Our Centenary - Storming the Villages II by Rev. Ernest Lucas
How Robert Key Conquored Mid-Norfolk
Transcription of Article in the Primitive Methodist Magazine by Rev. Ernest Lucas
Mr. Kendall, in his invaluable “History of the Primitive Methodist Church,” speaks of Robert Key as “the idealEast Anglian missionary.” Perhaps we may safely go farther and say that Mr. Key was a typical Primitive Methodist missionary in the heroic years of the history of our church. For in those years all our ministers were missionaries, and their work as truly mission work as any done to-day in the heart of Africa.
Robert Key was a man of splendid physical power, of genial commanding presence, a bluff, broad-shouldered Englishman, with well-built frame and iron sinews, trained in the school of various, exacting, and incessant toil, and inured to hardship and privations. He had lived a sea-faring life among the fishermen of Yarmouth, and he had been a coal heaver on Yarmouth Quay. He knew the common people well, and it was among them that the triumphs of his ministry were to be achieved. He could hardly have had a better training and equipment for the work he was to do. The Primitive Methodist ministry was no place for weaklings in those days. The labours of Hercules were twelve, but the labours of the Primitive Methodist preacher were unending, and they were Herculean. He needed to be a man who could walk fifty miles if necessary to an appointment, who could endure hunger, cold, and poverty, who could face fearlessly a brutal, maddened mob, a man with “lungs of leather and nerves of steel,” with thunder tones in his voice, who could speak amid the beating of drums, blowing of horns, ringing of bells, and fierce clamour of drink-infuriated “fellows of the baser sort,” who so frequently, instigated by their spiritual pastors and masters, attempted to break up the preaching services and to put the lives of the preachers in danger. At Watton, in August, 1833, Mr. Key was shamefully entreated by such a mob, incited by a number of respectable people, one of whom was the clergyman. He was pelted with stones, knocked down, trampled on and kicked when down, but he struggled to his feet, regained his chair, mounted it and went on preaching. A wild mob swept him from his stand again and he was driven helplessly to and fro. His life was clearly in danger, when some of the ring-leaders suddenly changed sides, formed themselves into a bodyguard, and shouting “You are right and we are wrong, and no man shall hurt you!” succeeded in saving him from his persecutors.
His own comment is this:- “Being made of rather tough materials, I was not to be driven out by force, or frightened out of the field by brutality and violence.” On one occasion he was induced to seek legal redress but was bullied and browbeaten, and driven from the court. Clerical magistrates sat on the bench and were judges in their own cause. As they were themselves aiders and abettors of outrage it was vain to look to them for protection.
Mr. Key was a-natural orator. It was no common man who could draw hundreds of untaught villagers to listen to him nightly, before whom strong men fell prostrate on the ground, while others fled in terror from the room where he was preaching as though the place were on fire. His biographer tells how on one occasion in his later years the hearers rose from their seats, so completely were they under the sway of his magnetic eloquence. But his eloquence was not the polished eloquence of the school or the forum. It was untaught, vehement, volcanic. To borrow his own simile, it would have been no use employing a razor to cut down oaks. Even in those early days it had been doubtful whether he would be accepted as a Primitive Methodist minister. The condition of his acceptance was that by his own effort he should create a new Home Mission Station.
He selected Mattishall as the centre of his work. Mattishall is a large village five miles east of East Dereham, in whose church Cowper lies buried, and eleven miles west of Norwich. It was, however, only the base of his operations. He held services and formed societies in most of the villages far and near, through a wide tract of country round. In the heart of the vast East Anglian plain is Norwich, one of the oldest centres of English civilization. Its ancient and venerable cathedral is one of the stateliest shrines of English religion. Yet the district round was semi-heathen less than a century ago.
Without “terminological inexactitude,” it may be said that the social and economic conditions of the farm labourers’ life were servile. Legally free, they were practically serfs of the soil. And they were sunk in that night of mental and moral degradation which accompanies servile life. Cock-fighting, dog-fighting, pugilism, were the amusements of the people. Wife-beating was so common as to be unnoticed. A drunken revel was the climax of the rustic’s happiness. Crime was rampant. During nine years ending in 1808, no less than 2,336 men and women were committed to the four prisons of Wymondham, Aylsham, Walsingham and Norwich. By night the land was lurid with the light of incendiary fires, the work of the rick-burners. In one parish seventeen farmsteads had been burned out and seventeen families turned out of house and home. An old farmer with whom Mr. Key was staying said to him, “Bless the Lord, we can go to bed to-night without any danger of being burnt out of our houses before morning.” It had cost him two shillings a night for a man to watch his premises all the winter. “But,” he said, “you came here and sang and prayed, and preached about the streets, for you can never get these ‘varmints’ into a church or chapel. Your people brought the Gospel to bear upon them in the street, and it laid hold of their guilty hearts, and now these men are good members of your church.” Into this arena of ignorance and wickedness Robert Key stepped down. He had neither learning, nor wealth, nor social prestige. He had the Gospel message, his own high courage, firm faith and quenchless convictions, and God was with him.
He would enter a village singing some simple hymn to a popular air. This was his favourite hymn for such occasions:
“The Gospel news is sounding to nations far and near
Come listen to the echo, now while ’tis sounding here;
It brings you news of pardon, and joy, and love, and peace,
And everlasting happiness, if you will it embrace.”
People would gather round him to whom he preached with the passionate conviction which begets conviction in others. Then he would ask for the use of a house or room for an indoor service. Sometimes there were great “conflicts of faith,” almost tangible wrestling with powers of darkness, but he would struggle till the clouds broke, and, to use a phrase frequently on the lips of our fathers, “the glory streamed down.” Then wills were bowed and hearts subdued, and mighty miracles of moral transformation accomplished. Such a service was the one at Saham Toney, at which numbers were converted. Among these was Mary Eaglen, whose conversion led to that of her brother, Robert Eaglen, who preached the famous sermon in Colchester Primitive Methodist Chapel, which led Charles Haddon Spurgeon into the fulness of faith.
Camp meetings powerfully helped the movement. They were not annual, but frequent. One at East Tuddenham seems to have marked a crisis in the history of the mission. Thousands of people were present. It was a day of abundant and glorious labour. “This,” says Mr. Key, “was the most powerful meeting I ever witnessed. It was thought that more than fifty were set at liberty.” In reviewing the rise and progress of the Mattishall Circuit (now East Dereham) in 1833, Mr. Key says: “I have missioned a tract of land thirty miles in length, containing more than forty places: and planted near forty churches that contain seven hundred members, without incurring five shillings of expense.” Primitive Methodism had succeeded where prisons and policemen had failed. Poachers, sheep-stealers, and rick-burners had been made useful members of society and consistent Christians. In moral reformation had been opened the spring of mental progress and social emancipation. The testimony of Dr. Augustus Jessop, cultured dignitary of the English Church, and witty and genial man of letters, for many years Rector of Scarning, in the very district missioned by Robert Key, is weighty and sufficient. “What the Society of Jesus was among the more cultured classes in the sixteenth century, what the Friars were to the masses of the towns in the thirteenth, that the Primitive Methodists are in a fair way of becoming among the labouring classes in East Anglia in own times.
Primitive Methodist Magazine 1907/130