Above: Edward White Benson
Image in the Public Domain
EDWARD WHITE BENSON, JR. (JULY 14, 1829-OCTOBER 11, 1896)
Archbishop of Canterbury
Edward White Benson was a leading figure in The Church of England in the late 1800s.
Benson was a native of Birmingham, England, where he entered the world on July 14, 1829. His mother was Harriet Baker Benson (1805-1850). Our saint’s father, Edward White Benson, Sr. (1802-1843), was a manufacturing chemist. His death impoverished the family. Benson studied at King Edward’s School, Birmingham. James Prince Lee (1804-1869), the headmaster, influenced the young saint greatly. Benson revered Lee, who went on to become the Bishop of Manchester in 1847 Our saint even preached at Lee’s funeral. At King Edward’s School Benson forged lifelong friendships with other future leading lights of The Church of England and continued to be their classmate at Trinity College, Cambridge. These friends were:
- Joseph Barber Lightfoot (1828-1889), later the Bishop of Durham (1879-1889);
- Brooke Foss Westcott (1825-1901), who succeeded Lightfoot immediately as the Bishop of Durham; and
- Fenton John Anthony Hort (1828-1892), who, like Lightfoot and Westcott, was a Biblical scholar and translator.
Benson, who graduated from Trinity College in 1852, won the Chancellor’s medal there that year and became a fellow of that institution in 1853.
Benson became a priest and an educator. From 1852 to 1858 he served as the Assistant Headmaster of Rugby School, succeeding George Edward Lynch Cotton (1813-1866), later the Bishop of Calcutta and Metropolitan of India. Frederick Temple (1821-1902) became the Headmaster of Rugby School in 1858. On June 23, 1859 he conducted the marriage ceremony of our saint and Mary Sidgwick (1841-1918). Also in 1859 Benson, on the recommendation of Temple, became the first headmaster of Wellington College, an institution for the orphans of army officers.
The Bensons had six children:
- Martin White Benson (1860-1878), who died of tubercular meningitis at the age of 17 years;
- Arthur Christopher Benson (1862-1925), who became a school master, a prolific writer, the biographer of his brother Robert Hugh Benson as well as his father, and who wrote the lyrics of “Land of Hope and Glory;”
- Mary Eleanor Benson (1863-1890), who became an activist for poor people and died of diphtheria, contracted while engaging in that work;
- Margaret Benson (1865-1916), an Egyptologist and author;
- Edward Frederic Benson (1867-1940), a prolific novelist; and
- Robert Hugh Benson (1871-1914), an Anglican priest (1895-1903), convert to Roman Catholicism (1903), Roman Catholic priest (1904-1914), and papal chamberlain (1911f).
None of the Bensons’ children married and all seem to have suffered from congenital mental illness. Our saint was subject to fits of depression, and not just because he buried two of his children. (Aside: One might wonder how much better their lives would have been if certain medications would have been available to them.)
Benson built up Wellington College. It began as a poorly endowed institution, but he transformed it into a great school by the time he left for Lincoln. Our saint, while leader of Wellington College, began his study of the life of St. Cyprian of Carthage (died in 258). Benson’s interest in patristics and ecclesiastical symbolism was obvious in the architecture, mosaics, carvings, and windows of the college chapel, the construction of which he oversaw.
Benson served in other capacities prior to becoming the Archbishop of Canterbury. As the Chancellor of Lincoln (Cathedral) from 1873 to 1877 he founded a theological college and established night schools and university extension lectures. As the first Bishop of Truro our saint revitalized Anglicanism in Cornwall, an area in which religious nonconformity was strong He also founded the cathedral, the construction of which continued after he died.
Archibald Campbell Tait (1811-1882), former Headmaster of Rugby School (1842-1848) and Archbishop of Canterbury (1868-1882), died, creating the vacancy Benson filled in 1883. As the leader of The Church of England our saint opposed attempts to disestablish the Welsh Church, supported high church ritualism at a time when that was controversial, opened talks with the Russian Orthodox Church, and re-established the Anglican bishopric in Jerusalem. Benson also resolved the schism in the Natal resulting from the heterodoxy of John William Colenso (1814-1883), the deposed and excommunicated Bishop of Natal (1853-1883), who, due to legal maneuverings, retained his title despite his deposition and excommunication. The official bishop in the area from 1869 to 1892 was William Macrorie (1831-1905), the Bishop of Maritzburg. Arthur Hamilton Baynes (1854-1942) succeeded Macrorie in 1892 and Colenso the following year, serving until 1901. (Aside: “The Church’s One Foundation” contains references to the Colenso Affair. Consider, O reader, “By schisms rent asunder,/By heresies distressed.”) Benson was also properly suspicious of the Roman Catholic investigation into the validity of Anglican holy orders relative to Apostolic Succession, for Holy Mother Church ruled Anglican holy orders invalid in 1896.
Benson’s published works included the following:
- Work, Friendship, Worship: Three Sermons Preached Before The University of Cambridge, October, 1871 (1872);
- Phoebe the Servant of the Church: A Sermon, Preached at St. Peter’s Church, South Kensington, on May 11, 1873, in the Aid of the Parochial Mission-Women Fund (1873);
- Scholae Cancellarii: Training of Candidates for Holy Orders at Lincoln: A Letter to the Right Reverend the Lord Bishop of the Diocese (1875);
- Singleheart (1877);
- The Cathedral: Its Necessary Place in the Life and Work of the Church (1878);
- The Voice and Its Homes: A Sermon Preached in Behalf of the Incorporated Church Building Society, in S. Paul’s Cathedral, London, on May 20, 1881: Being the First Anniversary of the Foundation of Truro Cathedral (1881);
- The Primate and Church Defense (1883);
- Boy-Life, Its Trial, Its Strength, Its Fulness: Sundays in Wellington College, 1859-1873: Three Books–New Edition (1883);
- Report of a Speech Delivered at the 183rd Annual Public Meeting of the Society: Held in St. James’s Hall, on Tuesday, June 17, 1884 (1884);
- The Seven Gifts (1885);
- The Liquor Traffic with Native Races: A Letter from the Archbishops (1887);
- An Address Given at Croyden: At a Meeting of the Canterbury Diocesan Church Reading Society, on Monday, Nov. 28th, 1887 (1887);
- Christ and His Times: Addressed to the Diocese of Canterbury on His Second Visitation (1890);
- Technical Education and Its Influence on Society: An Address (1892);
- The Church in Wales: Shall We Forsake Her? A Speech by His Grace the Lord Archbishop of Canterbury at the Church Congress, Rhyl, on Tuesday, October 6, 1891 (1892);
- Fishers of Men: Addressed to the Diocese of Canterbury in His Third Visitation (1893); and
- Living Theology (1893).
Benson died at Hawarden, Wales, on Sunday, October 11, 1896. He, a house guest of former Prime Minister William Ewart Gladstone (1809-1898) at Hawarden Castle, had returned from an exhausting tour of Ireland. Our saint suffered a stroke while attending a morning service at the local parish church. He was 67 years old. Frederick Temple succeeded him as the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Benson left some unpublished writings, which others made available to the public via printing presses. These works included the following;
- Archbishop Benson in Ireland: A Record of the Irish Sermons and Addresses (1896);
- Cyprian: His Life, His Times, His Work (1897);
- The Apocalypse: An Introductory Study of the Revelation of St. John the Divine, Being a Presentment of the Structure of the Book and of the Fundamental Principles of Its Interpretation (1900); and
- On Convocation: A Letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury; and a Speech in the Upper House of the Convocation of the Southern Province (1917).
Edward White Benson worked to glorify God and benefit his fellow human beings. He pursued these goals in particular ways, at a particular era, and in a particular setting. The details of his spiritual vocation were specific to him. Nevertheless, the general calling to glorify God and to benefit others remains unbounded by identity, geography, and time.
KENNETH RANDOLPH TAYLOR
JULY 19, 2016 COMMON ERA
THE FEAST OF SAINTS POEMEN, ROMAN CATHOLIC ABBOT; AND JOHN THE DWARF AND ARSENIUS THE GREAT, ROMAN CATHOLIC MONKS
THE FEAST OF SAINT AMBROSE AUTPERT, ROMAN CATHOLIC ABBOT
THE FEAST OF SAINT JOHN PLESSINGTON, ROMAN CATHOLIC PRIEST AND MARTYR
THE FEAST OF SAINT MACRINA THE YOUNGER, ROMAN CATHOLIC NUN
O God, our heavenly Father, who raised up your faithful servant Edward White Benson
to be a faithful bishop and pastor in your Church and to feed your flock:
Give abundantly to all pastors the gifts of your Holy Spirit, that they may minister
in your household as true servants of Christ and stewards of your divine mysteries;
through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you
and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Psalm 84 or 84:7-11
–Adapted from Holy Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints (2010), page 719