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Lewis Benson (1906–1986) was perhaps the 20th century’s greatest expert on the writings of George Fox. And although this expertise was widely acknowledged, he was also a voice crying in the wilderness, for he sought to herald a gospel greater than he to a body of modern Quakers with little taste for it. His appreciation of his situation is beautifully captured in a 1954 letter to his sister-in-law, which he wrote to decline her invitation to join an intentional community (The Bruderhof ) associated with a non-Quaker sect. He wrote, in part:
|“||I have never been committed to the principles of 20th century Quakerism. I was aware almost from the beginning that the Quakerism of today has almost nothing in common with the Quakerism of Fox. I have taken my stand in the Society of Friends as the champion of a forgotten faith, and I have never taken a cynical or pessimistic view about the possibility that Friends might recover their rightful heritage. I have taken a stand and worked for a cause for nearly 20 years, but although I have accomplished nothing, I am not in the least discouraged….It is my firm belief that God has still a work for the Quakers to do and I want to help lay the foundations that will make that work possible.||”|
Lewis Benson was born in 1906 in his grandmother’s house in Sea Girt, New Jersey. He was a birthright member of Manasquan Meeting, where his parents had been married. He grew up in Weehawken, New Jersey, across the river from New York City. Most of the year, he attended a Scotch Presbyterian Church where his mother taught Sunday school. Each summer, he went to the shore and attended Manasquan Meeting, and First Day School there. He also regularly attended New York Yearly Meeting and the Half Yearly Meeting Manasquan belonged to. At 16, he dropped out of school and became a messenger boy for the Pennsylvania Railroad.
Soon after, he came under the influence of George Gurdjieff, a fellow who claimed to have studied in Tibet and have secret knowledge that would allow one to become “an autonomous person” and get others to do what one wanted. Benson made that man’s teaching the center of his inner life, but after seven years in the movement, he became disillusioned. He felt Gurdjieff’s teachings were soulless, and he left abruptly. For several years, his life had little direction or hope. He and his mother moved to Manasquan. Borrowing money from relatives, he opened a Studebaker agency, but it during the Great Depression, the business quickly failed. Broke and faithless, Benson despaired and planned to do away with himself. He got in his car and drove as far west as Arizona, but returned home instead of killing himself.
Back in Manasquan Meeting, someone at the meeting asked Lewis to go through the old books in their library, to see if any were worth keeping. Being an old meeting, they had an excellent collection of works by early Friends. Reading the Journal of George Fox, Benson learned of Fox’s own despair, and his rescue from it through the voice of the Lord. Benson set out to find that experience of rescue himself. He read all the Quaker classics, and began a lifelong collection of detailed notes about them.
Benson spent 1933-34 at Pendle Hill, continuing his study of the early Quakers. The following summer, he moved to Shrewsbury, NJ, and helped restart the meeting there that had been laid down in his youth. He then spent a year at Woodbrooke, in England, studying modern Quaker authors, concluding that their connection with the early Quakers was tenuous at best. Others there were excited about what he had found, and urged him to stay another year to write up his results. He didn’t, because he felt that would be primarily an academic exercise—he was seeking a more evangelical role.
Returning to the United States, Benson was invited to be the first librarian at Pendle Hill, to build up a library there, so people wouldn’t have to go the Swarthmore or Haverford College libraries. In the summer of 1938, Benson went to Evanston, Illinois, to become the pastoral secretary of a new meeting there. He spent four years there, living and sharing the faith he had rediscovered. Benson had found his mission. For the rest of his life, he worked to deepen his understanding of the message of George Fox, and to share it through writing and speaking. He supported his family by working as a printer.
Over the years, he spoke numerous times at prominent Quaker institutions such as Pendle Hill, and Haverford College. His major work, Catholic Quakerism (now republished as 'A Universal Christian Faith') based on a series of lectures given at Woodbrooke in the 1960s, was published by Philadelphia Yearly Meeting. The last ten years of his life, he traveled and spoke extensively throughout Britain, Ireland, the United States, Canada, and Japan. Lewis Benson died of leukemia at his home on the Jersey shore in 1986. His library and papers now reside in a special collection at Haverford College Library, but his legacy goes much beyond that.
|“||Lewis Benson’s book Prophetic Quakerism was instrumental in leading me to research on Quakerism as reflected in my work on Rufus M. Jones. This culminated in my doctoral dissertation on Rufus Jones and later led to further research, teaching and writing in the field of Quakerism. Even though I have not been able to accept all of Lewis Benson’s interpretations of Quakerism, I am probably indebted to him more than anyone else for his effort to recover the message of George Fox…||”|
T. Canby Jones, onetime Professor of Religion and Philosophy at Wilmington College, and author of George Fox's Attitude Toward War and "The Power of the Lord Is Over All": The Pastoral Letters of George Fox, said,
|“||I have been deeply influenced by the life, faith, and witness of Lewis Benson; even though I never fully agreed with him on all points. Like Ezekiel of old, when Lewis bore witness to Truth, ‘we knew there had been a prophet among us.’||”|
|“||Lewis Benson has made the major contribution in recent years toward recovery of a Christian basis that is genuinely Quaker.||”|
|“||Lewis Benson’s work was my way into a whole new way of understanding myself, the Society of Friends, and who Christ is. It gave me confidence in my own religious search.||”|
The New Foundation Fellowship groups in Britain and the United States are also part of Benson’s legacy. They formed in the mid-1970s following lecture series of Benson’s, and take their name from one of his talks. These groups have reprinted all of George Fox’s published writings, have re-instituted the traveling ministry of the early Quakers, and keep many of Benson’s writings in print.
[This biography was reproduced from a longer, original article by Kennard Wing, An Appreciation of the Work and Ministry of Lewis Benson, which appeared in New Foundation Papers, no98-99, 2008, p10]
- Benson, L: A Universal Christian Faith, New Foundation Fellowship, 2007.