The Scottish Scholar and Missionary- Rev. George Keith (1639-1716)



George Keith was a Christian Quaker, later an Anglican missionary, born in Aberdeenshire, Scotland in 16391. He earned his M.A. from Marischal College in Aberdeen in 16582. He was intended to be ordained in the Scottish Presbyterian Church, but in 1662 became an adherent and leader of the new Quaker movement founded by George Fox in 16473.

The early Quakers were devout Christians4. In the mid-17th century, the major Christian "kirks" in Scotland were Episcopalian and Presbyterian5. Mainstream Christian theology adhered to the Calvinist beliefs that God preordained an individual's salvation or damnation, and that people are incapable of acts of saving goodness. Quakers rejected these Calvinist tenets, and preached that salvation is open to all people through acceptance of Jesus Christ, His crucifixion, and His resurrection from death6,7. Quakers were "twice-born Christians" in their belief in salvation through spiritual conversion to Jesus8: thus they were more akin to modern-day evangelicals than they were to the Calvinist Christians of the 17th century.

Quakers also believed that they had an obligation to preach about the "errors" in the teachings of mainstream Christian churches9. Such aggressive preaching brought them into conflict with the established religious order, and led to their persecution in Scotland and England. Rev. Keith was first imprisoned in the Tolbooth in Aberdeen in 166410, and was imprisoned many more times over the following 21 years11,12. He never gave up his adamant preaching, at times speaking to crowds through prison window bars.

In 1672 Rev. Keith married Elizabeth Johnston, the daughter of William Johnston, M.D. and Barbara Forbes13. Rev. and Elizabeth Keith had 3 children, including Anne Keith who married George Walker of Jamestown: Anne and George Walker were the grandparents of George Wythe, first Virginia signer of the Declaration of Independence. In 1677 Rev. Keith and his wife joined William Penn and George Fox on a missionary trip to Holland and Germany14. During this trip Rev. Keith's stature in the Quaker movement grew.

Perhaps because of his persecution and repeated imprisonments, in 1685 Rev. Keith immigrated with his young family to East Jersey in the American Colonies15,16. Fellow Quaker, Governor Robert Barclay of East Jersey, hired Keith as the Surveyor General of East Jersey to survey a line between East and West Jersey17, a boundary still referred to as the Keith line. Rev. Keith is documented on a land patent in East Jersey in 168618.

Keith spent 4 years in the settlement he founded, Freehold, East Jersey. In 1689 he moved to Philadelphia at the request of William Penn to become headmaster of the new Friends School19,20, a post that he held for just one year.

At about the time that George Fox died in 1691, Rev. Keith came to the conclusion that the leaders of the Quaker movement were drifting away from a Christ-centered theology. Keith believed that the salvation of man had been achieved through the crucifixion and resurrection of the historical Jesus21. In a series of public debates, he accused William Penn of Deism22, and precipitated Quakerism's first major schism. Keith's followers were known as "Keithians", or "Quaker Christians"23.

In 1692, Rev. Keith established 15 new congregations of "Quaker Christians" in the Philadelphia and New Jersey area, numbering about 500 adherents24. Two specific congregations are well documented. First, he established a Christian Quaker congregation in Philadelphia in a log house on Second Street below Mulberry Street25. Second, he established a congregation in Topenamus, East Jersey26, near his hometown of Freehold. However, we can probably assume that he had been preaching at this meeting beginning with his arrival in Freehold in 1685.

In 1694 Rev. Keith left Philadelphia to travel to London to continue his public disputation with the other leaders of Quakerism. In London, Rev. Keith's theological ideas were ill received by his fellow Quakers, and he was eventually expelled from the "yearly meeting"27. The Anglican establishment soon welcomed him, and he was ordained an Anglican Priest in May 170028.

In April 1702 Rev. Keith undertook a 2-year missionary trip to the American Colonies, on behalf of the Anglican Church, as an emissary of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts29. A detailed journal of this mission survives, written by Keith himself30. He documents his arrival in Boston on 11 Jun 1702 on board the Centurion31.

Rev. Keith writes that he returned to the congregation he founded at Topanemus in Freehold, East Jersey, on October 10, 1702, where his sermon was well received32. He preached again in Freehold over Christmas that year33, and returned on October 10, 1703, when he confirmed that his congregation had converted to Anglicanism34.

The Topanemus congregation that Rev. Keith founded exists to this day, now known as St. Peter's Church. The website for St. Peter's Church states, "The first service of our congregation was held on October 10, 1702, at the Quaker Meeting House in Topanemus, near present-day Marlboro, led by the Reverend George Keith, an early settler of Freehold"35.

Rev. Keith performed many Baptisms, and brought many former Quakers into the Anglican Church during his 2-year mission in the American Colonies36. In 1704 he returned to England, where he remained for the rest of his life. He assumed the position of Rector of Edburton, Sussex, and continued in active ministry until about 1711 when he became bedridden with rheumatism37. By the time of his death in 1716, Keith had written enough to fill 23 pages in a contemporary bibliography catalogue38.


1) Stephen, Sir Leslie, ed. Dictionary of National Biography, 1921-1922, Volume 10. London, England: Oxford University Press, 1921-1922, pp. 1206-1209

2) Anderson, Peter John. Selections from the Records of Marishcal College and University, 1593-1860. Aberdeen: The New Spalding Club, 1898. Vol 2, p. 222

3) Stephen, p. 1206

4) Levy, Leonard W. Blasphemy: Verbal Offenses Against the Sacred. Chapel Hill: UNC Press Books, 1995, p. 172

5) Dobson, David. Scottish Quakers and Early America, 1650-1700. Baltimore: Genealogical Publishing Co., Inc., 1998, p. iv

6) Cahill, Lisa S. Love Your Enemies. Minneapolis: Augsburg Fortress, 1994, p. 168

7) Fischer, David H. Albion's Seed: Four British Folkways in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989, p. 427

8) Ibid., p. 427

9) Levy, p. 172

10) Burnet, George B. and William H. Marwick. The Story of Quakerism in Scotland 1650-1950. Cambridge: The Lutterworth Press, 2007, p. 79

11) Ibid., p. 68

12) Stephen, pp. 1206-1207

13) Hall, Timothy. American Religious Leaders. Infobase Publishing, 2003, p. 197

14) Ibid., p. 197

15) Monmouth County. History of Monmouth County, New Jersey, Vol. 2. New York & Chicago: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1922, Chapter LXI, p. 1

16) Wall, John P. and Harold E. Pickersgill. History of Middlesex County, New Jersey, 1664-1920. New York & Chicago: Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc., 1921, pp. 58-59

17) Ibid., pp. 58-59

18) Salter, Edward. A History of Monmouth and Ocean Counties. Bayonne: F. Gardner & Son, Publishers, 1890, p. 31

19) Wall, p. 59

20) Denton, Daniel and Gabriel Furman, ed. A Brief Description of New York. New York: William Gowan, 1845, p. 100

21) Holifield, E. Brooks. Theology in America: Christian Thought from the Age of the Puritans to the Civil War. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003, p. 321

22) Ibid., p. 321

23) Rothbard, Murray Newton. Conceived in Liberty. Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2011, p. 487

24) Keith, George. Journal of the Travels and Ministry of the Reverend George Keith, A.M. In: Collections of the Protestant Episcopal Historical Society for the Year 1851. New York: Stanford & Swords, Publishers, 1851, p. xii

5) Friend – Religious and Literary Journal. Philadelphia: Wm. H. Pile's Sons, 1904. Volume 77, 12 Dec 1903, p. 171

26) Daughters of the American Revolution. American Monthly Magazine, Vol. X, No. 1, January 1897. Washington, D.C.: Daughters of the American Revolution, 1897, p. 1047

27) Stephen, p. 1208

28) Ibid., p. 1208

29) Keith, op cit, cover

30) Ibid., pp. 1-54

31) Ibid., p. 1

32) Ibid., pp. 30-31

33) Ibid., p. 34

34) Ibid., p. 44

35) St. Peter's Church. St. Peter's Church – About Us: "History". Freehold, NJ, 2009-2012. Web 2 May 2013

36) Keith, p. 49

37) Stephen, p. 1208

38) Ibid., p. 1208