Key, Robert


Having returned in several respects to my Methodist roots in Farnborough, Hampshire, and having lived and ministered in Norfolk for almost half a century (see CV below), I have been exploring the remarkable story of a great Norfolk preacher. So impressed by all I’ve discovered, I wish to share the story with you.

Read by myself, this is an early sermon preached by the Victorian Methodist preacher Robert Key (1805-76). Born on the Norfolk-Suffolk border, becoming a violent pugilistic coal heaver in Great Yarmouth, he was brought to Christ in 1823, eventually becoming a preacher among the Primitive Methodists. Described by his biographer Thomas Lowe as the ‘Norfolk Herald of the Cross’ and ‘Apostle of East Anglia’, Robert Key impressed his famous Baptist contemporary C. H. Spurgeon (1834-92): “We have been not a little stirred up, by reading this little book… His boldness and zeal win our cordial admiration.”

Robert Key’s extraordinary ministry of nearly fifty years – mainly throughout Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex – took him elsewhere in the UK, including London, Manchester, Hull, Sunderland and occasionally more distant locations. Within the Primitive Methodist circuit system, he would preach for extended periods in various mission stations. At the age of 25, this sermon was the preacher’s Farewell Sermon to the Mattishall Circuit, preached first at Cawston on 13 April 1830.

There is something wonderfully apostolic about seraphic Robert Key’s preaching. As Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981) might have said (had he been aware of the preacher), Robert Key gave voice to an ‘essential evangelical’ Gospel in the Wesleyan mould. That said, without starting a controversial theological discussion, there’s nothing in the sermon that John Calvin would disapprove of. It sets out indeed, ‘the key to salvation’. Proclaiming ‘Salvation by Grace’, the wonders of the Saviour’s gracious redeeming love are coupled with warnings against the abuse of such grace (antinomianism): saved sinners are not ‘outlaws’.

At a time when vice, violence and social disorder were rampant in rural East Anglia (and doubtless elsewhere), the spiritual, moral and social impact of Primitive Methodism on communities was truly amazing. While the sad decline of Nonconformity in the 20th century led by the likes of liberal Primitive Methodist scholar Dr Arthur S. Peake (1865-1929) is a tragic story, the exploits of Robert Key and his brethren remain an inspiration for Christians at the present time. In our days of growing secular and multi-faith decadence, true Evangelicals of all persuasions would learn much from Robert Key.

The ‘key issue’ is of course the doctrine of the Inspiration of Holy Scripture. Seduced by the Higher Criticism emanating from Germany in the 19th century, Peake’s denial of biblical inspiration encouraged other Methodist leaders like Leslie Weatherhead, Donald Soper and John Vincent to pursue what at root was an anti-Christian agenda. John Wesley would disown these men for their liberal apostasy. There was nothing new in such departures from authentic Bible-based Christianity. In the late 17th century, the radical critical pioneer Jean Le Clerc (1657-1736) paved the way for later deviations from orthodoxy. His stance was refuted by the Protestant Dissenter (Presbyterian) Dr Edmund Calamy (1671-1732), whose impressive sermons on The Inspiration of the Holy Writings of the Old and New Testament (1710) remain a solid bulwark against error. It is significant that John Wesley held Calamy and other such Dissenters in great respect. In his affirmation of the Bible, Wesley’s claim to be homo unius libri (‘a man of one book’) was evidently shared by Robert Key.
Robert Key died in Norwich on 2 September 1876. His mortal remains were interred in Norwich Cemetery. They await the resurrection at the glorious return of our Lord Jesus Christ.

NOTE: I apologise that my voice does not match Robert Key’s powerful stentorian eloquence. Since no information about Key’s regional accent exists, I have resisted the temptation to use an ‘East Anglian’ voice!

YouTube sermon link:

The Revd Dr Alan C. Clifford

Dr Alan Clifford (b. 1941) hails from Farnborough, Hampshire. Reared in Methodism and converted in Anglicanism (1958), he embraced Puritanism through the influence of Dr D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1963). An engineering career at the Royal Aircraft Establishment and the RAF Institute of Aviation Medicine, Farnborough (1958–66) was terminated after God’s call to pastoral ministry. This led to university study (University of Wales, Bangor, 1966–69) and eventual ordination to the Congregational ministry (1969). He remains (since 1988) a minister-without-charge of the Presbyterian Church of Wales. Now retired, Alan pursued pastoral ministry in Northampton, Gateshead, Great Ellingham, Norfolk, and Norwich. Academic profile: BA (philosophy) 1969; MLitt (philosophy of religion) 1978; PhD (historical theology) 1983. An in-depth study of Arminianism and Calvinism, Dr Clifford’s doctoral thesis was published by Oxford University Press in 1990. Author of several books (and a few hymns) on this and related themes include biographies of John Calvin and the Huguenots, Dissenting tutor and hymn-writer Philip Doddridge and the Welsh Methodist preacher John Jones Talsarn. Richard Baxter and Dr Edmund Calamy have occupied his attention in recent years.
Returning in measure to his religious roots, Dr Clifford is currently exploring the Norfolk Primitive Methodist legacy of the Apostle of East Anglia, Robert Key.


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