George de Benneville (July 26, 1703-March 19, 1793), a physician, was a universalist evangelist in Europe and an early advocate of the doctrine of universal salvation in the American colonies. He transmitted the heritage of German Pietist religious communities and the European Radical Reformation to a wider American public. His preaching tours in Pennsylvania and New Jersey in the mid-18th century helped to prepare the way for the ministries, decades later, of John Murray and Elhanan Winchester.
The youngest of nine children born to Huguenot refugees, George was born and brought up in the British royal court in London. His father Georges de Benneville, a nobleman from Rouen, Normandy, was employed in the household of King William III. Mme de Benneville, of the noble Granville family, died giving him birth. His godmother Queen Anne appointed a nurse for him and he grew up under the supervision of an uncle. “I was very wild,” de Benneville later commented. “I was self-exalted, and believed myself to be more than other men.”
At around 12 years of age de Benneville was sent to sea as a midshipman, and his ship was sent as part of a small fleet on a diplomatic mission to the Barbary Coast. While in Algiers, he observed that the behavior of some Moors who had been atttending a fallen friend was more Christian than his own. Back home, he had a vision of himself “burning as a firebrand in hell.” After more than a year of depression, during which he felt oppressed by unforgivable sins, he had another vision, this one of Jesus telling him that he had been redeemed and was forgiven. Interrogated about his conversion experience, he told the ministers of the French Calvinist church in London that because he, the greatest of sinners, had been saved, “I could not have a doubt but the whole world would be saved by the same power.” As a result of this testimony the predestinarian ministers denied him membership in the church.
At 17 de Benneville felt called to preach in France. Soon after landing in Calais he was arrested, briefly imprisoned, then driven out of the city. In Normandy he preached to an underground group of Protestants, the Camisards, for two years before being arrested near Dieppe and condemned to death. At the last minute, as he knelt on the scaffold awaiting the stroke of the executioner’s axe, he was granted a reprieve by King Louis XV.
On being released from prison de Benneville moved to Germany. Over the next 18 years, c.1723-41, he made preaching tours throughout Germany and Holland. He was particularly associated with a celibate community of Pietists in Berleberg, Wittgenstein. Religious radicals—Dunkers, Schwenkfelders, Philadelphians, and Rosicrucians—fled to the tolerant precincts of Wittgenstein. Among his friends was another French expatriate, Charles Hector de St. George, Marquis de Marsay (1688-1753), an ascetic hermit who introduced the mysticism of Roman Catholic quietism into radical German Protestantism. Another student of de Marsay was the Dunker (and universalist) Johann Conrad Beissel (1690-1768), who went to America and in 1732 founded the Ephrata Community. These Pietists stressed inward faith and deemphasized the outward forms of religion such as ritual, doctrine, and literalism. Among the ideas many of them entertained and shared were pacifism, inspirationism, universalism, millenarianism, mysticism, perfectionism, separation of church and state, and communalism.
In the Schwenkfelder spiritual tradition, de Benneville’s theology had a dualistic model of humanity. “Every man carries in an with him two persons, an outer and an inner,” he wrote. The outer person, “a complete man, of a mortal body, soul and spirit,” is “animal-man, fallen, corruptible, and subject to dissolution. The inner person, “complete and perfect,” and “a union of an immortal body, soul, and spirit” is “the sole subject of regeneration.” Although de Benneville believed that only the inner person “is capable of fellowship and personal unity with the glorified Christ,” he, like Caspar Schwenkfeld (1490-1562), believed in the importance of living a righteous and productive life in the outward, sinful state. This division of the material world and material good from the spiritual world and spiritual good, laid a foundation in the Radical Reformation for freedom of conscience and the separation of church and state. Nevertheless, de Benneville believed in an underlying wholeness: “Unity testifies to the many parts of the whole. Each body has features which may be recognized separately, but these have no real usefulness, beauty, or value apart from the body.”
It is not known when, or exactly where, de Benneville studied medicine. It is likely that he was trained in Germany or the Netherlands. He started treated patients no later than 1739.
Late in his residence in Germany de Benneville underwent a second life-changing experience. Ill with a fever and “reduced almost to a skeleton,” de Benneville was kept alive by being fed like a baby. He recalled that in this state he was taken to a dreamlike region where the inhabitants, “clothed in garments as white as snow,” proclaimed to him the good news of “the restoration of all the human species without exception.” After saying farewell to de Marsay and his other friends, de Benneville felt himself “die by degrees” and felt his spirit depart from his body. He was escorted by guardians through the regions traditionally called “heaven” and “hell.” In hell his compassion was such that “I took it so to heart that I believed my happiness would be incomplete while one creature remained miserable.” One of his guardians comforted him with a vision of the eventual restoration of all life. Forty-two hours after he had been declared dead, de Benneville awoke in his coffin. He returned to life with a renewed mission: to preach “the universal and everlasting gospel of boundless, universal love for the entire human race.”
That de Benneville had apparently risen from the dead and resumed preaching, to larger crowds than before, was a cause of concern for both secular and religious authorities. Once again he was imprisoned, but again only briefly.
Many Germans from Wittgenstein and elsewhere emigrated to America in the second quarter of the 18th century, attracted by the reports of Johann Christoph Sauer (1695-1758). Sauer, an independent and universalist Pietist from Wittgenstein had gone to America in 1724 and in 1738 set himself up as a printer in Germantown, Pennsylvania. Shortly after he arrived in America he began to write letters back to friends in Germany describing conditions in America. “These letters contained a description of Pennsylvania that it was like an earthly paradise,” wrote De Marsay, one of his correspondents. “There was complete freedom. One could live there as a good Christian in solitude, as one pleased.” Sauer published manuals for German immigrants, warned of the risks and hardships of ocean travel, campaigned for better shipboard conditions, personally welcomed newcomers from Germany, and housed and nursed new arrivals who were as yet not well enough to travel inland. He was known as the “Good Samaritan of Germantown.”
After assisting many Schwenkfelders and other religious refugees to escape from Europe, in 1741 de Benneville followed the wave of German immigration to Pennsylvania. Hearing of the religious and medical needs of recently settled Schwenkfelder and Huguenot communities, and commissioned to help Sauer’s publication program, he felt an overwhelming divine call to go to America. Sauer—according to some apocryphal accounts, alerted by a dream—found de Benneville quite sick on board a ship at the Philadelphia waterfront. He took de Benneville to his Germantown home and nursed him back to health.
While with Sauer, de Benneville helped prepare the Sauer Bible, the first German language Bible printed in America, 1743. He marked the biblical passages most favorable to universalism, which Sauer then set in boldface. Sauer also distributed the Berleburg Bible, 1726-42, a newly translated German Pietist Bible to which de Benneville had contributed while in Wittgenstein. Although most closely associated with the German Brethren (Dunkers), Sauer printed works written by Germans of many faiths. At de Benneville’s behest one of these was an English translation of The Everlasting Gospel, 1753, by the German universalist minister, Paul Siegvolk (George Klein-Nicolai).
During his time with Sauer, de Benneville met Jean Bertolet, an influential settler from the Oley Valley, Pennsylvania, who in 1742 convinced him to move there to serve as physician and tutor. De Benneville married Bertolet’s daughter, Esther, in 1745. Of their seven children, six lived to be adults. Two sons, Daniel and George, Jr. were also physicians. Daniel de Benneville became Surgeon-in-chief of the Flying Hospital of the Continental Army.
The de Benneville family built a home in the Oley Valley, with space for de Benneville’s medical practice and a large room that functioned both as a school and a church seating at least fifty people. Ministers of various persuasions were invited to preach. De Benneville preached at the Moravian mission station, three miles distant, until in 1748 the Moravians decided no longer to have fellowship with other German sects. He also maintained relations with the Dunkers and other German sects that permitted belief in universal restoration.
De Benneville often visited the universalist Ephrata Cloisters, a group of Pietists who believed in living together as they felt the Bible indicated the early Christians did. From there he traveled with their missionaries. As early as 1744 missionaries from Ephrata began to visit the universalist Rogerine Baptists in Waretown, on the coast of New Jersey. This was a short distance from Good Luck, where Thomas Potter in 1760 built a chapel for a Universalist preacher yet to arrive. Thus, it is not unlikely that de Benneville had some influence on the man whose fortuitous reception in 1770 of the newly-landed British preacher, John Murray, determined that Universalist founder’s subsequent American career.
On friendly terms with local Native American tribes, de Benneville borrowed from them many herbal remedies for treating diseases and tried to understand their languages and symbols. Because he believed all symbols of the same truth equally valid, he could converse across cultures and religions. He thought that taking religious truths literally, rather than symbolically, was the cause of many religious conflicts.
De Benneville thought that, if we listened to our inward spirits, we would know that “behind every appearance of diversity there is an interdependent unity of all things.” Godly love, de Benneville preached, finds its way in spite of, or even by virtue of, outward variations. “That love must be based upon mutual respect for the differences in color, language and worship, even as we accept with gratitude the differences that tend to unite the male and the female of all species.”
In his journal de Benneville 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 essential for salvation, namely, a deep, genuine, fundamental realization of one’s 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 believed that God, whom he called the “Sovereign Good,” took different forms at different times, but these forms were each a part of the universal truth that all creation would be restored. “Our faith is essentially the combined faith of all Christians,” he wrote. “As 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 . . . we believe will someday unite all of them into one form of love.”
After Jean Bertolet died in 1757, the de Benneville family moved to Bristol Township, near Philadelphia, where de Benneville continued his practice of medicine and operated an apothecary shop. He treated the wounded at the Battle of Germantown in 1777. Sir William Howe, the commander of British forces, concerned for the safety of the bodies of a general officer and his aide killed in that engagement, advertised for a safe place to bury them. Although he was in sympathy with the colonists’ cause, de Benneville buried the British officers in his family plot.
Elhanan Winchester, who had been attracted to Universalism when he read The Everlasting Gospel, met de Benneville in 1781. Between 1781 and 1787 de Benneville took Winchester on missionary tours into Pennsylvania and Virginia. Winchester later said of de Benneville that “such an humble, pious, loving man I have scarcely ever seen in my pilgrimage through life.”
De Benneville spent his old age practicing medicine and sharing his Universalist beliefs. When he was 88 he wrote, “my mind is still set to preach the gospel.” His health remained good until 1793 when he died of a stroke. Esther, his wife, died two years later. Their bodies, along with members of their family and the two British soldiers, are buried in their ancestral plot in Philadelphia.
Most of the surviving books, manuscripts, and letters of George de Benneville are housed in the Schwenkfelder Library in Pennsburg, Pennsylvania. De Benneville prepared a notebook for his son, George Jr., “The Pennsylvania Physician” (1770). After 140 pages by de Benneville, there are case notes by the son, including notes on the medical treatment of George Washington. This is kept at the College of Physicians in Philadelphia. Most information about de Benneville’s early life comes from A True and Remarkable Account of the Life and Trance of Dr. George de Benneville (1791). This record was published by Elhanan Winchester contrary to de Benneville’s wishes. As an unfortunate result, de Benneville destroyed most of his other papers that might have been used to fill out his biography. Life and Trance, re-edited by Ernest Cassara, was included in the Annual Journal of the Universalist Historical Society (1960-61).
The principal biography of de Benneville is Albert D. Bell, The Life and Times of Dr. George de Benneville, 1953. For the theological background of de Benneville see George Huntston Williams, The Radical Reformation (1962); Charlotte Irwin, “Pietist Origins of American Universalism,” Tufts University dissertation (1966); David A. Johnson, “George de Benneville and the Heritage of the Radical Reformation,” Journal of the Universalist Historical Society (1969-70); Dale Brown, Understanding Pietism (1978); Peter C. Erb, The Pietists: Selected Writings (1983); and “Pietist Roots in Europe and America” in John C. Morgan, The Devotional Heart (1995). For information on Sauer consult Donald F. Durnbaugh, “Christopher Sauer the Elder: Radical Pietist Printer and Intermediary,” Juniata College (2003). Some information on de Benneville can be gleaned from the preface to Elhanan Winchester, The Universal Restoration (1792) and the Autobiography of Abel C. Thomas (1852). His story is told in Thomas Whittemore, The Modern History of Universalism (1830); Richard Eddy, Universalism in America, vol. 1 (1884); Clinton Lee Scott, These Live Tomorrow (1964); Ernest Cassara, Universalism in America (1971); Russell Miller, The Larger Hope, vol. 1 (1979); and David Robinson, The Unitarians and the Universalists (1985).