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George Keith

George Keith, 1638-1716


Written by Nathan Wölffel; History Department, Warwick

 

 

George Keith was a convert to Quakerism who rose to prominence within the movement before leading a schism within it. After the schism he wrote against the Quakers and their doctrines, later joining the Church of England in 1700 and becoming a missionary for the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts (SPG). He produced vast quantities of literature throughout his life, however, he has remained less studied than other leading Quakers such as William Penn, Robert Barclay and George Whitehead.

George Keith was born in 1638 in Aberdeenshire into a Presbyterian family. He graduated from the Marischall College, Aberdeen, with an MA in 1657. A fellow student was Gilbert Burnet, later Bishop of Salisbury. These men together explored the works of the Cambridge Platonists, with More’s book Explanation of the Grand Mystery of Godliness profoundly influencing Keith, even if More argued that Keith did not ‘drinke deeply enough of what was there offered to him.’[1] Keith became a Quaker in the early 1660s and was associated with the Aberdeen Meeting from 1663. Keith faced the persecution that came with his conversion due to government attempts to enforce religious conformity. He was beaten and imprisoned in the Tolbooth in 1664, imprisoned again in 1667 for nine months, arrested in 1676 and imprisoned a further three times between 1678 and 1680. Keith wrote many great early works while in prison expounding Quaker theology, such as The Way to the City of God Described and Immediate Revelation.[2] He also took on the role of an Isaianic prophet, opposing the Church of Scotland as apostates who had relapsed into popery.[3] Keith was close to Robert Barclay and the two men systematised Quaker theology, disputed with students in Aberdeen in 1675 and refuted critics such as Robert Gordon (whose claims made against the Quakers are strikingly similar to Keith’s own challenges later on). Keith was also linked to Henry More and the Conway circle. He was described by More as ‘the best Quaker of them all’ and ‘a man very considerably learned, of a good witt and quick apprehension’.[4] Keith also worked with Fox, Penn and Whitehead, travelling with them on missionary journeys to Europe.

Keith married Elizabeth Johnston in 1671, also a Quaker, who bore at least three daughters. They emigrated to American in 1684. In America, Keith had a variety of jobs. He became surveyor-general of East Jersey drawing a dividing line between East and West Jersey. In 1689 he worked as a school master in Philadelphia, but did not remain in this post for long. Whilst occupied with these jobs, he also continued his work for the Quakers, defending them against Cotton and Increase Mather.

 

Nevertheless, it is for his disputes with the Quakers that Keith is best known. Keith’s suggested improvements to Gospel Order were rejected. Keith’s intent had been to aid Quakerism against errors and to challenge the second generation Quakers who seemed to have lost their parents’ fervour. After Keith challenged Christian Lodowick’s statement that the Quakers did not recognise the human Christ, he was charged with preaching two Christs by William Stockdale. Keith demanded meetings be held to judge the issue yet no answer was achieved. In January 1692 Thomas Fitzwalter accused Keith of denying the sufficiency of the light within, a key Quaker doctrine. Keith’s publication of Some Reasons and Causes made the dispute public, aggravating the issue and eventually Keith split from the Quakers. His publications made his grievances very clear. His first reason was concerned with his dispute about allegedly denying the sufficiency of the light within. His second reason was similar highlighting the Quakers’ arbitrary judgements and the attempt to lock Keith out of the meeting. He lists preachers’ errors as the ‘third and main reason for separation’.[5] Keith calls them ‘unqualified for Ministry’ and that tolerating such errors is ‘to bring Reproach to Truth and our holy Profession’.[6] The 1692 Yearly meeting decided he was a schismatic.

In 1694 both Keith and his opponents sailed for England to plead their case to the London Yearly Meeting culminating in Keith’s excommunication. Henceforth Keith became increasingly estranged from the Quakers. He held meetings to show the Quaker’s errors and published their content afterwards such as his Narratives of Turners-Hall. These focused on various errors the Quakers seemed to make, for example: the Quakers denying that faith in Christ outwardly who suffered at Jerusalem was not necessary to salvation, denying that justification and sanctification is not by Christ’s blood outwardly shed, denying that the saints will not rise again, and denying that Christ will come outwardly to judge. He also addressed other issues such as the role of scripture in faith, the infallibility of the Quakers and the claims of some Quakers to perfection.[7] He gained support of Anglican clergy though these actions with Henry Compton, the Bishop of London, ensuring Keith’s books got out of customs quickly in 1692. In addition William Lancaster, the Bishop of London’s Chaplain and Vicar of St Martins-in-the-Fields, joined Keith in Quaker baiting.[8] Keith’s Third and Fourth Narratives of proceedings from Turner’s Hall were testified to by four and five members of the Church of England respectively.[9] His activities gained the attention of men such as Thomas Bray the head of the newly formed SPCK. It was resolved in the first meeting of the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge (SPCK) that Bray and Colonel Colchester would go to meet Keith and see his work against the Quakers. They patronised him, printing his works and funding his journeys. Keith became involved in the SPCK and eventually joined the Church of England and worked as a missionary for the SPCK and SPG. Keith went on a missionary journey around North America in 1702 disputing with the Quakers and Samuel Willard the Head of Harvard. He did not meet with major success. Quakers changed meeting places so he could not meet them or left when he began to speak. In addition, the Quakers accused him of apostasy, a charge Keith himself levelled against the Quakers, in their attempts to undermine him.[10] The charge of apostasy was one that Keith took notable offence to. [11] He disputed with Caleb Pusey, amongst others, who had opposed him earlier.

Keith took up a position at St Andrew’s Church in Edburton Sussex in 1705, living in illness and poverty until he died in 1716. He continued to write against the Quakers even when his parishioners complained of neglect.

George Keith remains a relatively understudied character yet provides an insight into the religious climate of the later seventeenth century, not least because of the sheer volume of written material he produced. His various turns from Presbyterian to Quaker, to reformed Quaker, to Anglican highlight that belief was not static for all. His difficulties faced by changing sides reflect the ability to change, but also the difficulties faced by those who chose to do so.

 



[1] Ethyn Williams Kirby George Keith (1638-1716) (New York, 1942), p.8.

[2] George Keith, The way to the city of God described, or, A plaine declaration how any man may, within the day of visitation given him of God, pass out of the unrighteous into the righteous state: as also how he may go forward in the way of holyness and righteousness, and so be fitted for the kingdom of God, and the beholding and enjoying thereof….written in the time of his confinement in Aberdeen, in the year 1676, with a preface to the whole, written this year (Aberdeen, 1678); George Keith, Immediate revelation, or, Jesus Christ the eternall Son of God revealed in man: and revealing the knowledge of God and the things of his kingdom immediately : or, the Holy Ghost, the Holy Spirit of promise, the spirit of prophecy poured forth and inspiring man and induing him with power from on high ...writ by George Keith, prisoner of the truth in the Tolbooth of Aberdein, the 29th of the third month, 1665 (Aberdeen, 1668).

[3] George Keith, Help in time of need from the God of help: to the people of the (so called) Church of Scotland, especially the once more zealous and professing, who have so shamefully degenerated and declined from that which their fathers the primitive Protestants attained unto ... writ by George Keith, prisoner for the truth in Aberdeen in the latter end of the year 1664. (Aberdeen, 1665), p.20.

[4] Marjorie Nicolson, ‘George Keith and the Cambridge Platonists’ Philosophical Review, 39(1930), p.43-44.

[5] George Keith, Some reasons and causes of the late seperation that hath come to pass at Philadelphia betwixt us, called by some the Seperate Meeting and others that meet apart from us (1692), p.17.

[6] Keith, Some Reasons and Causes, p.17.

[7] George Keith, An exact narrative of the proceedings at Turners-Hall, the 11th of the month called June, 1696 : together with the disputes and speeches there, between G. Keith and other Quakers, differing from him in some religious (London, 1696); George Keith, A second narrative of the proceedings at Turners-Hall, the 29th of the month called April, 1697 giving an exact account of all the proofs G.K. brought out of the Quakers books, and read in that meeting, to prove them guilty of the four great errors he had charged them with, in his printed advertisements (London, 1697); George Keith, A third narrative of the proceedings at Turner's Hall the twenty first day of April 1698: giving an exact account of the proofs brought by George Keith out of the Quakers printed books ... opposing four great fundamental doctrines of the Christian faith (London, 1698); George Keith, George Keith's Fourth narrative of his proceedings at Turners-hall divided into three parts: detecting the Quakers gross errors, vile heresies, and antichristian principles, oppugning the fundamentals of Christianity, by clear and evident proofs (London, 1700).

[8] Kirby, George Keith, p.109.

[9] Keith, A third narrative of the proceedings at Turner's Hall, unpaginated - preface. ; Keith, George Keith's Fourth narrative of his proceedings at Turners-hall, unpaginated –second page.

[10] George Keith, The True Copy of the Paper Given in to the Yearly Meeting of the People called Quakers at their Meeting-Place in Grace-Church-Street, London, 15 day of the 3d. Month 1695 (London, 1695), p. title page.

[11] George Keith, A Sermon Preach’d at Turners-Hall, The 5th of May, 1700. By George Keith. In Which he gave an Account of his joining in Communion with the Church of England (London, 1700), p.13.

 

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