Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Benson, George

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BENSON, GEORGE, D.D. (1699–1762), divine, was born at Great Salkeld, Cumberland, on 1 Sept. 1699. The family was originally of London. Towards the close of Elizabeth's reign Dr. Benson's great-grandfather, John Benson, left the metropolis and settled in Cumberland. This John Benson had thirteen sons, from the eldest of whom Robert Benson [q. v.], Lord Bingley, descended. During the civil war the youngest of these sons, George Benson, Dr. Benson's grandfather, took the side of the parliament, and suffered much in fortune, more especially from the Scotch before the battle of Worcester. This George Benson had the living of Bridekirk in his native county, and was ejected in 1662. His grandson George received an excellent education. He was so diligent in his studies that ‘at eleven years of age he is said to have been able to read the Greek New Testament.’ After a full course of ‘grammar-learning’ he proceeded to an academy presided over by Dr. Dixon at Whitehaven. He remained at this academy about a year. Thence he was transferred to the university of Glasgow. About the year 1721 he is found in London, ‘and, having been examined and approved by several of the most eminent presbyterian ministers, he began to preach, first at Chertsey, and afterwards in the metropolis.’ At this time Dr. Calamy received him into his own family. At the recommendation of Calamy he next went to Abingdon in Berkshire. He was chosen pastor of a congregation of protestant dissenters there. He was ordained on 27 March 1723, Calamy and five other ministers officiating on the occasion. He continued in Abingdon for seven years. He was, as before, systematically studious. When ordained he held strictly Calvinistical opinions and preached them fervently. While at Abingdon he published three ‘Practical Discourses’ addressed to ‘young persons.’ These later he suppressed, in consequence of a change of views.

In 1726 he married Mrs. Elizabeth Hills, widow. In 1729 he finally left Abingdon, which he was obliged to do ‘on account of the Arminian sentiments he had lately embraced, and which were generally disapproved by his congregation.’ He removed to London—after hesitating whether to give himself to physic—having accepted an invitation to become pastor of a congregation in King John's Court, Southwark. Here he remained eleven years.

In 1731 he published ‘A Paraphrase and Notes on St. Paul's Epistle to Philemon. Attempted in imitation of Mr. Locke's manner. With an Appendix in which is shewn that St. Paul could neither be an enthusiast nor an impostor; and consequently the christian religion must be (as he has represented it) heavenly and divine.’ The appendix suggested Lord Lyttleton's more famous treatise. This work having been well received, its author pursued his design, and in the same year published his ‘Paraphrase and Notes on Paul's First Epistle to the Thessalonians.’ This was succeeded in 1732 by a like ‘Paraphrase’ on the Second Epistle to the Thessalonians. To this were annexed two dissertations: (1) Concerning the Kingdom of God; (2) Concerning the Man of Sin. In 1733 there came forth his notes on the ‘First Epistle to Timothy,’ with an appendix on inspiration. In the same year appeared his ‘Paraphrase and Notes upon Titus,’ accompanied with an essay concerning the abolition of the ceremonial law. In 1734 there followed observations upon the ‘Second Epistle to Timothy,’ with an essay in two parts: (1) Concerning the Settlement of the Primitive Church; (2) Concerning the Religious Worship of the Christians whilst the Spiritual Gifts continued.

Having completed his design of paraphrases and notes on these epistles of St. Paul, he proceeded similarly to explain the Seven Catholic Epistles. These were successively published separately between 1738 and 1749, all having extended dissertations on particular points. The Pauline Epistles were collected into one volume in 1752, and in 1756 the Seven Catholic Epistles, with useful indices.

During the nineteen years occupied by these ‘Paraphrases’ he prepared and published a number of other works. In 1738 appeared his ‘History of the First Planting of the Christian Religion, taken from the Acts of the Apostles and their Epistles. Together with the remarkable facts of the Jewish and Roman History which affected the Christians during this Period’ (3 vols. 4to). This learned book reached a second edition in 1756. To it recent writers are probably more indebted than is acknowledged.

Having lost his first wife in 1740, Benson was remarried in 1742 to Mrs. Mary Kettle, daughter of William Kettle of Birmingham. By neither wife had he any family. About this time he was invited to become joint pastor with Samuel Bourn of the presbyterian congregation, Birmingham.

In 1743 he published ‘The Reasonableness of the Christian Religion as delivered in the Scriptures.’ This was originally meant as an answer to ‘Christianity not founded on Argument,’ but its scope widened, and Leland in his ‘View of the Deistical Writers’ (i. 146, 5th ed.) characterises it as ‘not merely an answer to that pamphlet, but a good defence of christianity in general.’ A second edition appeared in 1746, and a third, much enlarged, in 1759.

In 1744 the university of Aberdeen conferred on Benson the degree of D.D. The university of Glasgow had also intended the same honour for him, but one of the professors ‘spoke of him with abhorrence as an avowed Socinian’ (Biog. Britannica). In 1744 he published ‘A Summary View of the Evidences of Christ's Resurrection,’ in answer to ‘The Resurrection of Jesus considered by a Moral Philosopher.’ Besides editing two works of others he, in 1747, published a volume of sermons. Having presented a copy to Dr. Thomas Herring, archbishop of Canterbury, he received a specially gracious letter of thanks. In 1748 he collected a number of his ‘Occasional Tracts’ on various theologico-critical and historical points. They reached a second edition in 1753. One of these tracts, giving a severe account of Calvin's conduct towards Servetus, gave deep offence.

In 1749 Benson was translated to a congregation of protestant dissenters in Poor Jewry Lane, Crutchedfriars, as successor to Dr. William Harris. Here he continued until his death. He had acted for some years as assistant to Dr. Nathaniel Lardner. Benson was in familiar intercourse with the foremost of his contemporaries, from Lord Chancellor King to Dr. Law, bishop of Carlisle. His ‘Paraphrases’ found favour in Germany and Holland, Michaelis translating them in the former country. Benson had hardly retired from the ministry when he died on 6 April 1762 in the sixty-third year of his age. His ‘History of the Life of Christ’ was published posthumously in 1764. He was undoubtedly a Socinian, a fact which explains the neglect that attended his works after his death.

[Biog. Brit.; Amory's Memoir before his History of the Life of Jesus Christ (1764); Pickard's Sermon on his death, and Oration at the interment by E. Radcliff (1762); Wilson's History of Dissenting Churches, i. 113–25; Benson's Works. A fine mezzotint portrait is prefixed to Life of Christ; his Essay on the Belief of Things above Reason was included by Jared Sparks in his Collection of Essays and Tracts on Theology from various Authors (Boston, 1824, iv. 131–72); Mash translated his tract on the Three Heavenly Witnesses and confuted it, yet says: ‘Auctor ejus dissertationis magnus est ille Anglorum theologus … meritissimus Georgius Bensonius.’]

A. B. G.