BENNET, JAMES, Presbyterian clergyman, editor, and author; b. January 1817, and baptized on 21 February of that year, in Boardmills (Northern Ireland), son of John Bennet, a farmer, and Laetitia Patterson; m. 22 Jan. 1847 Mary Jane Scott in Belfast, and they had two sons and six daughters; d. 29 June 1901 in Saint John, N.B.
James Bennet’s place of birth was one of the earliest centres of the Presbyterian secession in Ireland. As a result the religion of his youth was one with a distinctly evangelical flavour which he remained committed to throughout his life. Educated in the classical school of the Belfast Academical Institution, he did his undergraduate degree at the institution’s collegiate department. His desire for a career in the ministry and his considerable academic talents led him to pursue studies in theology in Belfast, Glasgow, and Edinburgh. Bennet was licensed by the Presbytery of Edinburgh, received into the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland in 1840, and ordained at Tassagh on 30 March 1843.
Having accepted an invitation to the Saint John Presbyterian Church, Bennet arrived in the city in the spring of 1854 and was inducted on 12 July. He would continue as minister of the church, the first Free Presbyterian church in British North America, until his retirement in July 1882. The congregation was made up mainly of Ulster Presbyterians who, led by William Parks*, had broken with a group of Scots Presbyterians in 1844 over the issue of replacing an outgoing minister, the Irish members wanting an Irish minister. The church was first served by Robert Irvine and then by William Elder*, both of whom were Irish. Bennet had personal connections in Saint John, for he was a lifelong friend of Irvine, who was also from Boardmills. In addition, his desire to leave Ireland was due to his unhappiness in Tassagh, where, it is reported, he had differences with “the traditions of the elders.”
Bennet was to become a close friend and supporter of Elder. Elder ceased work as an active minister in 1863 and became increasingly involved with newspapers, including the Colonial Presbyterian and Protestant Journal and the Saint John Daily Telegraph, both of which Bennet periodically edited in Elder’s absence. Bennet also helped Elder promote Presbyterian union in the Maritime provinces. In part, this work reflected his fear that a divided Presbyterian church would be powerless in the face of other major denominations which might successfully align their interests with the state, particularly in educational matters. More important, Bennet saw in the multiplicity of Protestant churches in Saint John a lack of unity which would only serve to strengthen Roman Catholicism. Fear of Presbyterian weakness fuelled his polemics, and often led him to encourage greater activism in the church and expansion of its work into rural communities.
Bennet played a pivotal role in the development of the Free Church synod, the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of New Brunswick, and his most enduring legacy was his contribution to the development of church union. His pro-union work as clerk of the synod served to maintain close links with the Synod of the Free Church of Nova Scotia, which in turn allowed the New Brunswick church to educate its ministry in Halifax and thereby expand its numbers. The Free Church in New Brunswick made continuous progress after 1844, increasing at least sevenfold until by the time of union it numbered 25 congregations, about twice as many as the corresponding Synod of New Brunswick in connection with the Church of Scotland. In 1866, six years after the union of the Presbyterian and Free churches of Nova Scotia, the Free Church of New Brunswick joined with them in the Presbyterian Church of the Lower Provinces of British North America, with James Bennet chosen to serve as moderator.
A prolific writer who was active as an editor of literary journals, Bennet was one of the originators of the Maritime Monthly as well as a contributor to it and Stewart’s Literary Quarterly. In addition, approximately 50 of his sermons were published in daily papers. His most influential work was Wisdom of the king, which appeared in Edinburgh in 1870 and which enjoyed a large circulation. Included among his literary efforts were essays and newspaper articles on various subjects, as well as poetry. His “Song of the flowering girls,” written in Ireland during his youth and inspired by the passing of the spinning-wheel, gained wide popularity.
Bennet received a dd from Davidson College, North Carolina, in 1877. Upon his death he was the oldest member of the Presbytery of Saint John and the oldest Presbyterian minister in Canada. Described as a living force in Presbyterianism in New Brunswick, Bennet was a man of remarkable energy in writing, lecturing, and conducting the business of his church. In the words of one lifelong friend, “He represented a generation that is now wholly gone.”
James Bennet’s publications include Sermon on labour, its rights and duties: delivered in the Saint John Presbyterian Church, on sabbath, 13th January, 1861, before the Saint John Young Men’s Early Closing and Mutual Improvement Association . . . (Saint John, N.B., 1861); “The Kirk” on union of Presbyterianism in New Brunswick: criticised in a series of letters: and a letter of a “self reliant layman” (Saint John, 1861); The logical consequences of the acquit[t]al of Jesus, or, His divinity deduced from His character and claims: a sermon preached before the Synod of the Presbyterian Church of the Lower Provinces, at New Glasgow, June, 1867 (Halifax, 1867); The wisdom of the king, or, studies in Ecclesiastes (Edinburgh, 1870); Down east: where to go; what to do; how to do it; a guide to travel in the Maritime provinces (Saint John, 1872); Both sides of the question: a correspondence on psalmody between the editor of the “Daily Telegraph,” St. John, N.B., and Rev. J. R. Lawson, Barnesville, N.B. (Saint John, 1880); and Song of the flowering girls; The lark and the reapers; An elegy on that pious dog Hector; Conscience (Saint John, 1900).
First Boardmills Presbyterian Church (Boardmills, Northern Ire.), Reg. of baptisms, 1817 (mfm. at the Presbyterian Hist. Soc. of Ireland, Belfast), 21 Feb. 1817. Office of the Registrar General (Dublin), Reg. of marriages, York Street Presbyterian Church (Belfast), 22 Jan. 1847. Colonial Presbyterian and Protestant Journal (Saint John), 8 Oct. 1863, 10 Dec. 1868. Daily Telegraph (Saint John), 29 June 1901. Presbyterian Witness, 6, 20 July 1901. St. John Daily Sun, 29 June 1901. T. W. Acheson, Saint John: the making of a colonial urban community (Toronto, 1985). F. E. Archibald, “History of the Presbyterian Church in New Brunswick, from its earliest beginnings to the union of the Presbyterian churches in Canada, 1784 to 1875” (typescript, Moncton, N.B., 1962; copy in N.B., Legislative Library, Fredericton). Canadian biog. dict. Fasti of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland, comp. J. M. Barkley (3v., [Belfast], 1986). A history of congregations in the Presbyterian Church of Ireland, 1610–1982 (Belfast, 1982). W. G. MacFarlane, New Brunswick bibliography: the books and writers of the province (Saint John, 1895). Morgan, Bibliotheca canadensis. Presbyterian Record, 26 (1901), no.9: 359.