Dr. George de Benneville: Teacher, Healer and Preacher of Universalism in the Oley Valley, Pennsylvania
By NELSON SIMONSON and JOHN MORGAN
It had been a beautiful, sunny day, not all that humid, even though it was normally so in the Philadelphia summers. Now in the waning moments of light before evening, Dr. George de Benneville, in his eighty-eighth year, took his daily walk. He loved to stroll around his property, often pausing to look at plants and flowers, some of them grown for his herbal remedies as part of his medical practice or for his apothecary store inside his house. He appreciated having neighbors and friends nearby, though lately he was treasuring more the time he could get away to his farm here north of the city in Branchtown.
He paused for a moment and looked out to where he could see the horizon seemingly touching a hill. He thought again of his homestead in Oley, Pennsylvania, where he and Esther had raised a family. He had often felt nestled in the arms of the valley there, restored by the sense of his connections to the natural world. His second daughter, Susanna, had gone back to the Reading area to marry John Keim. They had had eight children, four of them still alive, but the favorite was his namesake, George de Benneville Keim.
As he walked home, he stopped by his family cemetery, remembering that here were not only the remains of his family, but two British officers, “the enemy,” supposedly, but protected from harm in his burial plot. Politics and religion often had been used to separate people, he thought, but the truth he had come to understand was that behind every appearance of diversity there was an interdependent unity of all being. “Ah,” he thought to himself, “it is important to live our beliefs, and not just preach them.” No wonder he often repeated in his sermons the lines he believed: “Deeds, not creeds.” Only those who do the will of God can be called truly blessed, he thought to himself, as he thought back to some of the conflicts which had arisen between competing sects in the Oley Valley. Such wrangling and strife, hate and envy, innocent blood shed – and all in the name of the Prince of Peace who taught people to love one another. He shook his head in disbelief at how the essential truth of religion – that God loves everyone and asks that we love one another – had become so torn and crushed by competition between groups struggling to start new churches.
He opened the door to his home and retired to his study to write a few thoughts in his journal, often reflecting his view that universal love would save everyone.
He wrote: “The spirit of Love will be intensified to Godly proportions when reciprocal love exists between the entire human race and each of its individual members. That love must be based upon mutual respect for the differences in color, language, and worship, even as we appreciate and accept with gratitude the differences that tend to unite the male and female of all species. We do not find those differences obstacles to love…
He remembered his parents, Protestants of the Granville family, persecuted for their religious views and fleeing to England at the invitation of King William III, with his father serving in the royal court. Born in London July 26, 1703, George had been told that his mother died shortly after his birth, having borne nine children, four sets of twins, in five years. His father also had died and he had been raised by a nurse provided by Queen Anne, who had come to the throne in 1702. In 1714, his uncle had taken over his care.
In spite of the loss of both parents, I was an unruly child, he thought. No wonder they sent me to sea at the age of twelve! He recalled the episode in Algiers where his ship had docked. Some Moors had brought refreshments to sell and one of them had slipped and torn his leg. Two of his companions had kissed the wound, shedding tears upon it, until de Benneville had complained about the noises they were making. He had been told that their tears were cleansing the wound and that the supplications to the sun were prayers offered in their fallen comrade’s name. He remembered tears forming in his young eyes as he had said within himself: “Are these Heathens? No, I confess before God they are Christians, and I myself am a Heathen! “It had been my first lesson in understanding that the heart of religion is how people treat one another, not always what they say they believe. He closed his eyes and prayed: “Infinite and eternal God, thou seest us. Have mercy upon us. Guide us daily in the ways of truth. Let our mind’s eye be directed entirely upon Thee. Amen.” It was long past midnight when he fell asleep.
Dr. George de Benneville would have preferred never to have had his story told. He wrote his life story for his family, not for the public, and it was only because a Universalist minister, Rev. Elhanan Winchester, published his words without his approval that we have even the most cursory ac- count of his life, printed under the title, “A True and Remarkable Account of the Life and Trance of Dr. George de Benneville, published in Norristown, Pennsylvania in 1800.” Ironically, Rev. Winchester would write in the preface to the first edition: “I bless God that I was ever acquainted with Doctor George de Benneville, for such an humble, pious, loving man I have scarcely ever seen in my pilgrimage through life.” Strangely enough, after publishing the story without de Benneville’s approval, Winchester concludes: “God forbid that I should ever practice deception… on my fellow creatures.
de Benneville is one of those early proponents of Pietism, the “religion of the heart,” which was brought to the new world mainly by German teachers and pastors, who initiated a series of practical reforms in the church, creating small groups to read and study the Bible, and building new seminaries to train leaders in Biblical studies and church work. de Benneville had connected with these Pietists in Germany, having escaped death in France for preaching the Gospel. He spent nearly twenty years as a physician and lay preacher, healing and teaching not only in Germany but in Holland as well. It was while in Germany that de Benneville underwent an experience that was to change his life.
de Benneville was a man sensitive to the needs of others. He once wrote: “I took it so to heart that I believed my happiness would be incomplete while one creature remained miserable.” For those acquainted with modern stories of “near death experiences,” de Benneville’s account will not seem strange at all.
de Benneville said he was seized by a fever and was force fed to be kept alive. It was in such a state that he claimed to be taken to a dreamlike region where the inhabitants were “clothed in garments as white as snow,” proclaiming to him the good news of universal salvation, or “the restoration of all the human species without exception.” de Benneville wrote “I felt myself die by degrees, and exactly at midnight I was separated from my body,” and felt a great desire to be released from it. He then was escorted by two guardians through what has traditionally been called “heaven,” and another region that has been called “hell,” where he felt compassion toward the sufferings of others.
de Benneville then finds himself comforted by a “guardian” and is shown the eventual restoration of all life. After a period of what he discovered later was forty two hours during which time he had been “dead” and in a coffin, de Benneville found himself returned to life and his friends with a newly discovered mission-to preach “the universal and everlasting gospel of boundless, universal love for the entire human race. Whether true or not, this account of a near death experience nearly parallels modern accounts.
de Benneville was preceded to the American colonies by other Pietists, some of whom settled in what is now Montgomery County outside Philadelphia and others in Berks County, chief among them the Schwenkfelders, another religious sect, for whom de Benneville later was to serve as their physician. These friends had been urging him to come to America, and in 1741 he did so. There are several versions of how he got here, but one of them is that a Quaker-Universalist by the name of Christopher Sauer had a dream telling him to go to the Philadelphia waterfront where he would find de Benneville quite sick. Whether that story is true or not, de Benneville was taken to Sauer’s home where he was nursed back to good health.
As fortune would have it, Sauer was a printer of the first German language edition of the Bible, which de Benneville helped to translate, a project he had helped others with in Germany. It was later said that all the biblical passages proving Universalism were highlighted in red ink by de Benneville. It was during his time with Sauer that de Benneville met Jean Berrolet, an influential citizen of the Oley Valley, who convinced him to move there in March of 1742 to serve as a physician and teacher.
Jean and Susanna Bertolet had five children, the second daughter, Esther, later becoming de Benneville’s wife. They were married February 24, 1745, in the Bertolet home. That same year de Benneville purchased 132 acres of land from Daniel Knabb, near Berrolet’s house. It was there that he and Esther built a beautiful home in the valley, large enough to provide space for a house church searing up to a hundred persons, and for a school and a place to house de Benneville’s medical practice. Of George and Esther’s seven children, five were born in this house, and six of them lived to be adults. The last, George de Benneville, Jr. was born in 1760 and the last to die in 1850 at ninety years old. He, too, was a physician.
It was in his new home that de Benneville opened a small school and a house church, where ministers of various persuasions were invited to preach. Through the cellar of the house ran a stream where outside it was used for baptisms. de Benneville maintained good relations with various religious sects, although the Moravians sometimes felt they failed at organizing a new church in the Oley Valley because of de Benneville’s popularity. He also was on friendly terms with local native tribes, and it was said received many herbal remedies for treating diseases (his note- books show his attempts to borrow the remedies through drawings and different languages). Because he believed that all symbols of the same truth were equally valid, de Benneville could converse across cultures and religions (to discover there the fundamental unity of all being, ex- pressed in diverse ways). de Benneville himself wrote that many religious conflicts were due to people taking religious truths literally, and not symbolically. He called God the “Sovereign Good,” taking different forms at different times, but each a part of the same universal truth that all creation would be restored. In his journal he wrote:
A feeling of security is strengthened in some by the delusion that it suffices to attend meetings for worship and be received into membership by a certain people. Others put their trust in literal perception, concepts, and ideas of faith. But something very different is eventual for salvation, namely. a deep, genuine, fundamental realization of one condition. A change of heart and mind follows. Then Christ lives in us and we in Him, and our thought, speech, and work will be harmony with His will.
de Benneville’s spirituality focused more on the inner person than his or her outward acts. He wrote about “the union of the two natures in man, the outer and the inner.” The inner was the dimension of true faith, hidden and often unknown – and the seat of the eternal soul. The outer man is also complete in body and spirit, but mortal. In classic Pietist terms de Benneville was more concerned about “orthopraxis,” right living, than “orthodoxy,” right believing.
From his Oley Valley home, de Benneville sometimes visited the Ephrata Cloisters and, from there, on missionary journeys. It may be that one of these trips took him near Waretown, New Jersey, the place where the first Universalist sermon leading to the establishment of a denomination was preached by Rev. John Murray in 1770. There are good reasons to believe that de Benneville may have visited that site near Barnegat Light years before Murray’s arrival.
On his many trips, de Benneville often visited Philadelphia and Germantown in particular. He enjoyed the social and cultural opportunities he found there. Perhaps these connections prompted the family to move there, though Esther did not wish to leave her elderly father who was ill. When Jean Bertolet died in August, 1757, the de Benneville family moved. Over the years they had several homes in Philadelphia, where he continued his practice of medicine and running his apothecary shop.
During the revolutionary war, the battles sometimes raged close to his Branchtown home. During the Battle of Germantown, a British officer – the commander of a Regiment of Foot -Brigadier General Agnew, was killed, as was his aide, a young lieutenant colonel. Subsequently, Lord Howe, the commander of British forces in the Philadelphia area, was concerned with the safety of the bodies of these two soldiers, and put out the word that he was looking for a safe place to bury them. On hearing this, de Benneville offered for the soldiers to be buried in his family plot, although he was in sympathy with the colonists’ cause.
de Benneville spent the remaining years of his life practicing medicine, speaking with friends, and sharing his Universalist beliefs. His health remained good until his death on March 19, 1793, in the 90th year of his life. Esther, his wife, died March 7, 1795, in her 75th year. Their bodies, along with members of their family and two British soldiers, are buried in their ancestral plot, now near the intersection of Broad and Stenton Streets (off Green Lane) in Philadelphia. Their Oley homestead still stands on Hunter Mill Road in Oley, where a non-profit de Benneville Homestead Foundation sought to purchase it and use it for a retreat center. They were not successful in raising sufficient funds to do so.
The inscription on the silver knife and fork presented by Queen Anne to the de Benneville family somehow reaches out to describe Dr. George de Benneville’s life: “Who trusts in God has built well. Who lives well, dies well.”
Dr. George de Benneville never intended others to know about him, yet the power of his character remains: A gentle, tolerant and inclusive man who believed that because God had saved him, God could save anyone and everyone; he sought to live his faith as well as preach it. For such a man, the inner spirit does, indeed, help us understand that behind every appearance of diversity there is an interconnected web of life he called Universal Love, which will not let us go. God, wrote de Benneville, is the “Infinite and Everlasting Love, the only indwelling, all-embracing, under girding and overshadowing spiritual reality…” In a new century of religious intolerance and conflicts, where divisions between people seem the rule, the life and teachings of Dr. George de Benneville take on new importance.
The sun had gone down; stars began to blanket the sky, as he walked down the lane toward his home. He enjoyed these long walks in the evening when it began to cool off and he could remember so much of his early life, perhaps even more than the later years when he cared for his garden and from time to time talked with kindred spirits who came for a talk.
If he had to do it all over again, what would he change? Probably nothing, he said to himself, not even the sufferings in France with his young friend, Durant, later hanged for preaching the news of universal salvation. He remembered even now Durant’s song, the words from the Psalmist: “They went away weeping… They come back singing. .
He had no fear of death, having been transported before to its various parts. What is death anyway but another journey of the soul? He knew he did not have much time left himself on this earth, but he believed with his whole heart that he would meet those he loved again. He stopped for a moment and prayed: “Guide us daily in all ways of truth. In grace, have mercy on us all.” With a full heart for a life well lived, he turned homeward.
This article appeared in the Spring 2003 issue of the Historical Review of Berks County.