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Lewis Benson

1906-1986

LEWIS KNOWN AND LEWIS DISCOVERED

Norma Heller

When Lewis Benson died, my son Paul was about four years old.  I needed to explain to him that he would be spending Saturday with his father while I attended Lewis’s memorial service.  I chose a moment when just the two of us were riding in the car, Paul in the back in his car seat.  He wanted to know about Lewis whom he saw rarely since Lewis and Sarah had lived for some years in Moorestown. 

I tried to explain that part of what Lewis meant to Manasquan Meeting had to do with his study of George Fox and his revitalization of Fox’s message.  I framed all of this in four-year-old terms as best I could.  When I finished, there was a long silence, and then a small voice asked, “Who will do his job now?”

I believe I realized then that, in 23 years, I would not have forgotten that innocent question. And, it is largely because of that small voice that I proposed this project to Robert Kendall.   I had the incredible good fortune to study George Fox’s Journal with Lewis and Sarah in their living room in their house in Brielle.  From this experience, I gained some understanding of Lewis’s life work along with a lot of respect.  Robert, on the other hand, has had the opportunity to know Lewis only through publications and one taped interview.  Robert’s insight to Fox through Lewis Benson is testimony to the strength and clarity of Lewis’s message. 

This discussion is presented in two parts.  Part One is a glimpse of “Lewis Known” by me, and Part Two presents “The Process of Discovering the New Foundation Fellowship” by Robert Kendall.  Together, we hope to carry on, in some small way, the “job” that Lewis dedicated much of his life to.

Lewis Known

     The first time I heard Lewis Benson speak outside Manasquan Meeting was at a George Fox lecture and discussion held at Fifteenth Street Meeting in New York City.  The year was probably 1976 or 1977.  One of the coordinators of the program was Roger Dreisbach-Williams, and Roger was responsible for producing the introductory hand-out.  On the title page of the printed program were the words:  “Why George Fox did NOT say ‘There is that of God in everyone.’”  I was stunned when I read it.  I waited impatiently throughout Lewis’s presentation for an explanation of this provocative subtitle, but Lewis did not so much as mention it.  As soon as Lewis concluded his statements, my hand shot up and I wanted to know the meaning of Roger’s comment.

Lewis chuckled and remarked that since the words were now in print, he had better have a response.  He explained that Fox said that we should “speak” or “answer” to that of God in everyone, but that the concept of the divine in each individual was not the foundation of Fox’s belief system.  Rather, the true basis of Fox’s message was “Christ has come to teach his people himself.”

Not too many years later, I attended a workshop at Yearly Meeting led by Roger Dreisbach-Williams.  The subject was George Fox’s message.  Roger began the workshop by asking what George Fox believed.  One young man immediately responded,  “There is that of God in everyone.”  Those in attendance nodded in agreement—except me.  After all, I knew the real deal.  When Roger asked if anyone had a different response, I said proudly, “Christ has come to teach his people himself.”  Roger asked for comments, and one middle-aged woman remarked that the statement “did nothing for her.”  Most of the others echoed similar sentiments.  The next day, the seminar consisted of Roger and me.

Looking back, I realize that Roger had intended to introduce Fox’s theology gradually, steering the group gently away from common misconceptions.  I had pretty much blown his plans out of the water.  When it finally occurred to me to apologize, Roger said, “Stand in the light that condemns you” which not only fit that occasion but has proven to be sound advice for many situations I have found myself in since.

So, how did Lewis Benson arrive at this “lackluster” conclusion regarding the basis of Fox’s beliefs?  Lewis used what history professors in the 1970’s liked to call “quantitative analysis.”  Lewis slowly and laboriously read Fox’s collective works and wrote down repeated statements, the sources, and page numbers.  He wrote on cards which he attached to a huge rolodex. Fox’s most-repeated statement by far was “Christ has come to teach his people himself.”  If memory serves me correctly, references to “that of God in everyone” did not even make the top five.  One might protest that Lewis’s methods were an unconventional approach to a scholarly undertaking, but it is still difficult to argue with the numbers.  And, when he concluded that Fox never said, “There is that of God in everyone” (emphasis mine), Lewis is no doubt correct.  Given his careful scrutiny of Fox’s works, Lewis, if anyone, could make such a statement with certainty.

The culmination of Lewis’ discussion concerning “that of God in everyone” was probably his joint presentation with Dan Seeger, a Universalist Quaker, at New York Yearly Meeting.   Dan’s universalist words were well-prepared and clearly presented.  He was very respectful of Lewis and called him a prophet.  Unfortunately, the prophet was not appreciated in his own Yearly Meeting that evening. 

Lewis seemed out of step with his audience.  His seventeenth-century quotations did not speak to the condition of many, and there were probably not many converts to his beliefs on that occasion. 

Rereading my under linings in Fox’s Journal (suggested by Lewis), it seems that Fox’s first reference to the nature of humankind is found on page 8:  “At another time it was opened in me that God, who made the world, did not dwell in temples made with hands….But, the Lord showed me so that I did see clearly, that he did not dwell in these temples which men had commanded and set up but in people’s hearts….”  And, then, on page 15, Fox says, “The pure and perfect law of God over the flesh to keep it and its works, which are not perfect, under, by the perfect law; and the law of God that is perfect answers the perfect principle of God in every one.”

These references seem to substantiate Lewis’s contention that human perfectibility—or the divine spark or seed—is secondary to Fox’s main theme which relates to our relationship with God.  Of course, one might argue that the belief that Christ has come to teach his people himself presupposes a divine element in each of us.  There is something within us that responds to his voice.  George Fox and Lewis Benson recognized this element, but they both maintained that it represents only a partial truth.  “That of God in everyone” is a necessary condition for a more encompassing revelation. 

The modern reader cannot help but sympathize with the young man at Roger’s seminar. What strikes us today is the finding that Fox believed that everyone possesses something divine.  We are astounded that, in Calvinistic times, someone would use the phrase “that of God in everyone,” regardless of the number of times he said it.  It’s a radical belief and one that leads directly to the conviction that every life is sacred.  And, it only requires the addition of a couple words to establish this astounding phrase as a thematic centerpiece.

Lewis would caution us, however, that left by itself, “that of God in everyone” leads to relativism.  Without a transcending voice to speak to us, we will charge off in every possible direction.  The blessed community will be scattered spiritually.

Today, Fox’s amazing view of humankind tends to overshadow his radical view of Jesus.  To Fox, Jesus is not off on a cloud preparing for his second coming.  We can experience Christ here and now, and that encounter can transform our lives.  Jesus is not just present, but he speaks to us.  “That of God” helps us to respect one another and to relate to each other.  Such is God’s will.  Just as importantly, however, it is the divine in each of us that helps us to hear Jesus and to find God. 

Since Dan Seeger and Lewis Benson spoke at New York Yearly Meeting more than twenty years ago, there seems to have been a shift in Quaker belief.  Those who espouse “that of God in everyone” as the foundation of their beliefs are in the minority globally, as the great majority of Quakers are in the Christian camp.  Furthermore, most Christian Quakers are clearly of the evangelical variety.  Thus, in a discussion of Lewis Benson, it needs to be said that his message is no more compatible with most modern Quaker Christianity than it was with the Universalism that he confronted at New York Yearly Meeting.  

“Christ has come to teach his people himself” is not the central theme of a Bible-based belief.  Rather, in Fox’s belief system, truth comes directly from Christ and not primarily from the Bible.  According to Fox, as told by Lewis Benson, what Christ tells us today does not contradict the spirit in which the Bible is written.  The spirit of the Bible offers a dependable test of our leadings.  For this reason, New Foundation Quakers continue to identify the divine voice as that of Jesus Christ.  This voice has spoken consistently for two thousand years with a message that rings true even as it explodes into our midst.
There will be no status quo, no continuing cycle of sin, repentance and salvation.  When Jesus speaks, even the most familiar Biblical phrase may propel us in a direction that we never anticipated.

The Christ whom Lewis discovered in Fox’s work is indeed the Great Comforter so often present in Christian messages.  However, Christ is the Great “Discomforter” as well.  Christ promises to comfort us as we face the difficult tasks he sets before us.

Among the many, most-repeated quotations contained in Lewis’s huge rolodex are three words which usually appeared in close proximity to one another:  “hear,” “obey,” and “suffer.”  The proximity and order are not coincidental.  Fox teaches us to hear Jesus Christ, to obey what he asks of us, and to prepare to suffer as a result. 

Lewis Benson studied long and meticulously, traveled widely, accepted food that disagreed with him, and faced crowds of skeptics because he believed that he was doing God’s work.  Anyone who is touched by Lewis’s message will be challenged as well.  When we least expect it, a small voice may ask, “Who will do this job?”

 

     Robert Kendall

The process of discovering the New Foundation Fellowship

Perhaps the prime impetus behind the message George Fox felt compelled to witness was his view of the Christian apostasy of his time and his firm abiding conviction that Jesus was the only master who could teach humankind. In this perspective a parallel exists, one that bridges the centuries between Lewis Benson and the founder Fox, for Lewis Benson in his relentless pursuit of a greater understanding of Fox’s message found that he himself was coming to the same conclusions in his own time. More importantly perhaps, Lewis Benson felt that even the lineal descendants of Fox’s Quakers were drifting away from the teachings of Christ, as well as the absolute admonition of Fox to guard against that particular error.

To start from the Quaker proposition of an individual’s need “to center down”; a corporate cycle of moving away from the center of faith can be easily understood and could be attributed to a kind of theosophical law akin to centrifugal force in physical law, in that staying centered, while the world turns about us is the real challenge of our lives. The difficulty lies in not getting caught on the existential merry go round and being forced from a clear center to the whirling blur of the perimeter, to ride the worldly wooden horse up and down trying to grab that brass ring that defines the superficial existence that we are led to believe is reality. Recognizing this dichotomy is what separates being in the light from being caught in the gaudy glare of materialism that seems to define human existence.

Returning to the apostolic awareness of Jesus is to focus on the difficulty of opening ourselves to his message while the world assaults us with “everything but his message”. This assault unbalances us and knocks us out of the center his message demands. The apostles and the early friends all faced far more dire censures for their beliefs than we do today, but ironically this doesn’t make it any easier for us to stay in the light. Perhaps the pettiness and superficiality of our distractions in fact make it harder for our resolve is more easily compromised by the shallowness of desire and relative ease of our existence. We Quakers are no longer differentiated by fellow religionists as apart, by the strict standards we maintain or our zeal to condemn hypocrisy, because we have become just as they are.

This constant challenge that confronts us hourly requires an absolute diligence without which the tendency will always be to dilute and compromise the pureness of that understanding we have when we are centered. The worldly din of our contemporary existence is set in stark contrast to the silence of our meeting and the sublime beauty of our faith is that profound counterpoint which silence establishes every first day for our spiritual contemplation.

Being in this world and not of this world is the essence of the recovery of the original gospel message of Jesus, reiterated by George Fox and lived and practiced by the first friends. The extraordinary clear and challenging understanding of the original Christianity that the apostles knew and understood and Fox taught and believed is still here to be felt, and that is essentially all Lewis Benson asks us to remember. Fox revitalized Christ’s simple message from the same center that Lewis Benson revitalized Fox’s simple message and this is the heart of Quakerism. Both men gave “witness” to the life blood of Quakerism, simply “staying in the light”.

The first time I ever knew that Lewis Benson existed was at Manasquan Meeting when Norma Heller took me aside and suggested I read some of his writings. The fact that he was once a member of little, humble Manasquan intrigued me. In the silence that followed he obviously spoke to me. In an old photograph Bob Lane showed me he stood before the meeting to speak. In that photograph he stood as he would have appeared to me if I sat where I usually do. As I confabulated that past and the present in my imagination Lewis Benson was standing to Dean Freiday’s right hand in the seat I had become familiar with as his usual place. I soon found myself consuming everything I could find he had written and he was speaking within my hearing.
This was the Quakerism I had been taught and all Lewis Benson’s thoughts seemed like echoes from the faint memories of my early life and in that familiarity I found a great comfort and a supportive reawakening of my Quaker being.

Today at Manasquan, in our little meeting, some of the messages that come to us from the greater Quaker world ring discordantly in our ears and the creeping apostasies of worldly influences on our faith can only remind us that when we listen to other than Christ’s message the light that is given us can dim to where the way is obscure.

It is no wonder that Lewis Benson, in his search to see Fox clearly, came to see the world in a similar light and the sad part is that all Quakers today do not take the same view today. Lewis Benson honored the teachings of Fox in his skepticism of liberalism or humanism or secularism or whatever you chose to call the dilution of Jesus’ place in our philosophy. George Fox and Lewis Benson’s tenacity in maintaining the absolute necessity of a clear focus on Jesus as the teacher is as much a tribute to what weighty friends they were as our complacency and apathy in this regard demonstrates what lightweights we are.

Each and every Quaker is called as a prophet, called as a gospel preacher to give witness to the message of brotherly love and peace that was given us by Jesus. Lord knows peace, patience and forgiveness are not of this world and “brotherly love” is still the lip service paid by pious Christian poseurs, as it was when George Fox walked abroad exposing it. Lewis Benson, in his time, exposed an ecumenical dilution of the Christian center of Quakerism which might be more injurious than the false pieties condemned by Fox. Both men demanded Quakers to keep the teachings of Jesus at the center of our faith, for without that understanding, to whom do we listen for guidance in the silence?

There was a natural combativeness shared by George Fox and Lewis Benson that did not shirk from the duties they felt compelled to perform. George Fox would unabashedly “dispute with them” and Lewis Benson, as he did the same, suffered a like censure from fellow Quakers until they understood, stood in the light of the truth.
Having that “spirit” of conviction might simply be, as observed by Robert Barclay,” that the Spirit is that guide by which the saints are led to all truth”. “Speaking or answering to that of God in everyone” is simply being consistent with the teachings of Christ, as would be speaking or answering to that of God in everything. In the world today, with the environment in the perilous condition it is, if we acknowledge Fox and Benson’s message that “Christ has come to teach his people himself” we can easily speak to that of God in the world, and then our destructive conduct against nature is easily seen as simply conduct against the teachings of Christ.

When Lewis Benson elucidated the primacy of Fox’s concept of “Christ has come to teach his people himself” he emphasized the cornerstone of Quakerism which was built on that foundation. By naming this movement the “New Foundation Fellowship” Lewis Benson gave witness to the revival of Fox’s basic tenet of Quakerism. This cornerstone is a “tested stone, firmly placed”, as Isaiah says, and “he who believes in it will not be disturbed”.

The Future  of the Quaker Vision

Lewis Benson Interview 1981

Sandy Freiday interviewed Lewis and Sara Benson in Moorestown, New Jersey and made this recording. Lewis reminisced about early Manasquan Meeting, events, members and history.

The following links are .mp3 files and you can download Qucktime free at http://www.apple.com/quicktime/download/ to listen.

  Track 1- Introduction, Sandy Freiday Sandy Freiday
       
Track 2- Visiting ministers and friends
Track 3- Issac Wilson
Track 4- Half Yearly Meeting
Track 5- Schrewsbury Meeting
Track 6- Phoebe Wright
Track 7- Sarah on Phoebe Wright
Track 8- Frances and Harriet Reynolds
Track 9- Schrewsbury Manasquan Executive meeting
Track 10- Charles Trafford
Track 11- George Lefetra
Track 12- Addition of meeting house; Plainfield, half yearly meeting
Lewis a Sara Benson
 

Lewis Benson papers at Haverford College

Lewis Benson "The Future of Quaker Vision"
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