The Life and Works of Joseph Kinghorn compiled and edited by Terry Wolever, Particular Baptist Press, 1995, Volume 1, 530 pp. $24.50
Available from Particular Baptist Press, 2766 W. Weaver Road, Springfield, MO 65810. Reviewed by Michael A. G. Haykin
That Joseph Kinghorn (1766-1832) was a leading evangelical luminary of his day was an assured fact with many of his contemporaries. That the vast majority of English-speaking evangelicals at the end of the twentieth century have not so much as heard his name is also an assured fact. Whatever the cause for the latter, be it the vagaries of historical memory or the general ignorance of modern-day evangelicals about their rich heritage, it is to be hoped that the appearance of this first volume of a projected four-volume edition of the works of Kinghorn will help to rectify this situation. This book is also the first to be published by the Particular Baptist Press, which has for its mandate the recovery of the best literature produced by one of the strongest streams in the Reformed tradition, namely, the Particular or Calvinistic Baptists. If this publishing house can continue to produce books of quality like this one, the venture has a bright future.
This first volume of Kinghorn’s works contains three pieces: a substantial memoir of Kinghorn running to nearly 500 pages, written by Martin Hood Wilkin, the son of one of Kinghorn’s closest friends, and a couple of funeral sermons by John Alexander and John Bane. A brief introduction by Terry Wolever, the editor of these Kinghorn volumes provides a succinct overview of Kinghorn’s life.
Never one to seek the limelight, Kinghorn was renowned for his scholarship, especially in the Greek and Roman classics, as well as in rabbinic and patristic studies. He had, Wilkin tells us, “an irrepressible thirst for the acquirement of knowledge” (p. vi). Kinghorn, though, never paraded for his learning in his preaching. Nor was he oblivious to the spiritual dangers posed by academic study. For instance, commenting on the academic method of study favoured by Philip Doddridge (1702-1751), in which the teacher presented the various perspectives on any given theological subject to his students, referred them to the relevant literature, and allowed them to make up their own minds as to which was correct, Kinghorn rightly noted:
It is sufficiently plain that very many of Dr. Doddridge’s students imbibed opinions very contrary to his own; and surely this was in part owing to an error in their education. . . . Much as I esteem literature, and much as I have seen of the effects of ignorance in our ministers, I cannot at all think that any influence of education can be set against the evil of a speculating temper, that should fill our churches with cold, careless ministers-mere moralizers in their sermons, or Unitarians in their doctrines. (p. 336).
Surely this is the most baneful effect of many modern evangelical seminaries, that the opinions of liberal theologians are studied with equal assiduity and “impartiality” alongside those of evangelical scholars. The solution, though, is not to dispense with scholarship. Rather, orthodoxy must be taught and strongly recommended, and piety cultivated. As Kinghorn recognized, both spirituality and orthodox scholarship are vital: “literature and piety are both of so much consequence, that we cannot do that with one which we can do with both” (p. 273).
His claim to literary fame rests on the pieces that he wrote against Robert Hall (1764-1831) in favour of closed communion. Kinghorn believed that Hall’s open communion position would wash away many of the old Particular Baptist landmarks, of which a central one was the gathered church. The Particular Baptists gained much by the winds of renewal that swept through their ranks in the closing decades of the eighteenth century, in particular, a passion for evangelism and missions. Yet, this gain was not without a price. In many of their circles, the rich fellowship of the local church suffered, as the local church came to be seen primarily as a vehicle for saving the lost. Kinghorn sought to stand against this trend, but with limited success.
In this connection it is interesting to note that Kinghorn, never one to be hindered in his pulpit pleadings with the unsaved to embrace Christ, found it difficult to speak on an individual basis to strangers about the gospel In the words of his biographer:
It is remarkable that one of such excellent conversational powers and of such sincere piety, should have found it difficult to introduce, especially to young persons, the subject of religion. When once a question was put and the matter fairly started, he would pursue it with his usual attention and interest, but with him the difficulty was to break the ice. (p. 446).
Wilkins’ use of the term “remarkable” here may actually say more about him than about Kinghorn. To one, like Wilkins, living his Christian life in an environment where evangelism, both corporate and individual, was the most important thing in Christian discipleship, Kinghorn’s reticence might very well seem “remarkable.” From a more balanced perspective it is no more remarkable than the fact that different believers have different gifts.
One final point that struck me as I read this work was a remark made by Wilkins’s father and Kinghorn’s close friend, Simon Wilkins. In the preface he mentions that “many hundred letters” of Kinghorn “were destroyed as useless” in the preparation of the biography! This was not an uncommon procedure by nineteenth-century biographers. To us, though, it is shocking, for it seriously hampers the efforts of later would-be biographers. Nonetheless, this is a superb biography, still very rich with personal correspondence, both letters to and from Kinghorn. The two funeral sermons that come at the end of the book help to reinforce the picture of Kinghorn that one gleans from the biography, a picture of a faithful servant of the Word.