Sensing the Spiritual Realm: George de Benneville and Early Universalist Pietism

(This is an abbreviated and edited version of the keynote presentation provided at the 2023 annual meeting of the Trustees of the Pennsylvania Universalist Convention held at the First Unitarian Universalist Church of Berks County, Reading, Pennsylvania on October 14, 2023. The actual presentation was over 50 minutes in length and included 18 PowerPoint slides.)

Modern day narratives of Universalism often neglect or overlook significant spiritual aspects of the early Universalist faith. Contemporary Unitarian Universalists often assume Universalism was primarily about “the supreme worth of every human personality,” but this affirmation wasn’t added to the Universalist avowal until 1935. This is not to imply that the Universalists of the 1700s didn’t value the worth of every human personality, but their primary focus was upon the human soul . . . and not the human personality. Early Universalists viewed creation through sacred lenses. Theirs was not a secular faith. Modern Unitarian Universalism bears little resemblance to the rich spirituality expressed in early Universalism.

The early Universalists were believers in the spiritual realm. What is the spiritual realm? The spiritual realm goes by various names depending upon one’s religion and faith. Early Universalists were comfortable using the term “God” when referencing the spiritual realm.

Early Universalists put a high emphasis upon pietism. Often, we confuse pietism with pietistic. The two words have entirely different meanings. Pietism is synonymous with personal devotional or individual prayer life. Pietistic is associated with self-righteousness.

Pietism embraced mystical and intuitive knowledge. Pietism emphasized personal faith as being much more spiritually vital than was church doctrine, sacraments and theology. There was the German pietism that emerged within Lutheranism; Huguenot pietism arose within French Catholicism; and Methodist pietism appeared within the Church of England. It was from European pietism that American Universalist pietism has its roots. Unlike 18th century Universalism, early Unitarianism had little connection with pietism. If Unitarianism has ever had a spiritual phenomenon akin to a pietism movement, it might have been the Transcendentalism of the 1800s.

Among the early Universalists, George de Benneville’s background was French Huguenot and de Benneville was familiar with the German pietism within Lutheranism; James Relly and John Murray were Church of England and adherents of Methodism; Elhanan Winchester was born in Massachusetts and his early adult faith was shaped by the preaching of the evangelist George Whitefield, an Anglican priest who embraced Methodism. Winchester came to embrace universal salvation while an ordained Baptist minister.

Repentance is a spiritual concept found in all the major religions of the world. Repentance was stressed in the early Universalist faith. Wow! Whoever hears of repentance in contemporary Unitarian Universalism or from the pulpits of liberal Protestant denominations? Repentance implies sin! Does any modern person believe in sin or repentance?

The early Universalists believed in the existence of sin. Unlike Unitarians who believed humankind was basically good, early Universalists believed humans to be capable of the best and the worst. Humanity was a composite of good and evil. Sin was real and required repentance. According to the preaching of George de Benneville, James Relly, John Murray, and Elhanan Winchester, repentance was necessary for every soul prior to the experience of universal salvation. Interestingly, Relly, Murray, and Winchester came to embrace universal salvation from their study of the Bible. De Benneville came to his belief in universal salvation from his own experience of repentance, a painful, despairing, and soul-searching 15-month period of time as recorded in de Benneville’s autobiography. George de Benneville concluded that if God’s love could forgive him of his many sins, God’s love could forgive anyone!

After de Benneville’s experience of repentance, he began preaching the message of repentance and universal salvation. This led to his arrest, twice, while in France. After his second arrest, de Benneville was sentenced to death by beheading. He was mere seconds from being guillotined when his death sentence was reprieved. After his release from the French prison, de Benneville continued preaching in Germany and the Netherlands.

George de Benneville’s belief in the importance of repentance was further made known to him as a result of a phenomenal near-death experience in 1740. For over 42 hours, de Benneville was presumed dead. This was an unusually long near-death experience.

Near-death experiences (NDEs) are intensely vivid and sometimes life altering occurrences often associated with extreme physiological conditions involving major trauma, cardiac arrest, or cessation of brain activity. A different type of NDE is occasionally experienced by hospice patients and terminally ill as these individuals near their deaths. Hospice NDEs vary but are often characterized by the sensation of intense and/or other worldly colors, smells, and/or energies accompanied by the perceived presence of deceased loved ones. Although NDEs are not common, the frequency of their occurrences is sufficient for modern medicine to recognize their possibility. Medical schools, nursing schools, and hospital-based clinical chaplaincy training programs include the topic of NDEs in their training curriculums.

George de Benneville’s 42 hours of assumed death show many NDE characteristics. This was an extraordinarily long NDE. Most documented NDEs involve minutes or hours. De Benneville’s NDE spanned a period of almost 2 days. In his autobiography, de Benneville writes of an amazing journey into the afterlife, accompanied by two spiritual guardians. It was during this out of body experience that de Benneville’s soul observed non-repentant souls undergoing the anguish of the “habitations of the damned,” a purgatory-like existence where souls of the deceased had to experience remorse and repentance prior to moving on to the “celestial heavens.” Forty-two hours is an unusually long near-death experience! But once de Benneville returned to his body (and startled mourners gathered near his coffin), de Benneville claimed that the 42 hours seemed like years for him. It was after his near-death experience that George de Benneville boarded a ship from Europe to the Pennsylvania colony (1741) where he spent the remaining 52 years of his life preaching Universalism and practicing medicine, a medical practice that evolved to include treatments and medicinal herbs he discovered from his interaction and friendships with local native Americans.

Early Universalists didn’t reject the possibility of sudden Damascus Road experiences such as that of Saul of Tarsus (who became the Apostle Paul). Scripture doesn’t indicate any practice of pietism by Saul of Tarsus prior to his blinding light awareness of the spiritual realm. Early Universalists believed that the practice of pietism helped make it more likely for humans to sense the spiritual realm. Church sacraments, doctrine, and rituals are possible portals to the spiritual realm . . . but they aren’t the spiritual realm.

The pietism of early Universalists was based upon Christianity, as was the pietism of 17th century Europe. But the practices of pietism include all of the major religions of the world. (Unitarian Transcendentalism was primarily based upon the Hindu religion.) At the heart of pietism is one’s individual devotional or prayer life and the small group sharing related to the practice of a spiritual discipline.

When describing the relationship between pietism and the spiritual realm, the analogy might be made with preparing a garden. Pietism, or a personal devotional/prayer life, is akin to preparing the soil for planting. Pietism involves tilling the earth; providing adequate moisture; noting the sunlight and temperature; applying fertilizer; and planting the seeds at the proper depth. But the gardener doesn’t cause the seeds to sprout new life. The gardener is a midwife to the mystery and wonder of germination. The miracle of the seed shedding its shell, forming roots into the dirt, and emerging from the earth as a green shoot…are beyond the abilities and talents of the gardener.

According to early Universalists, pietism helped prepare the soul for awakening to the spiritual realm. Repentance, and the grace of universal salvation, followed this spiritual awakening.

Vernon Chandler

Vernon Chandler follows the daily discipline of meditation as taught by the World Community for Christian Meditation (WCCM). Prior to discovering the WCCM, Vernon provided 44 years of ministry in various parish and chaplaincy settings. He served for over 32 years, active and reserve, in the United States Army chaplaincy with foreign tours of duty in Albania, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Croatia, Germany, Hungary, Japan, Korea, Kosovo, and North Macedonia. For several years he provided pastoral care as a hospice chaplain with the Department of Veterans Affairs. Vernon is a former editor of the Universalist Herald. His most recent book is Praying in the Zone.

This Post Has 5 Comments

  1. Harry Mann

    This article was most helpful for my own faith. I wish I had discovered the universal doctrine early in my faith and ministry. I will be 85 this May and was a minister for 31 years–5 in the Church of God and 26 in the United Methodist Church. I came slowly to faith in universal salvation through certain Scriptural passages. I just wish it had been sooner as it would have been helpful to my ministry. Thanks for the helpful articles you send.

    1. Vernon Chandler

      Dear Mr. Mann, I am pleased that you found the article helpful. George de Benneville’s life, teachings, and writings were such a beautiful expression of spirituality and Christian mysticism. It is unfortunate that the rich spirituality of his Universalist (and Christian) faith is lacking in contemporary accounts of his life. Thank you for your comment. Namaste!

  2. Byron Bradley Carrier

    Valuable research and lesson here, Reverend Chandler. Shy of supernatural heavens, repentance is the clensing of our psyche’s guilt. No need to wallow in it, though. My mentor, Dr. Vasavada, used to advise, admit it, learn from it, and then, “Forget about it,” and “Let it go.”

    Thanks for reviving deBenneville’s dramatic story and example. Unitarians tend to be ignorant of the spiritual power of pietism and Universalism. I’m humanistic, but humanists can miss honoring the dearly-valued inner spiritual life of many if not most humans.

    I suspect many in the UUA find their spirituality lately in promoting a woke agenda for specific people and causes, forgetting how narrow and alienating it can be to others. Religion is more than causes. Emerson was an embarrassment to the Unitarians of his time, yet he and the Universalists helped round out UUism.

  3. Alex Hanna

    I am curious as to how this presentation was received by the attendees from the Pennsylvania Universalist Convention? Aren’t the remaining churches, comprising the PUC, mostly UU in orientation? Seems to me that most modern UUs are humanists or atheists and reject the spiritual realm and aren’t interested in hearing about theism or repentance or sin or immortality (especially if the immortality might include something akin to the Catholic concept of Purgatory). George de Benneville is a fascinating individual. Repentance is really the core of deBenneville’s Universalist faith. Too many contemporary stories of deBenneville overlook the rich mysticism that defined his understanding of Universalism. Did anyone reading this reply actually attend the presentation? If so, how were the terms like sin and repentance received by the UUs/Universalists attending? I enjoyed reading this account of deBenneville and other early Universalists.

    1. Vernon Chandler

      Mr. Hanna, Thank you for your comments. The presentation was by Zoom and I don’t know the theological orientation of the current churches and individuals comprising the PUC. During the brief Q&A period, there were no negative comments. I agree that George de Benneville’s life, teachings, and writings are a beautiful and rich expression of spirituality and Christian mysticism. Namaste!

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