Father Kelly

You will not understand SSM unless you realise that it was begotten of failure.

Father Herbert Hamilton Kelly was a leading theologian of his time, founder of SSM and author of The Gospel of God.

Kelly was born in 1860 in Lancashire, England, the third son of an Evangelical parson. As a boy he was excessively shy and not good at either games or school, giving him the sense of inadequacy that haunted him all his life.

Kelly left Manchester Grammar School in 1877 and entered the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich in 1878, destined for the artillery. The onset of deafness and a growing religious conviction led him to resign his commission and in 1880 he went to Queen’s College, Oxford, as an ordinand.

His academic success was minor (a fourth in history), but at Oxford he discovered the work of Charles Kingsley and FD Maurice.

From his father he had already learnt the power of steadfast and unassuming devotion to duty. The Military Academy had taught him the power of organisation. Kingsley and Maurice helped him form his vision of God.

As Kelly understood it, theology was inseparable from life. It was not a matter of intellectual propositions about an abstraction called ‘God’, but personal knowledge of the Living God, learnt through every aspect of God-centred living.

Kelly was ordained in 1884 (with no theological training) to a first curacy in the village of Leeds, near Maidstone in Kent. In 1886 he took up another, at St Paul’s, Wimbledon Park with St Barnabas, Southfields.


Years later he summed it all up: ‘It took me just over 10 years to learn my utter uselessness—as a soldier (exit 1879), as a student (exit 1883), as a parish priest (exit 1890). Note how a man’s incapacities may direct his calling.’

Kelly’s vision of the Living God led him to devote himself to finding new patterns of ‘divine service’ with special emphasis on theological education that provided ‘ time to read and think, to get bewildered, and to find a way through’.

He believed there were hundreds and thousands of ordinary people, not especially high church or pious who wanted to devote their lives to the service of God by the service of others.

And SSM was the means of bringing these ordinary people together and organising them so they could support and instruct one another, to do in combination far more than any one of them could do in isolation.

Indicative of the existential approach that guided his whole method of ordination training, he referred to SSM as an ‘idea’ or an ‘atmosphere’, where faith is primary and religion secondary.

After stepping down as Director of SSM in 1910, Kelly travelled to the United States and Canada. He moved to Japan in 1913, helping set up a theological college in Tokyo.

Following his return to Kelham in 1920, he continued to lecture, read and write well into his seventies and eighties. ‘The Gospel of God’, published in 1928, grew out of his lectures and summarises his teachings.

Father Kelly died at Kelham on 31 October 1950 on the eve of All Saints and three months after this 90th birthday.

The Society

The Society had its genesis in the Korean Missionary Brotherhood, a theological college set up by Kelly in 1891 to train young men with no money and no special education for missionary work in Korea and central Africa.

At Michaelmas, 1892, the name changed to the Society of the Sacred Mission (SSM) and Michaelmas has remained a celebratory day for SSM ever since.

The Principles, drafted by Kelly in the same year, express SSM’s ethos, and the Constitution, drafted in 1894, provides the structure. Revised and modernised over the years, the Constitution stands as the basic document regulating members’ relations with one another and the Church at large.

From the beginning, Kelly intended a worldwide SSM presence, calling out ‘a whole mass of enthusiasm and devotion of all kinds, wherever it might be found for all purposes’.

Different to any other theological training of the time, SSM was based on Kelly’s ideal of God-centred devotion. ‘The religious life is just that—devotion organised as a system.’

SSM started with three novices and over its life it was responsible for training 3500 men for the priesthood, serving in Korea, Africa, England, Australia and Japan.

SSM began working in Australia in 1912, when SSM-trained priests began serving in North Queensland.

In 1947 a theological college was established at St Michael’s House in the Adelaide Hills.

In 1978, SSM accepted responsibility for St John’s in Halifax Street, with St Michael’s House continuing as a house of prayer and study. Tragically, the house was destroyed in the Ash Wednesday bushfires of 1983.

A monastery at Diggers Rest in Victoria, established in the late 1970s, closed in recent times.

With the destruction of St Michael’s House, SSM changed from the ordination of priests to adopting a more public theology. It has established collaborations with the Australian Centre for Christianity and Culture and the Centre for Public and Contextual Theology.

SSM’s three provinces—United Kingdom, Southern Africa and Australia—are autonomous, but closely linked.

SSM membership comprises members who have been professed; other members who join fully in the life of SSM but are not professed; and companions who associate with SSM and become part of its life and work.

In Australia, SSM is based in South Australia and Ballarat in Victoria.

The object of SSM is expressed in its motto: Ad gloriam dei in eius voluntate (To the glory of God in the doing of his will).


  • 1860

    Herbert Hamilton Kelly born

  • 1891

    Training begins

  • 1893

    SSM established

  • 1902

    Missionary work begins in South Africa

  • 1903

    Kelham Hall in Nottinghamshire becomes SSM’s base

  • 1910

    Kelly resigns as Director

  • 1912

    First SSM-trained priests serve in Australia

  • 1917

    Kelly visits Australia

  • 1929

    Jagger Rood installed at Kelham

  • 1947

    St Michael’s House Theological College opens

  • 1950

    Kelly dies

  • 1973

    SSM reestablishes at Nottingham, Sheffield and Willen, Milton Keynes

  • 1978

    St John’s Church, Adelaide, becomes an SSM Priory

  • 1983

    St Michael’s House destroyed in Ash Wednesday bushfires. SSM Priory opens in Maseru, Lesotho, Southern Africa

  • 1985

    SSM establishes a house at Diggers Rest in Victoria, Australia

  • 1989

    Durham Priory opens in England

  • 1997

    The Well at Willen establishes as European Provincial office

  • 2004

    Southern African Province launched

  • 2015

    Companions welcomed in Australia

Father Kelly’s Vision

Father Christopher Myers, Australian Provincial