KENNETH W. H. HOWARD AS AN HISTORIAN
An Appreciation by Robert W. Oliver
Kenneth Howard’s friends knew that his great love was to preach he Word of God. He had no doubt that this was the work to which God had called him and that no other interests must hinder the discharge of this responsibility; and yet one did not have to sit under his ministry for long before it became abundantly clear that he was conscious of operating in a certain tradition. That tradition he shared with a great company of Christian ministers, yet few have been aware of this to quite the extent that he was. He knew that what he was doing was a reflection of New Testament practice, but he also knew that he stood in a long and glorious succession which passed through the centuries. In 1968 he expressed it like this, ‘In short, we stand by the great historic creeds of Christianity, the Apostles’, the Nicene, and the Athanasian. We stand by the Reformers and are not ashamed of the Protestant Reformation. We stand by the Puritans and their godliness of life and learning and literature. We stand by the Thirty-Nine Articles, and by the Westminster Confession of Faith, and the Savoy Declaration of Faith and Order, in all but a few matters, such as the Church-State connection and Infant Baptism. We have not drawn up our own doctrinal basis. We are receiving, subordinate always to Holy Scripture, a slightly modified form of the Westminster Confession of Faith, which places us doctrinally, in the mainstream of historic, orthodox Christianity, Protestant, Reformed, and Evangelical.’1
These convictions, so eloquently expressed, preserved him from the extremes of doctrinal compromise on the one hand and sectarianism on the other. His detailed and broad knowledge of Church history enabled him to see where he stood in the conflicting currents of the twentieth century. He was by conviction both a Calvinist and a Baptist, and as such possessed an extraordinary and detailed acquaintance with Particular Baptist history; but his studies were not exclusively denominational. He saw Particular Baptist history against the wider background of Evangelicalism. He delighted in Reformed Christianity, but like the Elizabethan Puritans he demanded more than had been secured by what he once described as ‘the tardy and confused English Reformation of the sixteenth century’. It is not surprising therefore to find him writing, ‘No religion is more spiritual nor yet more practical than that of the Puritans; to say which, is not to extol Puritanism as an end in itself, but to speak of that authentic Christianity of which the Puritans were notable examples.’2 He saw English Dissent as the successor to Puritanism and God’s gift to the nation. In some respects his erudition reminded one of the great Congregational scholar Bernard Manning, author of Essays in Orthodox Dissent, although Kenneth Howard’s Calvinism was more clear-cut than Bernard Manning’s ever was. Like Manning however, he saw that Dissent had a distinctive churchmanship which he had discovered in the source-material of seventeenth-century Baptist and Congregational history. Writing about the publication of such records he said, ‘I commend this kind of literature to your notice because the seventeenth century was a kind of crucible in which the distinctive Nonconformist churchmanship was refined. Indeed we must go back to the first century for the roots of these principles; but we are not so superior to our later forefathers that we cannot profit from their rediscovery of these things, nor from the lessons arising from the pains and cost at which they made them’.3 His own meticulous scholarship and love of the subject-matter ensured the high quality of his editorial work on The Axminster Ecclesiastica.
There have been writers on Church History who have rushed into print without careful attention to detail and the checking of facts. Such a charge could never be levelled against Kenneth Howard, whose care may have limited the output of his pen. In 1952 during his first pastorate at Olney, scene of the historic ministry of John Sutcliff, Mr Howard wrote and published a promising article, ‘John Sutcliff of Olney’ .4 A start had been made in the process of rescuing one of the significant figures of Baptist history from oblivion. Professor Michael Haykin of Canada has pointed out that this was the most detailed biographical piece since Sutcliff’s death in 1814.
He writes, ‘Reading this article there is little doubt that Howard had a keen eye for detail. Yet it is also a well-crafted article, which seeks not only to convey information, but also to challenge the reader. The article, for instance, ends with the remark that Sutcliff made on his deathbed when reminded by one of his friends of his achievements for Christ: “It is all as nothing. I must enter heaven on he same footing as the penitent thief; and I shall be glad to take a seat by his side.” ‘5 A month after the article appeared its author gave an address on Sutcliff in which he said, ‘I feel that no just assessment of this man can be made until his extant writings have been collated, and edited and critically studied … We owe it to the memory of this great though self-effacing man, that he shall be given a biography that shall be appreciative and interpretative as well as being reliably historical and factual. I promise myself and you that such a work shall be prepared as time and opportunity become available – whether it is ever published or not.’6 Kenneth Howard continued the work of research over many years as opportunity presented itself, but John Sutcliff’s biography never appeared. In the providence of God however in 1987 he was put in touch with Professor Haykin who was also working on Sutcliff and it is hoped that Kenneth Howard’s work will play no small part in a forthcoming biography.7
Kenneth Howard’s precision can be seen in work which will never be popular reading matter, but which is of outstanding value to those who are working in the field of Baptist history. I refer to such works as his transcription and indexing of The Smarden Baptist Church Book, 1981, a work which covers material from the 1640’s to the middle of the nineteenth century. Other records of nonconformity were transcribed and deposited in specialist libraries. Kenneth Howard not only knew the value of transcribed records but he also developed great skill as an indexer. His published indexes to The Association Records of the Particular Baptists of England, Wales and Ireland to 1660, edited by B. R. White are of outstanding value as also is his Ivimey Index, 1989, which is a complete index of names and places found in the four volumes of Ivimey’s Baptist History. Kenneth Howard’s work completely replaces the inadequate indexes published in the original volumes. The index to his own library was a phenomenon and many a researcher who sought information on a chapel or person received a sheet listing every reference in denominational magazines, as well as in books, some of which he may never have heard.
I was privileged to see something of the way in which he worked when he was preparing his Bethersden Baptist Beginnings, (1990). This small volume was the fruit of ten years’ research carried on in the midst of many other responsibilities, and is a model of what a chapel history should be. He had the needs of his last church and congregation in view when he wrote, “The work has been a labour of love, undertaken ‘so that the generation to come might know’ whence it has come, and ‘look unto the rock whence (it was) hewn'”.8 It was this concern that he had in view in all his historical writing. He produced work which was valued by professional historians, but all was done ultimately to edify God’s people.
In the last fifteen or so years of his life Kenneth Howard had worked on a major biography of Marion Veitch, one of the godly ladies of the Scottish Covenant. Before his death he had finished proof-reading this work, and its forthcoming publication is eagerly awaited by his friends. Given his considerable abilities both as a researcher and as a writer many of us wished that he could have written more. On reflection it is easy to see why he did not. Kenneth Howard was called to preach, and his historical studies were always intended to subserve the loftier demands of the pulpit. In many of the books in his personal library, historical as well as expository and theological, there was a bookplate on which, after his name, appeared the words, Verbi Dei Minister, (Minister of the Word of God), a description used by many of his Puritan and Dissenting predecessors. Kenneth Howard wanted to be no more than that. Eternity alone will reveal the usefulness of that rich ministry.
Postscript by Professor Michael Haykin
Correspondence with Mr Howard over the years between 1987 and his death mostly centred on Sutcliff. Howard was a great help in pointing me to primary and secondary sources relating to Sutcliff -my recent trip to England uncovered very little that he did not know about, either directly or indirectly. In his last letter to me, he hoped that I would have ‘success beyond expectation in the discovery of matter of real substance for the forthcoming biography of Sutcliff (Letter, 15th July 1992). This letter accompanied a chapter of Sutcliff s biography which I had sent him for his comments. His comments on the chapter were few, ‘mostly’, in his own words, ‘regarding minutiae’. Yet, as an historian it was such comments concerning ‘minutiae’ that I looked forward to receiving from his hand. And it was such ‘minutiae’ that marked Howard out as a careful and judicious historian. I am genuinely sorry that he will never see the completed biography, which D.V.,I hope to finish by next year. But, far better, he has met the subject of the biography, and together with him is worshipping the God whom they both adored and delighted in serving.
1. ‘Where we stand’, address at Rugby, 3rd October 1968, Free Grace Record, Winter, 1968-69, pp. 14,15.
2. Apples of Gold, First Series, Zoar Publications, Ossett, W. Yorks, 1975, ‘Preface’
3. ‘The Axminster Ecclesiastica’ Gospel Tidings, February 1976, p.42.
4. ‘John Sutcliff of Olney’, Baptist Quarterly, vol.14, July 1952, pp.304-309.
5. Letter M.A.S. Haykin to R. W. Oliver, 17th September 1992.
6. K. W. H. Howard, ‘John Sutcliff and the Home of His Married Years’,
unpublished ms, 19th August 1952.
7. See postscript to this article.
8. K. W. H. Howard, Bethersden Baptist Beginnings, pub. by the Author, 1990,p.iii.