Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Bennet, Benjamin

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BENNET, BENJAMIN (1674–1726), divine, was born at Willsborough, a village near to Market Bosworth, Leicestershire, in 1674. In early youth his health was very delicate, and during one severe illness he passed under deep religious convictions. On his recovery he formed a society of young men for prayer and religious conversation. He received his elementary education in his parish school. He proceeded next to Sheriff-Hales in Shropshire, under John Woodhouse. Woodhouse, on his ejection, had established an academy for the training of ‘toward youths,’ theologically and classically. He had at this time an average attendance of from forty to fifty students. Young Bennet, having here completed the course of study usual among nonconformists at that period, began his public ministry as a preacher-evangelist at Temple Hall, a village near his native place. He immediately succeeded John Sheffield, on the removal of that remarkable man to Southwark in 1697. He must have gone to Temple Hall and continued there some time on probation, for he was not formally ordained until 30 May 1699. This was done in Oldbury chapel in Shropshire by some of the surviving ejected ministers, along with three others, one of whom was John Reynolds of Shrewsbury. He soon became noted for his eloquence and persuasiveness in the pulpit and for his love of study. In 1703 he accepted an invitation to go to Newcastle-on-Tyne as colleague with the venerable Richard Gilpin [q. v.] The congregation had been weakened by a temporary secession under one of Dr. Gilpin's assistants, the Rev. Thomas Bradbury [q. v.] Bennet's ministry in Newcastle is far famed. He was wont to spend sixty hours a week in his study, and successive days were entirely consecrated to intercessory prayer and fasting. Besides original hymns, some of which are still in use, he wrote there a number of religious and historical works. Of the latter his ‘Memorial of the Reformation in England’ (1717), which passed through two more editions (1721 and 1726), is the chief. It preserves many personal anecdotes from original sources not to be found elsewhere, as, for instance, of Judge Jeffreys's visit to Newcastle in 1683, ecclesiastical memorabilia from the lips of the ejected, and the like. The book drew its author into controversy with Zachary Grey [q. v.] Bennet's defence of his Memorial is a brilliant literary feat, although its grave writer says of its style: ‘The manner of writing will, I'm afraid, be thought too ludicrous, and I'm sure 'tis what I take no pleasure in; but I sensibly found on this occasion the truth of that of the poet, “Difficile est satyram non scribere.”’ His ‘Irenicum, or a Review of some late controversies about the Trinity, Private Judgment … and the Rights of Conscience from the Misrepresentations of the Dean of Winchester [Francis Hare] in his “Scripture vindicated from the Misrepresentations of the Lord Bishop of Bangor”’ (1722), is very charitable and reasonable in its tone. But this did not save it from a most bitter attack by an ultra-orthodox nonconformist (Rev. John Atkinson, of Stainton). He had published earlier his ‘Several Discourses against Popery’ (1714). But the one theological book of his that still lives is his ‘Christian's Oratory, or the Devotion of the Closet,’ of which a sixth edition was published in 1760, and a seventh in 1776. In the fifth edition there is a portrait of the author. The spirit of the ‘Christian's Oratory’ is a kind of gentle quietism.

Never robust, Bennet had, for twelve years before his death, an assistant, afterwards celebrated as the Rev. Dr. Samuel Lawrence of London. It was during their joint ministry that the congregation erected their second church in Hanover Square, Westgate Street. But the senior pastor did not live to see it opened. He died of a swift fever in his fifty-second year, on 1 Sept. 1726. Bennet had the honour of baptising the poet Mark Akenside in 1721. Bennet's manuscripts yielded a number of posthumous publications, among them being a second part of his ‘Christian's Oratory’ (1728); ‘Truth, Importance, and Usefulness of Scripture’ (1730); ‘View of the whole System of Popery’ (1781).

[Funeral Sermon by Isaac Worthington, 1726; Prefaces to Works by Dr. Latham; Wilson's Dissenting Churches; Unitarian Church Records at Newcastle; communications from Rev. John Black, London.]

A. B. G.