Our Centenary - Benton “Super-Grammaticam”
Transcription of article published in the Primitive Methodist Magazine by Rev. E. Lucas
READERS of Carlyle’s “History of Frederick the Great” cannot fail to remember his characteristic picture of the Emperor Sigismund opening the Council of Constance, the Council which deposed three rival popes, and burnt John Huss and Jerome of Prague. “Right Reverend Fathers, date operam ut illa nefanda schisma eradicetur,” exclaims Sigismund intent on having the Bohemian schism well dealt with – which he reckons to be of the feminine gender. To which a Cardinal mildly remarking, “Domine, schisma est generis neutrius (Schisma is neuter, your Majesty), Sigismund loftily replies, “Ego sum Rex Romanus et super grammaticam, (I am King of the Romans, and above grammar!”) ‘‘For which reason I call him in my notebooks Sigismund super-grammaticam, to distinguish him in the imbroglio of Kaisers.”
An incident in the early missionary career of John Benton may mark him out for us as Benton super-grammaticam, though he was by no means alone among the pioneers of Primitive Methodism in his royal disregard for grammar. Their lack of knowledge in “the words which man’s wisdom teacheth” was abundantly compensated by the spiritual energy which worked through their down-right conviction and overwhelming earnestness.
Benton was born at Wyrley Bank, in Staffordshire, in 1785. He grew up in ignorance and irreligion. He was converted in his twentieth year and joined the Methodists. He was a miner, and immediately gave himself to earnest attempts to influence for good his fellow workmen. His addresses were uncouth, and though successful in reaching those to whom they were directed, aroused opposition among the authorities of the church, who considered that he was unsuitable for the work of a local preacher, and that his proceedings were irregular. One Sunday he was preaching at Cannock Common. A local preacher who was present was so dissatisfied with his discourse that he severely reproved him at the close of the service. “You are bringing a scandal upon the cause of Jesus Christ, you have had no learning, you do not even understand grammar.” A bystander answered in Benton’s defence, “But the last time he preached here there were two souls converted, and he must preach in this place again, for it is given out for him to preach on Good Friday.” Benton simply declared that he would fulfil his engagement. Good Friday came round and the room was crowded with colliers. Benton had not preached long before his audience was in a state of great excitement. Some groaned, others shrieked aloud. Some had fallen from their seats. It was impossible to proceed with the sermon. He closed the Bible and came down from his stand to pray with the penitents. As he passed down among the people he saw the critical local preacher standing and looking on the scene with amazement. Benton said to him, “This is grammar!” “Yes,” he replied, “‘I never saw such a meeting as this.”
In 1810 Hugh Bourne visited Wyrley Bank and formed an acquaintance with Benton. Hugh Bourne succinctly says, “He was a collier, had been brought up in ignorance, and had not much command of language. But his zeal was great, and he had a deal of success in awakening sinners.” This visit, and a subsequent visit which Bourne, accompanied by James Crawfoot, paid him in the same year, decided Benton on joining the Camp Meeting Movement, then almost on the verge of uniting with the Clowesites to form the Primitive Methodist Connexion. He attended a Camp Meeting at Ramsor on May 26th, 1811, and remained for some days holding services in cottages and on village greens in the district immortalised for us by George Eliot in “Adam Bede.”
On his return from Ramsor he announced to his friends his intention of devoting himself entirely to missionary work. He had a small property and was thus able to maintain himself while so engaged. The converts he had already gathered he handed over to the charge of Hugh Bourne. These formed the nucleus of Darlaston Circuit. The ungrammatical preacher had a gift for verse-making, and uttered his experiences in rhyme:
“The Lord gave me a special call
To sound the gospel news;
My soul was willing to obey,
I durst not Him refuse.”
He was appointed with William Clowes to the Tunstall Circuit. That circuit had, however, abandoned the policy of aggression. It aimed at consolidation rather than expansion. It was impossible for Benton’s spirit to be cramped within the scheme of the regular routine labours of a Methodist circuit minister. Having failed to break down the dangerous conservatism of the Tunstall circuit, he refused to take his planned appointments. He betook himself to the villages of North-East Staffordshire bordering on Derbyshire, and there, together with Eleazar Hathorn – Eleazar “of the wooden leg,” quondam soldier, now ardent evangelist, he conducted a remarkable mission, which resulted in the formation of the Ramsor Circuit. The plan of appointments sent after him by the Tunstall Circuit authorities, he returned, endorsed with these lines:
“A plan from God I have to mind,
A better plan I cannot find,
If you can, pray let me know,
And round the circuit I will go.”
“On the borders of Staffordshire and Derbyshire,” says George Herod, his biographer, “he was looked upon as an uncommon man; the influence that accompanied the word when he preached, appeared at times irresistible.” It is perhaps well to add, that it is only uncommon men in uncommon circumstances who may wisely venture to be “above grammar,” or who like John Benton may refuse to “take their appointments” and go whither the Spirit leads them.
We next find him labouring at Belper, in the heart of Derbyshire, and meeting there with fierce opposition. Belper was the Antioch of Primitive Methodism. Here they were first called Ranters. It was their custom on their way home from the mission services to sing through the streets. A young woman, a cotton factory worker, hearing noise of the singing, said to a bookish man who was also listening, “What religion these people?” He answered, “I believe they are the people I have been about – they are Ranters.” Next morning she said to her work-mates, “Joseph Turner says the folks that preached in the market place last night are called Ranters.”
Passing along the street, Benton met a group of five young men, drunken, and singing a profane song, Yielding to an impulse, he stepped up to them and commenced to sing:
“Stop! poor sinner, stop and think
Before you further go;
Can you sing upon the brink
Of everlasting woe?”
The effect. was, that all the five were, in Mr. Herod’s words, which are true alike to Scripture and experience, “immediately arrested by the Holy Spirit.” Of these five so “apprehended of God,” three became ministers, and the other two useful local preachers.
From Derbyshire he passed into Nottinghamshire. Of the details of this widely extended and successful mission, interesting as they are, there is not room to speak here. Readers must turn to Mr. Kendall’s monumental “History of Primitive Methodism.” We cannot, however, omit the picture go Benton preaching to Sir William Manners. Sir William desiring not so much to have Gospel preached, as to spite the Grantham magistrates, was driving Benton to preach there. It was too good an opportunity to be lost and Benton preached to the great man the need of repentance and faith and spoke of judgment, heaven and hell. “While I was setting forth these truths Sir William appeared rather restless, and I have no doubt was very glad when we arrived at Grantham.”
From Nottingham he passed into Leicestershire, where his fame was so great through his having been the means of the conversion of some of the most notoriously wicked characters in the county that when he was preaching in the country places on a Sunday, it was not uncommon for three or four churches round to be empty, save for the clergyman and the clerk. John Wedgwood, John Heath, and John Hallsworth were associated with him in his work in Leicestershire. In one year and nine months seventy-five towns and villages were missioned and regular religious services established at them, and seventy-five local preachers were raised up to assist in this work of rural evangelisation. The brunt of these herculean labours fell on Benton.
In 1818 a camp meeting was held near Leicester at which it was computed ten thousand people were present. A panic broke out among the hearers, and Benton’s efforts to allay the excitement were so severe that he lost his voice and was compelled to retire from the work. He had laboured only for seven years as a missionary, but they were years of remarkable and fruitful activity. However unpolished his address may have been it was no common man who could gather together a thousand people on a village green to hear him preach the gospel, while the neighbouring churches were almost empty, who could attract to a camp meeting in the sparsely populated England of that day an audience of ten thousand people. Neither was it a common man to whom a master of stately oratory like Robert Hall could listen with pleasure, not only impressed by his earnestness, but admiring his remarkable command over his hearers.
Mr. Sampson Turner said, “The success which attended his labours has often been a matter of wonder to me, especially when I remember his very slender abilities and limited knowledge. I have witnessed instances in which he got to the hearts of his hearers in a very few minutes, and had them subdued as captives at his feet – bitterly crying for mercy, and anxiously asking what they must do to be saved.”
We are not to make the mistake of imagining that he succeeded because his abilities were slender and his knowledge limited. Nothing is more foolish or less in harmony with the spirit of Christianity than the disparagement of knowledge and the glorification of ignorance. He succeeded because all defects were borne down by the rugged force and originality of his character, the sincerity and passion of his conviction, the mighty dominance of his desire to save his fellows. His own heart was carried away by the Gospel that he preached, so he could carry with him the hearts of his hearers. He was one of a notable band of men. They were uncultivated, yet not ignorant of the culture of the Spirit. They possessed native strength and energy of character, tenacity of purpose, and even their uncouthnesses and eccentricities, their weakness as well as their strength in some measure fitted them for the special work they did as the pioneers of Primitive Methodism. But faith in God and love for men were their secret. They preached what they had seen and felt. They rendered memorable service to the cause of Christ. It is for us, who inherit their traditions, to bear in mind, during these centenary years that:
“They who on glorious ancestry enlarge
Produce their debt, not their discharge,”
and to see to it, that though some of their methods may have become obsolete, we keep undimmed the fires of their fervour and devotion.
Primitive Methodist Magazine 1908/795