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 Contents: UU World Back Issue

George de Benneville: Universalist mystic

by Nelson Simonson and John Morgan

Born in England three hundred years ago to French Huguenot refugees, George de Benneville (1703-1793) enjoyed unusual privileges as a child. His godmother, for example, was Queen Anne. "When I arrived at the age of twelve years," he later wrote, "I was very wild, believing myself to belong to a different class from mankind in general. . . . But God soon convinced me to the contrary."

He was sent to sea to learn navigation. In Algiers, several Moors came aboard the ship to sell refreshments. One fell and injured his leg. In his autobiography de Benneville wrote that the wounded man's companions "cried in such manner that I was moved with much anger and ordered my servant to bring them before me." Their explanation made quite an impression on him: "They kissed the wound to sympathize with him, and likewise shed tears upon it, and as the tears were saltish they were a good remedy for the hurt. The reason for their turning towards the rising sun was to invoke Him who created the sun to have compassion upon their poor brother." De Benneville chastised himself: "Are these heathens? No, I confess before God they are Christians, and I myself a Heathen!" A profound conversion experience several years later led him to "consecrate" himself to God's service, and he prayed for guidance "to walk in the way of thy truth and universal love."

He spent twenty years in France, Holland, and Germany, where he became a physician, but his true vocation was as a lay preacher. At the age of 17, he went to France to preach among the more radical Protestant sects. De Benneville narrowly avoided beheading by the Roman Catholic French government through the intervention of the British ambassador, and in 1725 he fled to Germany. Among the "pietist" sects in Germany, de Benneville shared his universalist vision and made many friends.

De Benneville came to the American colonies in 1741 and settled among German immigrants. He was especially close to the German Baptists (or "Dunkers") and the Schwenkfelders, whose library houses his manuscripts to this day. In 1753 he arranged for the translation of a German book about universalism, The Everlasting Gospel. He was the first to preach universal salvation in America.

In 1745 he built an expansive homestead in Oley, Pennsylvania, and opened a house church, a school, and the first apothecary in the colony. His school and medical practice were open to everyone, including Native Americans from whom he learned medical remedies. Ministers of several persuasions preached in his house church, which could hold a hundred people. His Christianity was pluralistic; as he wrote, "every symbol of the same truth" carries its special meaning.

In 1757 de Benneville moved to Philadelphia, where he ran an apothecary shop and practiced medicine. During the Battle of Germantown in 1777, a British general and his aide were killed, and the commander of the British forces put word out that he needed a safe place to bury the two soldiers. De Benneville offered his family burial plot. In 1781, the Rev. Elhanan Winchester, one of the earliest Universalist ministers, visited de Benneville. Winchester's publication of de Benneville's autobiography in 1798 introduced American Universalists to their French-German pietist cousin.

Nelson Simonson was president of the Pennsylvania Universalist Convention and is a member of the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County, where the Rev. John C. Morgan is minister. Their longer article about de Benneville received an award from the Historical Society of Reading and Berks County during the county's 250th anniversary celebration.

Voices from the Past

No Obstacles to Love

"The spirit of Love will be intensified to Godly proportions when reciprocal love exists between the entire human race and each of its individual members. That love must be based upon mutual respect for the differences in color, language, and worship, even as we appreciate and accept with gratitude the differences that tend to unite the male and female of all species. We do not find those differences obstacles to love."

— George de Benneville, quoted in The Life and Times of Dr. George de Benneville by Albert D. Bell (Universalist Church of America, 1953).

 Contents: UU World Back Issue

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