Herbert Hamilton Kelly, 1860–1950

Herbert Kelly was born in Manchester on 18 July 1860. He was the third of seven children born to James Devonport Kelly and his wife Margaret. James Kelly, a ‘steady Evangelical’, was rector in Manchester and later Ashton-Under-Lyne where Herbert spent most of his childhood. The eldest son, Arthur, joined the army and the second, Francis, Herbert’s ‘chum brother’, died young while Herbert was at Oxford. His ‘chum sister, Edith, went on to become a sister of the Community of the Epiphany, and spent many years as a missionary in Japan. The youngest brother, Alfred Davenport, was to follow Herbert’s lead and join SSM in 1900.

Herbert Kelly, by his own admission, had a less than illustrious academic career. The deafness he suffered from childhood was a contributing factor. He was educated at Manchester Grammar School and then the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich. It was here that he experienced his religious ‘conversion’ which he alluded to in his, largely unpublished, autobiography.

As a result Kelly left Woolwich and went to Oxford University (Queen’s College) in 1879. At Oxford, he recalled later, he learnt two things: ‘the width of God’s world and of His interest therein [and] the habit of thinking’. It was at Oxford too that he discovered the writings of two pioneers of Christian Socialism: Charles Kingsley and Frederick Denison Maurice. Kelly’s reading at this time was extensive and catholic, but he was undisciplined in his academic study. He left Oxford with a fourth class degree although, ‘I believe I trembled on the edge of a third’ he recorded later.

In 1883 Kelly was ordained deacon. In 1889 Bishop Charles Corfe was seeking men to send to Corea [Korea] as missionaries. Kelly’s offer to train men for this role was accepted. After a brief stay with the Cowley Fathers in Oxford to gain experience of religious life, he moved into 97 Vassall Road, Kennington on 15 December 1890 and began the Corean Missionary Brotherhood. Most of the men who came were unused to academic life and Kelly was not qualified to provide a theological education, however the small community did flourish, although few men were sent to Korea. In 1892 the name was changed to the Society of the Sacred Mission and in 1893 Kelly and two others were clothed as novices. This is considered the official foundation of SSM.

The Society flourished and moved to Mildenhall, Suffolk in 1897 and then to Kelham, Nottinghamshire in 1903. Kelly was the first director but became increasingly concerned that the Society and Herbert Kelly were seen as synonymous: ‘Kelly & Co.’. In 1910 he resigned as director to allow the Society to grow beyond his own image.

The years 1910–1920 saw Kelly enjoying a freedom and creativity he had not hitherto experienced. He was able to develop his engagement with the Student Christian Movement (SCM) and the Ecumenical Movement, first at conferences and camps in Edinburgh and Swanwick, and, in 1912, in USA. This resulted in his book The Church and Religious Unity, published in 1913.

In 1913 Kelly was appointed as Professor of Apologetical Theology at the Central Theological College, Ikebukuro, Japan. He described these years as his most successful and happiest: ‘Japan is “my” country. I spent 5–6 years there, and it is the only bit of my life I can bear to remember. Well, the rest makes me sick and hot (except the Student Movement lot and Swanwick maybe)’.

Kelly returned to England in 1919. His travels had made him critical of Kelham’s insularity and parochialism however, and he came back to a crisis in the community. For the community this was a time of post-war reconstruction and life at Kelham had been disrupted for over four years. Division had also arisen between the English House and the South African Province over the nature of the religious life. This was resolved, albeit somewhat uneasily at the General Chapter of 1920.

By now Kelly was sixty years old and his hearing had deteriorated. Nevertheless over the next fifteen years he produced his two most successful books The Gospel of God, 1928 and Catholicity, 1932; developed his scheme of lectures for the College; and taught Church History and Dogmatic Theology. In 1937 he entered into a long and significant correspondence with Dorothy L. Sayers which lasted until his death in 1950.

Herbert Kelly was an original and creative theologian whose true significance was not fully appreciated during his lifetime. Indeed a reading of his considerable output today reveals him to be well ahead of his time. This time may be now, and his work should be rediscovered: he has much to say to the Church of our day.


Born in Manchester where his father, James Davenport Kelly, was rector of St James’, George Street. He was the third of seven children

Manchester Grammar School

Royal Military Academy, Woolwich

Queen’s College, Oxford (gained a fourth-class degree in history)

Ordained priest

Served in various parishes

Inspired by a call to send missionaries to Korea he established a small community, the Corean Missionary Brotherhood in Vassall Road, London to train aspirants. This mission was never fulfilled and the name of the Brotherhood changed to the Society of the Sacred Mission in 1892

Clothing of three novices (including Kelly) in the Society of the Sacred Mission (SSM)

Profession of Kelly and Herbert Woodward

SSM moved to Mildenhall, Suffolk

Published History of a Religious Idea

Published A History of the Church of Christ, two volumes

Published England and the Church

SSM moved to Kelham Hall, Nottinghamshire

Published An Idea in the Making

Retired as Director of SSM

Involvement with Student Christian Movement: camps at Edinburgh and Swanwick and visited the USA

Published The Church and Religious Unity

1913–14 & 1916-19
In Japan

Back at Kelham, teaching Dogmatics and Church History and writing his next two books. He continued his involvement with SCM and maintained a variety of interests including rock climbing and pig keeping

Published The Gospel of God

Published Catholicity

Began correspondence with Dorothy L Sayers

Continued to teach at Kelham and write articles for SSMQ. His intellectual interests persisted although increasing deafness and infirmity limited his activities

Died at Kelham