Key, Robert
1805-1876; e.m. 1828

PM itinerant, born on 7 April 1805 at All Saints South Elmham, Suffolk and converted at Great Yarmouth in 1823. Feeling he was too rough and uneducated for the itinerant ministry, the North Waltham PM circuit gave permission only with great reluctance for him to mission central Norfolk, where no PM activity had hitherto been seen. With Mattishall as his base, he preached in widely scattered villages and singlehandedly organized the new circuit. At Cawston he even staked out and dug the foundations, as well as sawing the timbers, for a chapel. Although facing frequent violence and living in penury, he quickly had remarkable success. He went on to mission Newmarket, Hadleigh, Polstead and the surrounding area. He spent all his ministry in East Anglia.

A powerful open-air preacher, he was at his best at camp meetings. The popular suggestion that he was the preacher at the camp meeting described in Borrow's Lavengrois not borne out by the text, although he may well have been the figure behind Borrow's description. He was also a popular lecturer in demand throughout the county, an ardent advocate of civil and religious liberty, and a committed Liberal in politics. In applying for superannuation in 1864 he claimed to have personally introduced Primitive Methodism into more than a hundred towns and villages in East Anglia, added over a thousand members to the Connexion, built eighteen chapels and purchased three others.

In retirement he wrote The Gospel among the Masses (1866), describing his early fortunes as a missionary in central Norfolk. He died on 2 September 1876 and was buried in Norwich City cemetery. An obelisk was set up overe the grave in 1891. His former colleague, Thomas Lowe, published two books in his memory, containing a brief biography and a selection of his sermons.

  • Thomas Church (ed.), Gospel Victories or Missionary anecdotes of imprisonments, labours and persecutions endured by Primitive Methodist Preachers between the years 1812 and 1844 (1851) pp. 92-5
  • Thomas Lowe, The Norfolk Herald of the Cross (1881)
  • Thomas Lowe, Burning Words or Choice Remains of the Late Rev. Robert Key of Norfolk (1882)
  • G.J. Stevenson, Methodist Worthies (1884-1886), 5 pp.708-23
  • Joseph Ritson, The Romance of Primitive Methodism (1909) pp.124-7, 239-41
  • Norma Virgoe, Robert Key: coal heaver and evangelist (2004)
  • Methodist Recorder, 4 May 2018

Entry written by: DCD and NV
Category: Person
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