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Handout 1: Introducing George de Benneville
Information drawn from Albert D. Bell, The Life and Times of Dr. George de Benneville (1703-1793) (Boston: The Universalist Church of America, 1953) and David Robinson, “George de Benneville,” The Unitarians and the Universalists (Westport CT: Greenwood Press, 1985).
George de Benneville is the father of non-creedal Universalism in America. This man, whose 90-year life span began in the first decade of the 18th century, believed that "no church is pure in all things, so none can be found that does not contain some truth. Glorious truths are found in every church and religion under the sun. And this glorious chain of truths which we believe will someday unite all of them into one form of love." De Benneville did not want to create another Christian sect or denomination, but rather to unite those which already existed. By contrast, John Murray, who is usually recognized as the founder of the Universalist movement in America as a new Christian church denomination, believed "we never shall be able to form a friendly union with any one denomination of Christian [confessors of faith]." De Benneville arrived in America the same year John Murray was born, 1741, and propagated Universalist faith for 39 years before Murray arrived in America from England. This is why de Benneville is called the first preacher of Universalism in America.
De Benneville was a highly educated man whose range of vocations and interests was wide and broad. He wrote six or seven volumes on the medical therapeutics of his day using parallel columns to formulate remedies in English, German, and Latin. He worked as a medical doctor in Europe and America. He established a ministry to Native Americans. As a schoolmaster he taught German, French, and Native American youth. He preached widely and regularly, and built a stone mansion with an upper room consecrated for religious services that accommodated 50 within and 50 more in the hallway. Moreover, he maintained extensive correspondence with European associates. Louis XVI of France even sent a royal commission to urge his return to France as his advisor. He declined. Working with a local publisher, de Benneville oversaw the publication and translation of numerous tracts on the doctrine of universal salvation that helped foster the rise of Universalist faith in America.
Like his fellow religionists of the Radical Reformation, de Benneville rejected the ordinance of baptism and the sacrament of the Lord's Supper, affirmed the Gospel as an experience of inward revelation, and affirmed the universal restoration and salvation of all human beings to God's eternal and everlasting love. Also, like the German Pietists with whom he associated in Europe and America, de Benneville believed, as one of his biographers notes, "Catholic sacraments and Protestant dogmas cannot make men Christ-like." He was influenced by the mystical legacy of Jacob Boehme and associated with reformers who emphasized spiritual conversion rather than creedal conformity. Members of these nontraditional Christian groups had migrated, like de Benneville, to enclaves in Pennsylvania.
Thanks to de Benneville, an English translation from the German of Paul Siegvolck's 1700 manuscript, "The Everlasting Gospel," was printed in 1753 and widely disseminated as a primary sourcebook for Universalist faith in America. This book, like the Universalist movement linked to it, affirmed the doctrine of the restoration of each and every human soul to the eternal love of God. Eternal damnation and the election of a select few espoused by Lutheran and Calvinist Protestants were roundly rejected as unbiblical and logically untenable claims.