Matthew Stanton

‘Charisma and Controversy: Benjamin Keach (1640-1704) and the Debate About Congregational Song’


In considering the boundaries between religious communities and the distinctions therein drawn between the ‘insider’ and ‘outsider’, the scholar must engage with the complexity of symbolic divides associated with identity, belief and belonging. These realities become most evident with regards to the public worship of a congregation. Scholarship must consider the ways by which sound impacted early modern Nonconformists and their spiritual practices. The weight of Christian theology is found not only on its doctrinal content but on the mode of its delivery. One such mode which divided and isolated religious groups throughout much of the seventeenth century was public singing.

The content and performance of song in public worship was a major dividing factor and identifier within religious groups. The appropriation of hymns, for example, gave way to a lengthy debate amongst Particular Baptists in the 1690s. This debate, known as the hymn-singing controversy, began out of the works and labours of one minister Benjamin Keach (1640-1704). Keach not only introduced hymn-singing at his own church in Horselydown, but also wrote extensively on the nature of Christian worship with regards to the duty of singing.

This paper will look at the polemic debate over congregational song with a particular focus on Keach’s position for hymn-singing. As such this paper will explore how a religious community’s identity can be portrayed against the backdrop of wider dissent. It will also deal with the sounds and songs which came to define certain strands of Nonconformity in late seventeenth century England.  


Matthew Stanton is a postgraduate student at Queen’s University Belfast. He is from Orillia, Ontario, Canada but currently lives in Belfast with his wife Erin. He studies Early Modern British History at Queen’s under the supervision of Crawford Gribben. His research focus is seventeenth century dissenting worship, particularly public songs of praise. The subject of his dissertation is Benjamin Keach (1640-1704). Matthew has been researching the works and involvements of Keach in the hymn-controversy of the late seventeenth-century amongst Baptists. There is a lack of scholarship focused on the development of this controversy, particularly regarding the previous singing disputes found in baptistic congregations. By identifying this as a gap in scholarship, he is looking into the origins of Baptist song.

The International John Bunyan Society

A society dedicated to the study of the life and times of John Bunyan (1628-1688)