Baptist hymnologists Music and Richardson describe Benjamin Keach as "the seminal figure in congregational singing among Baptists" writing that he "was the first to establish the practice of singing hymns, as distinguished from psalms, in the regular worship of any English church." ("I Will Sing the Wondrous Story": A History of Baptist Hymnody in North America, David W. Music, Paul Akers Richardson, p. 12)
Keach was born in Stokehaman, Buckinghamshire, February 29, 1640. He was raised an Anglican, and as a young man worked as a tailor. He was baptized as a Baptist at the age of 15. He started preaching at age 18. Keach became pastor of a General Baptist church at Winslow in 1661. While there he wrote The Child's Instructor, which brought on persecution from the established church. In 1668 moved to a church in Southwark where he remained until his death, 36 years as pastor. Unlike the church in Winslow, this was a Particular Baptist congregation. From this church Keach represented in the 1689 General Assembly which formulated the Second London Baptist Confession of Faith.
Keach was married twice, first to Jane Grove, and after her death to Susanna Partridge. He died January 18, 1704 and is buried at the Baptist Burial Ground in Southwark, London, England.
Keach's Spiritual Melody, published in 1691, is considered the oldest or first-known Baptist hymn book. Prior to this most English Baptists, both General Atonement Baptists and Particular Atonement Baptists, were opposed to congregational hymn singing. Benjamin Keach advocated hymn singing as a scriptural practice, and instituted it in his church in the early 1670s -- first at the Lord's Supper and eventually in weekly worship meetings. He published The Breach Repaired in God's Worship, or Singing of Psalms, Hymns and Spiritual Songs Proved to be an Holy Ordinance of Jesus Christ to promote hymn singing and answer objections (particularly those of Isaac Marlow's 1690 A Brief Discourse concerning Singing in the Publick Worship of God in the Gospel-Church). This was released the same year as Spiritual Melody. Keach was providing polemic to promote congregational singing, as well as material to use in its conduct. In The Breach Repaired Keach declared, "Singing is not a simple heart singing, or mental singing; but a musical melodious modulation, or tuning of the voice. Singing is a duty performed always with the voice, and cannot be done without the tongue." He considered singing ordained of God, and to neglect the ordinance a "breach" of God's law.
Keach wrote over 40 books, hundreds of hymns and published three collections of hymns -- Spiritual Melody, A Feast of Fat Things (1696), and Spiritual Songs (1700). Poetry by Keach is also included in some of his prose works. In comparing Spiritual Melody and Keach's book Tropologia: a Key to Open Scripture Metaphors (1681), Barry Vaughn (Public Worship and Practical Theology in the Work of Benjamin Keach) "concluded that many of the hymns were developed to coordinate with coordinate with Keach's sermons." (Sounds exactly like something a hymn-writing preacher would do!)
The general consensus is that Benjamin Keach was effective in promoting hymn singing, while not especially effective in writing good quality hymns. His Spiritual Melody stands as the first-known attempt of a Baptist to produce a hymn book for use in his church's worship, and serves as a foundation to all the Baptist hymn books and hymnals that follow after.
1. Break out ye Saints with joy and sing,
to the Eternal King;
The Angels do blest Tidings bring,
Hosannah in the highest.
2. In Bethlehem the Babe is born,
cease, cease, your bitter Mourn,
Your Sorrow now to Singing turn,
Hosannah in the highest.
From "The Song of the Lamb, Part 1," by Benjamin Keach (In Spiritual Melody, 1696)