Lewis Benson: Champion of a forgotten Faith;

The life and Ministry of Lewis Benson

By: Kennard T. Wing.

(Reprint from the "New Foundation Papers" No.91, 2006)

Lewis Benson 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 sort 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 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 the a champion of 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.”

Let us review first the life of this champion, and then the lost message of George Fox he spent his life recovering.

Life of a Champion

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 grow up in Weehawken, New Jersey, across the river from New York City. Most of the year, he attended a Scottish [AALI] 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 mans teaching the center of his inner life, but after seven years in the movement, he became disillusioned. He felt Gurdjieff’s teaching was 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 being the Great Depression, the business quickly failed. Broke and faithless, Benson despaired and planed to do away with himself. He got in his car and drove as far west as Arizona, but returned home instead of killing himself.

On his return to Manasquan, 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 the entire Quaker classic, 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 Shewsbury, 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 buildup a library there, so people wouldn’t have to go to 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, 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 in his home in Moorestown, New Jersey in 1986. His library and papers now reside in a special collection at Haverford College Library, but his legacy goes much beyond that.

A number of weighty friends have publicly acknowledged the debt they owe Benson. Wilmer Cooper, Founding Dean of the Earlham School of Religion, and author of A living Faith, the Testimony of Integrity, and  Growing up plain among other works, said: ”[Lewis Benson’s Prophetic Quakerism] was instrumental in leading me to research on Quakerism as reflected on 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.’’’

Dean Freiday, editor of Quaker Religious Thought, author of Nothing without Christ, and editor of Barclay’s Apology in Modern English says “[Lewis Benson has] made the major contribution in recent years towards recovery of a Christian basis that is genuinely Quaker.” Finally, John Punshon, a Tutor at Woodbrooke College and author of Encounter with Silence, Portrait in Grey, and Reasons for Hope, noted:

“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 many of George Fox’s writings, have emphasized the importance of reinstituting the traveling ministry of the early Quakers, and keep many of Benson’s writings in print.

The Forgotten Faith

We turn now from Benson’s life to his life work: the lost message of George Fox he recovered. Benson liked to begin his talks by reading an excerpt from Fox’s 1652 sermon at Firbank Fell, so it seems appropriate to begin here in the same way. Historians generally date the birth of the Quaker movement from this sermon, and several early leaders of the Friends, including Margaret Fell and Francis Howgill, were present and became convinced. We don’t have an actual transcript of the sermon Fox gave. What we do have is a summary Fox prepared of the Firbank Fell sermon a number of years later. What follows is an excerpt of that summary:

“I declared God’s everlasting Truth and Word of Life freely and largely for the space of about three hours, directing all to the Spirit of God in themselves that they might be turned from the darkness to the Light and believe in it… and by the Spirit of Truth might be led into all truth, and sensibly understand the words of the prophets, and of Christ, and the apostles; and might know Christ to be their Teacher to instruct them, their Counselor to direct them, their Shepherd to feed them, their Bishop to oversee them, and their prophet to open divine mysteries; and might know their bodies to be prepared, sanctified, and made fit temples for God and Christ to dwell in.”

When Benson wanted to summarize Fox’s message, he did it in just eight words: » Christ has come to teach his people himself.” It’s a sentence that appears often in Fox’s writings. Unpacking it is a little more challenging. I’ve pulled out four points I believe are most important.

The first is Christ is alive and present within and among us. And this presence is not simply a divine essence, but an active and functional presence. Christ is with us acting in the roles Fox mentioned at Firbank Fell: Teacher, counselor, shepherd, bishop, and prophet.

Second, according to Benson, Fox wrote about Christ’s role as prophet more than any other. The job of the Old Testament prophets was to teach people what God wanted from them, and to call them to obey God. Fox saw Christ as the prophet who would be heard in all things that Moses foretold in Deuteronomy 18 (and Christ was also seen as such by Peter, Stephen and the author of Hebrews). Christ shows us the truth, teaches us how God wants us to behave, and calls us to obey.

The third major point of Fox’s message is that Christ gives us the power to do what is right. In a reference to the friends of Job, Fox called the Catholic and Protestant clergy of his time “miserable comforters,” because the savior they preached was only capable of atoning for the sins of his followers. He had no power to prevent them from sinning in the first place. For Fox that meant a life of wretchedness, and his “opening” that Christ could “speak to his condition” was directly related to this part of his message.

The forth major point in Fox’s message is that salvation by Christ is not primarily an individual matter. Rather Christ gathers a people who hear and obey him in community. This community is led, governed, and ordered by Christ, and its members learn, obey, and suffer together.

Readers familiar with only modern Quakerism may be surprised that Fox’s message is Christ-centered, and conclude that he had more in common with mainstream Christianity than do modern Quakers. That would be incorrect. Fox’s message constituted a radical challenge to all the Christian sects of his time, and in fact to those of our time, too. We have already seen one major difference: according to Fox Christ can save us from sin. For Catholic and Protestants, we are only saved from punishment for our sins. There are several other important differences.

The Catholics placed ultimate authority in a pope who could trace his heritage back to Peter and who was selected by Christ himself. The Protestants said the Bible was the ultimate authority. Fox accepted neither. For him, the living Word was the ultimate authority.

Fox taught that the way to worship God is through gathering to wait for his presence, as the apostles did in Acts Sacraments, rituals, holy days, sacred ground, priests, and temples were all encumbrances signifying a man-made religion that had departed from the true faith.

Particularly bothersome to the clergy was Fox’s insistence that Christ leads and teaches his own church. This makes priests, pastors and ministers not only unnecessary, but actual obstacles to spiritual development.

Fox taught that without Christ’s presence, there is no church, and no point in meeting. He criticized most Christian believers as mere “professors” of Christ, who were not “possessors” of him.

Taken together, Fox’s critique went to the root of Christianity. He taught that he had recovered the original gospel of apostolic Christianity, and that institutional Christianity had been apostate since the first generation of Christians. “After the long night of apostasy,” he wrote, » the everlasting gospel is now being preached again.”

Just as Fox’s message constituted a radical challenge to the Christianity of his day, so Benson’s recovery of Fox’s message constitutes a radical challenge to modern Quakerism. Nine points make up the case.

1. The Light is Christ. When we separate the two, as modern Quakers do, we open the door to a multitude of man-made philosophies and religions within which there is no power of God.

2.”That of God” in every person is not the root principle of Quakerism. It is not a natural conscience or moral law within and is not of human origin. Fox meant by it a hunger and thirst that God has placed in humans from outside, which is “answered” by those preaching the gospel. The declarative sentence, ”There is that of God in every person” does not appear in Fox’s writings. Benson traces that modern idea to Rufus Jones, and shows that Jones questioned his own interpretation near the end of his life.

3. The living word is the ultimate authority, not individual conscience. We are called to hear and obey God together.

 4, The essence of Quaker worship is God’s presence not silence. Without Christ’s presence, there is no church, and no point in meeting.

5. Fox’s message is for all people everywhere, in every age.

Today’s Quakers have too readily accepted a place as a small sect in a big world. Benson tells a marvelous story about a 19th century essay contest on the topic of the decline of the Quakers. According to the winning essay, in the first generation of Quakers, there wasn’t one person who didn’t believe they had the truth for all people everywhere. At the time of the writing there wasn’t one Quaker who did.

6. Testimonies are not written statements of abstract principles, but concrete actions by those who “let their lives preach.” Before Fox ever released a document saying that he could “learn war no more,” he had already refused a commission in the army.

7. Testimonies are not matters for individual decision, but are the fruit of corporate obedience by God’s people to his commands regarding how all are to behave in the world. Early Quakers were recognized as a distinct group and could be identified as Quakers by outsiders because their behavior was collectively different.

8. Advices and Queries are not for individuals to answer for themselves, but for the church to use to examine itself, and to do something about what it learns about itself.  This requires a kind of collective discipline that cannot exist without the modern, individualistic, liberal vision.

9. Quakerism has been apostate since the first generation. George Fox had recovered God’s new covenant, God’s new way to himself, but it was lost soon after him. Modern Quakers have invented a gospel of their own that has little in common with that of Fox.

One of the ways it would be easy to misunderstand Benson’s message would be to construe is as a call for slavish revival of the 17th century Quakerism. Benson was aware that although 17th century Quakerism was a recovery of apostolic Christianity, it was not a copy of it. Quakers did not baptize for example, or hold all property in common. Benson was also aware of significant differences between modern times and those of the 17th century. He noted that the primary 17th century concern was sin, whereas modern humanity’s problem is “lost ness” or alienation from self, other, and the world. Despite these differences, the everlasting gospel recovered by Fox answers the current hunger, because Christ will speak to our current condition. To overcome what Benson called the problem of being human, we must simply turn together to Christ with readiness to learn and obey.