BENSON, MANLY, Methodist minister; b. 27 April 1842 in Newburgh, Upper Canada, son of Mathew (Matthew) Benson and Nancy Ruttan; m. 9 July 1867, in Chatham, Ont., Julia McCrea, daughter of Walter McCrea, a judge and a member of the Senate from 1867 to 1871, and they had six daughters and three sons; d. 20 July 1919 in Toronto.
A descendant of loyalists, Manly Benson was educated at the Newburgh Academy and at the age of ten was converted to Methodism through the powerful preaching of Joseph Reynolds. In 1863, after teaching for a few years, Benson became a candidate for the ministry of the Wesleyan Methodist Church in Canada; in 1867 he was received in full connection and ordained.
In addition to holding a succession of circuits in Ontario, Benson, a handsome and eloquent man, quickly acquired fame as a public lecturer. In 1871 he accompanied William Morley Punshon*, president of the Canadian conference, on a tour of the western United States and British Columbia. A popular lecturer on uplifting themes and an inspiring preacher, Punshon doubtless became Benson’s model. Trips to Europe, the first in 1879, and experience as a pastor provided Benson with material for his lectures.
Like his mentor, Benson spoke on public issues, the landscape, and matters of concern to his church. One of his popular lectures in 1881 was entitled “Men wanted,” an exhaustive examination of “the kind of men wanted and not wanted” in Canada, a land with “unequalled advantages and room for the rise and distinction of her young men.” The lecture was characterized by “burning eloquence and earnestness” and by “scathing denunciations” of those not wanted. Readers of the Christian Guardian were advised to attend his next lecture, on “The wonders of the Yosemite,” a theme which doubtless lent itself to romantic hyperbole.
In his sermons and talks to religious groups, Benson dealt frequently with the duties of Methodists. In 1885, speaking on “Concerted action,” he asserted that “the apathy of the Church as a whole is appalling. . . . The majority in our churches are doing but little personally to save men from sin,” and indeed, “to cover” their “neglect of duty some are trying to promote revivals by contract.” All members had a duty to “carry on aggressive warfare against the evils and sins of modern times”; united action would result in a “gracious revival.” In 1896 and on other occasions he preached on sabbath observance, stressing that “prosperity could not come to a country by eliminating the Christian Sunday. . . . Sabbath pollution in the way of military reviews, festivals, excursions, concerts and Sunday newspapers” was not “the right way to elevate a nation.” He insisted that “a Christian Sabbath is essential to freedom and civilization, for without it morals must loosen and men lose faith in God and in each other.”
Benson’s reputation led to his appointment as director of religious services at Grimsby Park on Lake Ontario. Originally the site of well-attended camp-meetings, it became in 1875 a permanent Methodist summer resort, modelled on that at Chautauqua Lake, N.Y., and other institutions sponsored by the Methodists in the United States. With the appeal of traditional camp-meetings declining, Grimsby Park and Chautauqua provided recreational and educational facilities to earnest Methodists in a religious setting. Benson, an orator who once attracted in Montreal an audience of 1,000 with an admission charge of one dollar per person, was involved with Grimsby Park for several years. The institution survived well into the 20th century.
Benson’s lecturing ability was recognized by the Canadian government, which sent him on a tour in England in 1894 to promote immigration. In 1892 he had been awarded a dd by the University of the Pacific in Stockton, Calif. Elected president of the Montreal Conference in 1902, he was a delegate to the General Conference in the same year and again in 1906. He continued to hold charges until 1918, his last appointment being St Paul’s Church in Tillsonburg, Ont. After his death in 1919 his brethren stated that he had been “endowed in a large measure with a personal magnetism, an intellectual power and spiritual devotion that lingers in our memories.” He was “a man . . . with a masterly approach to all questions in which human suffering and moral issues were involved,” a pastor who “fed his people with a true and faithful heart to the last.” The Canadian Methodist Magazine had declared in 1880 that “the temporalities, as well as the spiritualities, of the church . . . prospered” on his circuits.
Although he was popular and respected as a lecturer and preacher, Manly Benson remains an elusive figure. In the absence of letters, diaries, and the full texts of his sermons and addresses, it is difficult to sustain or to explain the comment read into the minutes of the Hamilton Conference after his death that his sermons were “marked by a virility and a moderness of thought.” Probably he sought eloquently and effectively to accomplish what most of his brethren endeavoured to do – to transform Canadians into a community of evangelical Christians sharing a providential view of history and tacit acceptance of secular progress, and espousing sobriety, decency, and simple concern for those in need. None the less, for him as for many of the brethren, rhetoric masked a failure to grapple critically with the relevance of Methodist doctrine and discipline in 20th-century Canada.
AO, RG 80-27-2, 23: 82. UCC-C, Biog. file. Christian Guardian, 7 Dec. 1881, 9 Dec. 1885, 15 July 1896, 30 July 1902, 30 July 1919. Canadian album (Cochrane and Hopkins), vol.1. Canadian men and women of the time (Morgan; 1912). Methodist Church (Canada, Newfoundland, Bermuda), Minutes of the annual conferences (Toronto and Halifax), 1902; General Conference, Journal of proc. (Toronto), 1902, 1906; Toronto Conference, Minutes, 1892. Harriet Phelps Youmans, Grimsby Park, historical and descriptive, with biographical sketches . . . (Toronto, 1900). “The Rev. Manly Benson,” Canadian Methodist Magazine (Toronto and Halifax), 12 (July–December 1880): 194. Dorothy Turcotte, Greetings from Grimsby Park, the Chautauqua of Canada (Grimsby, Ont., 1985). Wesleyan Methodist Church in Canada, Minutes of the annual conference (Toronto), 1863, 1867.