Kelly, Thomas (1769–1855), clergyman and founder of the Kellyite sect, was born 13 July 1769 at Kellyville, near Athy, Co. Kildare, son of the Rt Hon. Thomas Kelly, judge in the court of common pleas; nothing is known of his mother. Thomas junior was educated at schools in Portarlington and Kilkenny before entering TCD (BA 1789) and the Inner Temple, London. While training as a lawyer he frequently stayed at the home of Edmund Burke (qv) and developed an interest in theology and biblical languages. During his early twenties Kelly experienced a deep ‘inward conversion’ and chose to go into the church instead of the law. His father reportedly remarked at that time that ‘most parents complain about their son's extravagance, mine is too religious’ (Evangelical Magazine, 1856, 63).
Thomas junior was ordained into the Church of Ireland in 1792 along with his friends John Walker (qv), Walter Shirley, and Henry Maturin (1771–1842). The four men held similar evangelical views and contributed to a weekly magazine called The Inquirer. As curate assistants they were given the opportunity to preach at St Luke's Church, Dublin, in 1793. Their style of worship, which was akin to the ‘swaddlers’ (early methodists), and their emphasis on biblical readings attracted large congregations and raised far more money for the church than the rector. But Robert Fowler (qv), archbishop of Dublin, feared that their irregular views might spread and he banned them from working in the diocese of Dublin in 1794. This meant that they were forced to worship in the drawing rooms of sympathetic gentlemen such as Alderman Hutton on Leeson St., Dublin, and at nonconformist chapels such as the Independent Meeting Houses and Bethesda Chapel, Dublin.
The four men held a special clerical meeting in 1794, along with a Moravian and two other dissenting ministers, and funds were raised for a chapel on York St., Dublin. However, the fissiparous nature of nonconformity in Dublin in the 1790s and early 1800s meant that there was a tendency for ministers to establish their own chapels rather than cooperate with each other and form a more structured church along presbyterian lines. As a result Walker's followers became ‘Walkerites’ and Kelly's friends earned the name ‘Kellyites’. It was, however, common for Kelly and his worshippers to attend more than one type of meeting house (including those of the methodists). He was one of the earliest supporters of the Hibernian Bible Society and the Evangelical Alliance, and attracted a number of visiting preachers such as the congregationalist, Robert Haldane (1764–1842).
Kelly did not lay down a doctrine as such, but important tenets of his faith were an insistence that holy communion could take place in an ad hoc manner (on unconsecrated land and during non-canonical hours); that baptism was a holy sacrament; that there were just two offices in the church (elders and deacons); that ordination was ‘open’ and depended on the support of congregations; and that a love of God could only be achieved by a close reading of the Bible (rather than relying on the received wisdom of the Church of Ireland or the Roman catholic church). Whereas Kelly was moderate, self-effacing, and altruistic, Walker was a more hard-line Calvinist, self-obsessed and intolerant. Kelly never intended to create a new church and his move from the established church was very gradual. He erected his own independent meeting house c.1795 in Blackrock, Co. Dublin, but at the same time preached alongside methodists and anglicans in Athy and established a weaving workshop there to give employment to the poor.
It was only in 1803 that he formally seceded from the established church, and even then he still sought the fellowship of sympathetic anglican clergymen. His rhetorical powers were at their height in the 1790s and early 1800s, and Walker remarked that ‘there is Kelly at the Rock [Blackrock], all on fire, as if he would set the world in a blaze’ (Evangelical Magazine (1856), 65). Using his own considerable resources (from his inheritance and marriage) he set up other meeting houses in Athy, Cork, Dublin, Kilkenny, Maryborough, New Ross, Portarlington, Waterford, and Wexford.
His popularity as a preacher brought him into conflict with the catholic clergy and a protracted pamphlet war took place from c.1809 to 1833. Kelly argued that many catholics had come to him as a result of their own inward promptings and not because he had sought to convert them. In his pamphlet The history of Andrew Dunn: an Irish catholic (1803) he relates how a poor catholic labourer found some pages from an old Bible and began to ask the parish priest searching questions about his church. Dunn was then shunned by the church because he ‘dared to think for himself’ and was then drawn to a Kellyite congregation.
Kelly's flexible and liberal approach to worship (which allowed individuals to attend more than one congregation and even the Church of Ireland or Roman catholic church at the same time) was both a strength and a weakness. He provided, for those who were not prepared to sever all ties with the established church, an environment in which they could explore what he described as ‘primitive Christianity’. One contemporary said he was esteemed ‘especially among the higher classes of society’ (Hall, 11). But this openness and lack of structure meant that it was difficult to create a critical mass of worshippers who could keep the church alive. The Kellyite sect reached its peak in the mid 1820s with many congregations attracting fifty or sixty people, and then slowly declined during his lifetime. He sold the lease on his Blackrock chapel in 1812 to concentrate on his chapel in Dublin city, and by 1840 most of his chapels had closed.
Kelly's more enduring legacy is in the form of 765 hymns, which he wrote throughout his life. Many of these (such as ‘The head that once was crowned with thorns’) are sung in both anglican and nonconformist churches. Hymns on various passages of scripture (1804) was particularly popular and went through several editions until at least 1882. During middle and old age he was more inclined to write hymns and pamphlets than to give fiery sermons. But he is recorded exercising his ministry until as late as October 1854, at which time he suffered a slight stroke while preaching in Dublin.
He married (July 1795) Elizabeth Tighe; they had at least two children, Elizabeth and Caroline Theodosia (b. 1816). Kelly's children were all – according to a descendant – baptised according to anglican rites. This is further evidence of his vestigial attachment to the established church. Thomas Kelly died 14 May 1855, aged 85. The few remaining ‘Kellyites’ dispersed after his death; no formal records of his congregations can be traced.