Faith CoLab: Tapestry of Faith: What Moves Us: A Unitarian Universalist Theology Program for Adults

Remarkable Passages Excerpt

Part of What Moves Us

Excerpted from Some Remarkable Passages in the Life of Dr. George de Benneville, translated by Rev. Elhanan Winchester (Germantown, PA: Converse Cleaves, Publisher, 1890), with material to explain the context for each.

George de Benneville was raised by his godmother, Queen Anne of England. Both of his parents, who were part of the French aristocracy, had fled to the British Royal Court of London because they were Protestants threatened by the ruling French Catholic crown.

George was sent to sea at age 12 to learn navigation. He was a midshipman in a war vessel attached to a small fleet bound for the Barbary Coast on a diplomatic mission. At this point in his life, he was "wildly believing," as he put it, that he "belonged to a different class from mankind in general [and was] self-exalted." His ship arrived at Algiers. De Benneville explains what happened next:

[A]s I walked upon deck, I saw some Moors who brought refreshments to sell; one of them fell and injured one of his legs; two of his companions having laid him on deck, kissed the wound and shed tears upon it; then turning towards the rising of the sun, they cried in such a manner that I was moved with much anger, and ordered my servant to bring them before me. Upon demanding the reason of their outcry, they, perceiving that I was angry, implored my pardon, and told me the cause was owing to one of their brothers having hurt his leg by a fall, and that they kissed the wound in order to sympathize with him, and likewise shed tears upon it, and as tears were saltish, they were a good remedy for the hurt; and the reason for their turning towards the rising sun was to invoke him who created the sun to have compassion upon their poor brother and be pleased to heal him. Upon that I was so convinced and moved within that I thought my heart would break, and that my life was about to leave me; my eyes were filled with tears, and I felt such an internal condemnation that I was forced to cry out and say, "Are these men Heathens? No; I confess before God they are Christians, and I myself am a Heathen!" Behold the first conviction that the grace of our Sovereign Good [God] employed: he was pleased to convince a white person by blacks, one who carried the name of a Christian, by a Pagan, and who was obliged to confess himself a Heathen. Still that was soon overcome and forgotten.

Upon his return to England, de Benneville went to a dance and so overheated himself he fell into a faint and had a vision in which he again was unexpectedly forced to pay attention to his own emotions of vanity, pride, self-exaltation and arrogance. He saw himself burning in Hell. Returning to consciousness, he cried out: "I am damned."

For 15 months he remained in a state of irreconcilable self-loathing and depression, rejecting assurances by court ministers that he, of his rank and station, had done nothing wrong, unmoved by their counsel. The court ministers eventually deemed de Benneville predestined to be damned because they could not console him.

De Benneville had come face to face with his sinful arrogance and hardheartedness toward the wellbeing of others. He could no longer avoid the truth of his heart: He was a wretched being utterly undeserving of forgiveness or love. De Benneville knew his sins and acknowledged to himself that he indeed had too many of them to be forgiven. He awaited his death for he had discovered within himself, as he put it:

... the root of all my sins and iniquities to be within my heart [and] that discovery brought me into an extreme agony, and despair took possession of my soul, which was now pressed on all sides with misery, caused especially by great unbelief and hardness of heart. I could discover no remedy for my troubles... . I desired to die, but death fled from me.

He knew that God, his judge, damned him. This awareness brought de Benneville's arrogance to its knees. He had discovered the place of emotional humility within himself: a contrite heart. Now he could abandon himself to the mercy of God.

At this moment, his religious transformation began: the moment of utter contrition linked to a deep and abiding sense of humility. Contrite rather than arrogant, and humbled rather than depressed, de Benneville discovered he was not standing alone before the judgment seat of God. In de Benneville's words:

... a most majestic appearance [stood before him], whose beauty, brightness, and grandeur can never be described: he looked upon me with grace and mercy, and with a penetrating look of love, the fire of which so embraced my soul that I loved him in return. He persuaded me in my heart that he was my Saviour, Mediator, and Reconciliator, and while I thought thereon, he began to intercede for me in the following manner, saying "... I have suffered all kinds of ignominy for him. I have suffered the shameful death of the cross for him... I have descended into the abyss of Hell for him, that I might deliver him... O my Heavenly Father, pardon this poor sinner, and cause thy mercy to descend upon him." The Judge or Justice had nothing more to say. The sentence disappeared. Then I heard his eternal, universal voice, which penetrated me with divine power, saying, "Take courage, my son, thy sins and iniquities was removed, all the stings and reproaches ceased, a living faith came in their stead, and the tears of sorrow were all wiped from my eyes. .... O my dear soul! sink thyself into nothingness and the deepest humiliation, and adore in spirit and in truth the ocean of love, and the great wonders of the wisdom and power of thy God, who hath employed all these boundless, incomprehensible miracles to restore and to save thee, and not thee only, but all the human species, through Jesus Christ our Lord... He loved me before I was born. Oh, what grace! He loved me in my fallen estate when I was wholly lost. Oh, what mercy! He even loved me when I was altogether unworthy, and freely too. Oh, what love... Hallelujah! Amen."