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William James Early Bennett

London: The Catholic Literature Association, 1933.

THE Catholic Movement in the Church of England has always been rich in devoted parish priests. We can think of many such to-day. Yet when we consider the priests who eighty years ago strove for the revival of the Catholic faith and practice in our parishes, it seems to us that 'there were giants on earth in those days.' They were the pioneers of the revival of Eucharistic worship; they were equally the pioneers of the reform of social abuses. Their preaching touched rich and poor alike; they taught the faith in all its simplicity to children, yet could defend it in all its fullness in the arena of theological controversy. They were uncompromising in their defence of the truth; yet even those who could not accept their teaching could learn to love them. At the time when the Church most needed heroes in her ministry, a band of devoted priests heard God's call, and restored the faith and devotion which had well-nigh disappeared from the English Church. And among that band was William James Early Bennett.

In the early years of his priesthood, Bennett worked in the West End of London. He left his post as usher at his old school, Westminster, to become curate of the 'Oxford Chapel' (now St. Peter's, Vere Street), in 1830. He does not appear to have settled down easily in the parishes in which he first served, for in two years' time he became curate of Holy Trinity, Marylebone, and very soon moved again to All Souls, Langham Place. While still curate there he was appointed Minister of the Portman Chapel (now St. Paul's, Portman Square). His work there is thus described in a family letter.

'William is very popular with all that know him, whilst his conduct as a clergyman has made him most highly esteemed by his parishioners and congregation. His evenings as well as mornings are all devoted to study and business. The result of his solitary studies, however, is worthy of the sacrifice, for his sermons are certainly the best I have ever heard preached, and his impressive manner, quite apostolic, lends to his reasonings a powerful effect.'

It was during his ministry as the pastor of a rich and fashionable congregation that Bennett was first perturbed by the Church's neglect of the poor. The system of pew-rents obtained in every London church. The principal pews were apportioned to the wealthy families; a few free benches were sometimes to be found at the back of the church, so situated that their occupants could neither see nor hear the minister. But often there was no room at all for those who could not afford to rent a 'sitting' and pay £15 a year for the privilege of attending Morning Prayer. 'What was a church, filled with a mere colony of the inhabitants, tied up in pews and shackled with payment for every inch of sitting room, to do for poor men and women who had not a shilling to pay? "Why do you not come to church?" we said to the poor labourer, the mechanic, the widow, the hard-working charwoman. "Will you show us where we can go?" was the reply. "Give us a church, and we will." We turned aside, acknowledging the rebuke. We could not. I do announce to you, my brethren, as God's ambassador, that the poor have not the Gospel preached to them.'

'How constantly we see in our churches the servant attending upon his master and mistress, carrying with him their Prayer Books and Bibles, and waiting upon them to their pew-doors; and then quietly, and in the face of God and of the congregation, retiring from the walls of the church, as if he had no part or lot in the matter of Christian worship!'

These extracts from Bennett's sermons show that already his mind was exercised by the lack of provision made by the Church for the spiritual needs of the vast majority of the population.

Not till he became incumbent of St. Paul's, Knightsbridge, did he have the opportunity to act. In 1843 this new parish was formed; it contained within its borders some of the wealthiest and some of the poorest streets in London. But 'it arose with all the odious system of pews and pew-rents; the rich ex-clusiveness of the fashionable and the great, as though a man could not pray unless he were locked in and fenced around with a wooden box, as though the poor, by being too close, would taint the air of the rich man's nobility, as though Sacraments and graces of preaching and blessings of prayer were only fitted for those who could pay for them, and return an equivalent to the minister in gold and silver.'


Bennett determined that a church should be built which should be free and open to all. It should be built on the principle of almsgiving, built by the rich of the parish for the poor of the parish. It should provide for the needs of the inhabitants of the lower portion of St. Paul's parish, the district of Pimlico near the Chelsea Hospital. What had once been the site of the luxurious gardens of the Earl of Ranelagh had now become a foul slum, of ruinous undrained houses, and rugged unpaved streets. The London sewer ran open and uncovered through the middle of the district, spreading filthy odours and noxious germs. The inhabitants, ill-fed, half-clothed, unshod, were powerless to rise above their circumstances, and could only stave off despair by a reckless profligacy. Brothels, thieves' kitchens, gambling-dens were to be found in every street; all night the brawling of drunkards was incessant. Children grew up half-starved, diseased, undisciplined; the only life they knew was one of degradation and immorality. With a few notable exceptions, such areas in London had been left untended by their parish priests. Bennett was determined that in his parish this should not be the case. And the result of his work, his preaching and his prayers for the poor, was the building and consecration of St. Barnabas, Pimlico.

Bennett appealed to the congregation of St. Paul's, Knightsbridge, for a sum of £14,000. 'It is not,' he said, 'an unjust tax upon you, for, even setting aside the great Catholic principle of preaching the gospel to the poor, Belgrave Square, Eaton Place, Chesham Place and Lowndes Street are the cause of Ebury Street and Queen Street and Clifford's Row, and New Grosvenor Place being filled with a population of poor men, women and children. Come with me into the lanes and streets of this great city. Come with me and visit the dens of infamy, and the haunts of vice, ignorance, filth and atheism with which it abounds. Then look at your noble houses, the gold that glitters on your sideboard, and the jewels that gleam on your bosoms, and say within your secret conscience, as standing before the great and terrible God at the day of Judgment, "What shall I do, if I give not of the one to relieve the other?"'

The appeal was not in vain. In a single year over £6,500 was collected; and soon the school and parsonage began to be built. The original plans were enlarged to provide a kind of college for four priests and a number of choristers. Finally, on St. Barnabas' Day, 1847, the foundation stone of the church was laid. Three years later, the completed church was consecrated by Dr. Blomfield, Bishop of London.

The building of St. Barnabas, Pimlico, is to be remembered as one of the first victories of the Movement in its task of the conversion of England. It marks the revival of a social conscience in the Church, and recovery of the evangelical virtue of loving-kindness towards the poor. It is one of the great adventures of faith which the parish priests of the Movement have undertaken; adventures, be it remembered, that have not ceased to-day.

But while the buildings of St. Barnabas were being raised, and the parochial organizations instituted, the terrible plague of the Asiatic cholera was raging. It might have been supposed that the task of providing Pimlico with a spiritual home would fully have occupied Bennett's energy; but, on the contrary, he was assiduous in relieving the bodily and spiritual needs of his parishioners during this critical period. When, a few years later, St. Barnabas' church was made the subject of an attack, his devotion to duty was thus described in a letter refused by The Times newspaper: 'During the cholera the clergy of St. Barnabas might be found at all hours by the bedside of the sick and dying, not only administering the consolations of religion, but also assisting in kind offices for the sick; giving them medicine and incurring personal danger by rubbing their cold and cramped limbs, watching for hours by their pillows, and exhibiting those fruits of holiness which can only emanate from a pure love.' By his preaching Bennett provided Pimlico with a church; by his courage and charity he provided that church with a congregation.


We must now return to consider the development of Bennett's doctrinal views. He does not seem to have come under the influence of the Oxford Movement during his years at the University. Indeed, for some time after his ordination he would have been described as a definitely 'low' churchman. The sermons which he preached in 1837 in the Portman Chapel show that at that date he was very far from believing in the Real Presence of our Lord in the Blessed Sacrament. Mr. Bennett did not hastily accept the teaching of the Tractarians; his views developed very slowly. But his Guide to the Holy Eucharist, published in 1842, shows a marked advance in his assimilation of Catholic doctrine. In this book he speaks of the Sacraments as channels of grace; advocates confession in preparation for Holy Communion; favours the use of the mixed chalice; and expresses a desire that the Prayer of Oblation should be said immediately after the Consecration. In the year in which that book was published the Bishop of London, in his charge to the clergy, had pronounced a modified encomium upon the work of the Tractarians, and had particularly commended their work in reviving the dignity of worship and restoring 'a full and exact observance of the Church's rubrical injunctions.' When Bennett was appointed to St. Paul's, Knightsbridge, he determined loyally to put into practice the principles commended by his Diocesan. 'I came,' he says, 'to my first public opportunity in a new church and with a new congregation, to carry into effect what my reason convinced me was right, my heart prompted me to follow as pleasing to myself, and my obedience to my Bishop confirmed as my obligation and my duty.'

The order of services instituted at St. Paul's, Knightsbridge, would hardly to-day be regarded with misgiving by the most cautious of Churchmen. But it was a great advance on current practice. At first the only Celebration of Holy Communion on Sunday was after Morning Prayer at eleven. There was an average of 120 communicants, and the service seldom ended before half-past two. At three o'clock Evening Prayer was sung, baptisms and catechizing taking place after the Second Lesson. This service lasted till five, and at half past six Evening Prayer was sung a second time. But the most striking innovations introduced by Bennett consisted in the lighting of two candles at Holy Communion, and the vesting of the choir in surplices. In 1848 an early celebration was introduced on Sundays; Holy Communion was also celebrated on Saints' Days, the Litany being sung before the service. What strikes us most forcibly about these arrangements is the inordinate length of the services. Truly the clergy must have been weary after their Sunday!


Bennett seems easily to have overcome opposition to his innovations at St. Paul's. Unhappily it was far otherwise at St. Barnabas's. In 1849, in the midst of the outbreak of cholera, he drew up a form of prayer for use in the house of those afflicted by the plague. 'In the impulse of the distress which I saw around me, in speaking of the dead, I suggested prayer for the repose of their souls as one source of consolation in the raging of the pestilence. This form of prayer I enclosed in a letter to the Bishop.' The Bishop, after a long interval, wrote back, objecting to the words 'For the souls of those departed in the faith, that they may have their perfect consummation and bliss.' Bennett then sent to the Bishop a long catena of quotations from Anglican divines, from Jeremy Taylor to 'the present Bishop of St. Asaph,' all of whom had approved of prayer for the dead. But this had no weight with the Bishop of London, who still demanded the withdrawal of the words to which he objected. Nevertheless, Bennett remained firm, and prayer was still offered in Pimlico for the repose of those who had died of the cholera.

Nearly a year later the Bishop sent a list of further accusations that had been made against the practices at St. Barnabas's. Some of the items on the list had no foundation at all in fact; others were practices which to-day have been adopted by the majority of the English episcopate: the eastward position of the celebrant, the use of the Invocation at the beginning of the sermon, 'which seems to have been adopted simply from its being a practice of the Church of Rome,' and the making of the sign of the Cross. Bennett wrote back defending himself and adding these words: 'But, my lord, what a miserable thing this is--to be so continually watched, pried into, hunted down, complained of, accused unjustly, everything done and said suspected . . . the subject of a "railing accusation." 'The Bishop did not reply to this letter. For three months peace followed.

Then came the incident of the 'Papal Aggression.' In 1850 the Pope issued a bull giving Roman Catholic Bishops titles from sees in England. The bull filled the Protestant public with consternation. Anti-papal, anti-Roman, and finally anti-Catholic prejudice was aroused, and vented its wrath, not mainly upon the Roman Church in England, but upon the 'Puseyites' who were thought to have furthered the designs of Rome. The Bishop of London was terrified by the outburst of public feeling. He wrote once again to Bennett, demanding the cessation of all the practices, which he described as Romanist. Bennett again refused to abandon either his Catholic principles or the practices based upon them. His reply to the Bishop, however, contained an unfortunate pledge, which was afterwards to be used against him: 'If your Lordship should be of continued opinion that I am guilty of unfaithfulness to the Church of England; and if your Lordship will after that signify your judgment as Bishop that it would be for the peace of the Church that I should no longer serve in the living of St. Paul's, I would, the very next day, send you a formal resignation.'

Meanwhile, the attack on Ritualism was further stimulated by the publication of a letter to the Bishop of Durham from the Prime Minister, Lord John Russell, who for many years had been a regular attendant at St. Paul's, Knightsbridge. The 'Durham letter' as it was called, was sold at half a crown a hundred. It contained a bitter attack upon 'clergymen of our own Church,' who recommended 'the superstitious sign of the Cross, the muttering of the Liturgy, auricular confession and the admission of penance and absolution.' The letter set the torch to the bonfire, and riotous mobs attacked and invaded the principal churches where the Catholic faith was taught and practised. Punch joined in the attack, directing its satirical invective against Bennett in particular. Blasphemous attacks on St. Barnabas's church were scrawled up on street walls. The clergy were threatened and insulted; and it was necessary during divine service for a hundred policemen to be on duty outside the church to keep the mob at bay.

Throughout these outbursts of violence Bennett showed no sign of yielding. On one occasion, when it seemed that the mob would overwhelm the defenders and wreck the church, he saved the situation by his own preaching. No mob could drive Bennett from his charge. It was left to his Bishop to accomplish his removal. On December 11 the Bishop demanded the fulfilment of Bennett's undertaking to resign. A 'General Committee' of the congregation urged their incumbent not to leave his parish, and presented an address to the Bishop 'earnestly suggesting that Mr. Bennett should be allowed to remain in a ministry where his labours have been blessed with so great success.' The Bishop summarily refused their request. The poor of the parish then sent a deputation to the Bishop, with a touching plea that Bennett might remain. The Bishop refused them an interview.

Bennett kept his word, and in 1851 resigned from his living, and left Pimlico, to the sorrow of all.


It is not surprising that Bennett's tribulations in Pimlico should have sadly impaired his health. On leaving St. Barnabas's, he was forced to undertake a 'cure' at Kissingen in Bavaria; and for six months he remained out of England. In December, 1851, he accepted the living of Frome Selwood, which had been offered him by Lady Bath, a staunch friend of the Tractarian leaders. Not unnaturally the Protestant underworld assailed Bennett. An effort was made in the parish to obtain signatures to a document protesting against his institution; but out of a population of 12,000 only fifty-six people could be found to put their names to this document, and nine of the fifty-six subsequently expressed their regret for having signed it. Bennett was instituted to the living, though it is rumoured that on the day of his induction stones and eggs were hurled at Lady Bath.

The next attack on Bennett was made in the House of Commons. Mr. Horsman, the member for Cockermouth, painted a glowing picture of 'the agony of apprehension, the panic of terror' experienced by the fifty-six Protestants of Frome, and succeeded in gaining the right to nominate a Select Committee for inquiry. He found, however, that no member but himself was willing to serve on this Committee, and so was unable to proceed further. When, shortly afterwards, the electors of Cockermouth chose another gentleman to represent them in Parliament, Mr. Horsman's parliamentary campaign against the Vicar of Frome came to an end.

Meanwhile, Bennett was performing as effective pastoral work in a Somerset market town as ever he had accomplished in a London slum. The church on his arrival was in a ruinous condition; in five years he had restored it, abolishing the hideous pews which blocked the congregation's view of the chancel, and rebuilding the whole of the north aisle. He instituted a sung celebration of the Holy Communion on Sundays and Holy Days at an early hour. There was a daily celebration on week-days and also additional celebrations twice a week: one at 5.15 for working people (who were afterwards given breakfast at theVicarage), and one on Saturdays for children. Soon after 1860 vestments and incense were introduced. At Frome, Bennett started the first parish magazine, The Old Church Porch. The church was crowded for Sunday services, and the number of communicancs increased.


At first it looked as if Bennett was to spend the rest of his life in peace. He was universally loved and reverenced in his parish. His bishop recognized in him an efficient and devoted pastor. There was no danger now that he should again become the victim of mob violence or of episcopal maladministration; yet his outspoken defence of the faith brought his name once again to the public notice.

In a letter addressed to Dr. Pusey, and published as a pamphlet, entitled, A Plea for Toleration in the Church of England, Bennett, while expounding the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist, used somewhat careless phraseology. In the first two editions of this work he spoke of the 'visible presence of our Lord under the form of bread and wine upon the altars of the Church' and also wrote, 'who myself adore, and teach the people to adore the Consecrated Elements.' In subsequent editions, at Dr. Pusey's suggestion, he substituted the words 'real and actual' for 'visible,' and wrote 'adore Christ present in the Sacrament under the form of bread and wine.' Bennett was prosecuted by the Church Association for the doctrine expressed in this pamphlet. His original phraseology was certainly inaccurate and indefensible; but it was the doctrine of the Real Presence, and not Bennett's loose phraseology which was attacked by the prosecutors. Sir Robert Phillimore, Dean of the Court of Arches, allowed the words substituted in the third edition to be taken as representing Bennett's Eucharistic views, and gave judgment that the threefold doctrine, which was defended in that pamphlet, of the Real Objective Presence of our Blessed Lord in the Sacrament, the Sacrifice offered by the priest, and the adoration due to the presence of our Blessed Lord in the Holy Eucharist, was 'the doctrine which the formularies of our Church intended to maintain.' The Church Association appealed to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council, which upheld Phillimore's judgment.

What was Bennett's opinion of these proceedings? He disregarded them entirely, refusing to appear in the Courts. He was careful to contradict the Guardian when it spoke of 'the counsel for Mr. Bennett,' and affirmed, 'I have never employed any counsel in this case, and I have never interfered with what is going on in any way whatever.' But it is said that though he could not recognize the powers of the Courts, he nevertheless offered the Holy Sacrifice with the intention that the result of the case might be the vindication of the truth. If this is true, then his prayer was answered.

It is in connection with this doctrinal lawsuit that the name of 'Mr. Bennett of Frome' is most widely known. Yet to those who knew him Bennett appeared not as a controversialist, but as a zealous and beloved pastor. It is noticeable that even the pamphlet for which he is assailed is a plea for toleration. While he demands toleration for the 'Ritualists' who put the rubrics of the Prayer Book into practice, he is far from demanding a standard of uniformity which would be distasteful to other members of the Church of England. He pleads that the Bishops will act on the principle of toleration 'of those from whom I am even compelled to differ, so long as that toleration involves not a breach of the Catholic Faith.' He demands 'forbearance' on the part of those who advocate ritual observances, 'towards those who have not the same tone of mind or capacity for devotion as ourselves'; 'justice on the part of the bishops who call ritual observances dishonest'; and charity on both sides so that, 'unless a vital doctrine is touched, we go on and embrace each other in brotherly love.'

For thirty-five years Bennett continued his work in Frome; then on the Feast of the Assumption he was suddenly struck down by paralysis. Two days later he died. Several hundred of his townsmen followed him to his grave; and many of the younger clergy, who were to lead the Movement in future years, acknowledged by their presence at his funeral the assistance which they owed to his advice and the inspiration which they had gained from his example. 'No iconoclast,' it was been written, 'can undo the work which he has done. His voice will remain--in his work, in the church which he built, in the church which he restored, in the faith which he revived and preached.'

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