from it what it pleased God to enable us; wherein I found very great advantage, and by degrees did arrive at some small measure of knowledge. I found the study of the Scriptures very pleasant and delightful to me.7

He joined the separatist church of John Lathrop and became a preacher of God’s Word. He was imprisoned for preaching and eventually fled to Holland for reprieve.

While in Holland, he became a very wealthy man in the shipping industry. His wealth gave him the ability to establish a relationship with Charles II. On few occasions he would float Charles II “loans.” Kiffin’s influence and wealth protected many poorer Baptists and Dissenters.

Kiffin was a prominent disputer. An issue commonly disputed was that of infant baptism. He along with three others in October 17, 1642, disputed on this very issue against Daniel Featley, a minister of the Church of England. That debate was published in tracts, which influenced others to the Baptist views.8

Kiffin, along with other Baptist leaders called a national assembly in 1689. Over one hundred Baptist churches were represented at that assembly. At that assembly, they approved and adopted the Second London Baptist Confession.

Another important matter settled at this assembly was that of fellowshipping with other churches that practiced open membership. Eight years prior to this assembly, Kiffin published his Sober Discourse which soundly refuted John Bunyan’s position of open membership. At the assembly, fellowship with, and recognition of, open membership churches was discouraged.

During the last decade of Kiffin’s life, his three children died, including his wife. He remarried a woman who eventually stole money from him and made false accusations against him. She was excommunicated from his own church. Nevertheless, he never failed in his commitment to Christ. In one of his final writings, he wrote:

The world is full of confusions: the last times are upon us: the signs of the times are very visible: iniquity abounds, and the love of many in religion waxes cold. God is, by his providence, shaking the earth under our feet; there is no sure foundation of rest and peace, but only in Jesus Christ.9

Hanserd Knollys (1599–1691)

Unlike the formally uneducated Kiffin, Knollys received an education at Cambridge University and became a minister of the parish church at Humberstone in London.

He resigned his position in 1631 when Archbishop Laud forced ministers to use the “sign of the cross at baptism.” Neither could Knollys admit wicked people to communion which was common in the Church of England.

In 1635 he left England to find religious freedom in America. While in America, he ran into the Congregationalists. They did not provide religious freedom either. He went back to England in 1641.

Within three years he became a Baptist and became a spokesperson for Baptist thought. He was an influential pastor of a large London church, approaching 1,000 people in attendance.

He was involved in the printed word. During a preaching tour, he preached a sermon which he later published entitled Christ Exalted. He revised the First London Baptist Confession (1646). He took part of public disputations and promoted the Baptist cause in London.

Within twenty years, during the Oliver Cromwell era, 130 churches were planted.

For a couple of decades (1640s–50s), a small sect of Puritans called the “Seekers” began to introduce mysticism. They were called “seekers because they “represented themselves as being continually engaged, that of seeking for the true Church, ministry, Scriptures, and ordinances, all of which, they alleged, had been lost.10” One of their chief heresies was that they considered one’s faith to be null if it was not attended to miracles. They believed that they had the “full gospel” because they had the miraculous gifts. Many Seekers eventually became Quakers. The Quakers’ mysticism went so far as to downgrade the Bible as a “mere history.11

God used Knollys to battle this heresy. He reasoned that the miraculous gifts were given to the first century believers to bring the Gospel into the world. They were special gifts used to establish the church and spread the gospel throughout the first century of Christianity. Knollys used the following Scriptures for support:

How shall we escape if we ignore such a great salvation? This salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, was confirmed to us by those who heard him. God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will. (Heb 2.3–4)

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” Jesus did many other miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name. (Jn 20.29–31)

Knollys did preach and believe that believers are gifted today, just not with the miraculous ones. He believed just as the Puritan preacher Thomas Adams:

Even still God works miracles, though we take no notice of them. That our hearts should be converted, this is a miracle. That our faith should believe above reason, this is a miracle … If he does not fetch water out of a rock, yet he fetcheth repentance out of sin, and makes the stony heart gush out tears; this is a greater miracle.12

Benjamin Keach (1640–1704)

Keach also had a Church of England background. He was baptized as an infant. While in his youth, he studiously read the scriptures. He realized that infant baptism was wrong. When he turned 15, he joined the General Baptists. He began preaching at 18 years of age. The precise date is not known, but he later left the General Baptists and became a Particular Baptist.

Benjamin Keach did much to promote religious liberty during the reign of Charles II. He wrote numerous pamphlets and documents. One such book entitled The Child’s Instructor; or, A New and Easy Primmer sent him to prison. For two days (two hours at a time) he was pilloried (bound in stocks). Customarily the townspeople would pelt the pilloried offenders with eggs. Not so with Keach. They stood and attentively listened to Keach proclaim the Word of God. He was imprisoned numerous times for preaching about believer’s baptism.

Keach was also the first to promote singing in church. This was a point of conflict back then. Some believed that singing in church was wrong. Why did the early Baptists find this to be so controversial? There were many factors. Isaac Marlow, the leading spokesperson against singing reasoned the following in his tract “The Controversie of Singing Brought to an End: A Tract on Singing.”

“There is no Example nor Command for such a Practice in the Worship of God under the Law.”

“Neither do our Brethren sing after the Example of the Primitive Christians in the first Gospel Churches” They believed that singing involved the exercise of a miraculous gift. Knollys caused confusion on this point because he believed the sung words and tunes were “dictated by the Holy Spirit.” Furthermore, he elevated singing to an ordinance.

“The singing practised in the primitive Gospel-Churches, differed from the common way of singing now in use.” Singing led to formalism since it was much like a written prayer. They also believed that singing in the early church was performed by only one voice and not that of the entire congregation.

“The Women’s vocal singing in the Church, a practice in common use, is chargeable with breaking to positive and express Laws of Christ, which are so plainly, clearly and fully worded.”

Others added that congregational singing compromised the purity of the church in that it was participated in by the unsaved as well as the saved.

The controversy of singing was so great that when Keach introduced singing it was only reserved for times after the observance of communion. It remained that way for six years. The church added singing to their services at times of public thanksgiving. It continued that way for another fourteen years. It was not until twenty years had passed that singing was practiced every Lord’s day. Those members who defied the practice of singing were excused to the chapel-yard while the rest of the congregation sang. Eventually they formed a church of their own.13


God used Kiffin, Knollys, and Keach to “pave the way” for future Baptists. Together, they defined and defended the faith through public disputation, printed materials, and the drawing up of the London Baptist Confessions. These men ministered together and fought for religious freedom. Some closing thoughts are:

  • God uses the written word to disseminate truth. In the days of Kiffin, Knollys, and Keach, books and pamphlets were distributed to spread the Good News.
  • God places scripturally prepared individuals in key positions to accomplish His purposes. There was great disparity in education between the orphaned Kiffin and Knollys, but God used both because they both devoted their minds to Scripture.

1 Other distinctives include: Priesthood of the believer, Two ordinances of Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Regenerate, immersed membership, Soul liberty, Two offices of pastor and deacon, Separation of Church and State.

2 These freedoms are explained and further developed in Nettle’s By His Grace and for His Glory, pp. 26–28.

3 McBeth, p. 101.

4 One may wonder why John Bunyan is not included in this history of Baptists. John Bunyan surely had an impact on Baptist life and his book the Pilgrim’s Progress is still a favorite read. However, Bunyan would not have considered himself a Baptist. He was a separatist.

5 Open membership is the practice of accepting non baptized people into local churches.

6 Armitage, p. 467.

7 From B R. White, William “Kiffin, Baptst History and Heritage,” 2, No. 2 (July 1967), 94. quoted by Michael Haykin in Kiffin, Knollys, and Keach, p. 43.

8 H. Leon McBeth notes: “Between 1641 and 1700 at least 109 such public debates involving Baptists were held in England, with 79 of these between 1641 and 1660. These debates pitted one or more Baptist champions against opponents from Anglican, Quaker, Independent, or sometimes, Roman Catholic groups. Baptists welcomed these occasions, for they gave opportunity for declaring the gospel to large crowds, helped defend Baptists against unjust slanders, and often led to numerous conversions and the planting of new Baptist churches.” p. 64.

9 From a quote by Joseph Ivimey, The Life of Mr. William Kiffin, quoted in Haykin’s Kiffin, Knollys, and Keach, p. 52.

10 McClintock, and Strong, Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, 9:506.

11 McBeth, Sourcebook, p. 69.

12 Quoted in Haykin, Kiffin, p. 57.

13 Maze Pond Church February 1693.


  1. What a concise account of the three Baptist defenders. We owe many things from them.

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