Benson, Joseph (DNB00)

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BENSON, JOSEPH (1749–1821), divine, was the son of John Benson, by Isabella Robinson, his wife. He was born on 26 Jan. 1748–9, in the parish of Kirkoswald, Cumberland. His father intended him for the ministry of the established church. His elementary education was obtained in the village school. Afterwards he was placed under a Mr. Dean, a presbyterian minister residing in the parish, with whom he lived on terms of intimacy for many subsequent years. He was well grounded in Latin, Greek, and Hebrew, and had access to his tutor's considerable library. A cousin, Joseph Watson, who had heard the early methodists, happening to visit Joseph, excited his curiosity in the new sect. The two went together to the methodist conventicle and also read Wesley's sermons, and the new movement at once affected Benson.

Till his sixteenth year he remained under Mr. Dean. He then opened a small school in a Cumberland village. His father opposed his joining the methodists. However, Joseph, having learned that John Wesley himself was to preach at Newcastle-on-Tyne, set out on foot to hear him in December 1765. He arrived too late, but resolved to follow Wesley to London. Arrived in the metropolis after a journey partly performed on foot and partly in a mail-coach, for which a kindly traveller paid the fare, Benson gained an introduction to John Wesley, who, going to Bristol, took his disciple with him (11 March 1766). He speedily showed his estimate of him by appointing him classical master of Kingswood school, in which the sons of itinerant preachers were the chief scholars. Wesley afterwards bore flattering testimony to his success at Kingswood. Though naturally slow of speech, he addressed the colliers of Kingswood, and held cottage-meeting, prayer-meetings, and the like. But he did not separate himself from the church. He proceeded to Oxford in 1769, and was entered of St. Edmund Hall. In the same year he lost his father. At Kingswood he had been introduced to Fletcher of Madeley, who had brought his name under the notice of the Countess of Huntingdon. As a result that lady summoned him in 1770 to take the post of head-master in her recently established college at Treveca. The countess was Calvinistic, while Fletcher and Benson were Arminian. Dissensions and resignations ensued. The countess granted a laudatory testimonial to Benson. His success as an itinerant preacher made him anxious to become a clergyman, for he still leaned to the church of England. He returned to Oxford, and speedily obtained a presentation to Rowley, a large parish four miles distant from West Bromwich. He applied for ordination, bringing with him a testimonial from the bishop of St. Davids, but the bishop of Worcester refused to ordain him. He alleged the absence of an academic degree as excuse, but the real reason was his intimacy with the methodists.

Thereupon Benson went over to methodism, and he exercised his ministry in successive circuits. He was found wherever work, religious or philanthropic (as for the slaves of the West Indies and America), was to be done, whether in the north of England, or in the west or south, or at Edinburgh, or in Wales or Cornwall. Few men have so affected immense audiences by their preaching. He induced smugglers in Newcastle, who were foremost methodists, to abandon their nefarious trade. It is told that frequently such was the excitement in his great gathering that the preacher would pause and engage in prayer or give out a hymn to slacken the tension of the strain. Throughout he himself was calm as John Wesley. His printed sermons, like Whitefield's, do not reveal the secret of his power.

Benson was always on the alert for attacks on methodism. His 'Defence of the Methodists in Five Letters to the Rev. Dr. Tatham' (1793, with its sequel, 'A farther Defence,' in five letters to the Rev. W. Russell, in answer to his 'Hints to the Methodists and Dissenters;' his 'Vindication of the People called Methodists, in answer to a report from the Clergy of a district in the Diocese of Lincoln' (1800), and his 'Inspector of Methodism inspected, and the Christian Observer observed' (1803), a reply to Dr. Hales of Ireland, remain masterly vindications of methodism. Earlier he crossed swords with Priestley—e.g. in his 'Remarks on Dr. Priestley's System of Materialism and Necessity' (1788), and 'A Scriptural Essay towards the Proof of an Immortal Spirit in Man, being a continuation of Remarks' (1788). Of his more practical writings are the following: 'A Demonstration of the Want of Common Sense in the New Testament Writers, on the Supposition of their believing and teaching Socinianism' (1791), which was appended to Fletcher's 'Socinianism Unscriptural;' and the 'Holy Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments ... with Notes, Critical, Explanatory, and Practical,' 2nd edition, 1811-18, 5 vols. 4to. Benson's 'Notes' are held amongst methodists to excel every other commentary, but they are in themselves of little value.

The life of Benson covers, with Wesley's life, nearly the first century of methodism. On the death of John Wesley in 1821, Benson filled his place.

Benson married a Miss Thompson at Leeds, 28 Jan. 1780. They had no issue. He died on 16 Feb. 1821, aged 74. It must be added that to the last he was very much in sympathy with the church of England. He was of the old-fashioned type of methodist. He strenuously opposed the dispensation of the Lord's Supper in methodist chapels. He would have all partake in the church.

[Lives by Macdonald and Treffry; Lives of the Wesleys; Methodist Magazines; Minutes of Conference.]

A. B. G.