BENTOM, CLARK, missionary and surgeon; b. c. 1774 in England, likely near London; d. in Jamaica, probably early in 1820.
The little that is known of Clark Bentom’s life comes mainly from his own pen. Possibly orphaned as a child, since he never mentions his parents, he became at about age 19 a footman to William Wilberforce, the British abolitionist, and was apparently much influenced by him. When Bentom was about 24 he was accepted into the Missionary Society, formed in 1795 and later known as the London Missionary Society. He was ordained on 13 Nov. 1798, and on 20 December, in company with some 27 other missionaries, he set sail for “Otaheiti” (Tahiti). However, the group’s ship, the Duff, was captured by a French privateer off Montevideo (Uruguay), and only in October 1799 were the missionaries able to return to England, by way of Lisbon, Portugal. Reporting to the society in 1800 on the conduct of the missionaries, the British philanthropist Zachary Macaulay stated that Bentom “had a good deal of information, but was conceited uppish and overbearing,” and that he had abused one of the group “for a Coward in Religion because he declined Singing when on board the Privateer.” During his captivity Bentom had apparently been impressed, by a fellow prisoner, Dr Samuel Turner, and after his return to London he studied surgery at the Lock Hospital, undoubtedly seeing medicine as another means to climb the social ladder.
A request for a minister having come to the society from a congregation at Quebec, Bentom was asked to go. On 24 March 1800 he and another missionary, John Mitchell, sailed from Liverpool on board the Ephron, which, although it encountered no French privateers during the crossing, on two occasions experienced anxious moments at the appearance in the distance of unidentified ships. Bentom and Mitchell arrived at Quebec on 1 June to find the colony agitated by rumours of Napoleon Bonaparte’s designs to reconquer it for France. “Our coming here has occasioned much conversation among all descriptions of persons,” Bentom noted in his journal. “Some report us as Aliens and perhaps Conspirators. Others ask us if we are of respectability if we have brought letters of recommendation to any of the ‘gentry’ ie visitants of the Chateau the residence of the governor. It is esteemed great presumption . . . to invite preachers from England without the concurrence of the ‘Superior Orders.’” Bentom was asked by the little congregation to remain at Quebec; Mitchell proceeded to Montreal. Bentom’s congregation consisted mostly of evangelical former members of the Presbyterian Scotch Church. A request to share that congregation’s room (used during the week as a court-house) in the Jesuit college was rejected by the Presbyterian minister, Alexander Spark. By July a room capable of holding 200 people had been rented from one of Spark’s elders, who also attended Bentom’s services, and in the first few months it was filled to capacity by the curious. They soon ceased to return, however, and the congregation had dropped to 37 members by January 1801, when, at its request, Bentom “formed a church as nearly Presbyterian as circumstances would admit.” By October 1801 he reported having 50 to 60 communicants. To supplement his meagre income he occasionally practised surgery.
Bentom, like most clergymen of this period, was fairly critical of his fellow ministers. He confided to his journal that Spark appeared to be “in a way as old as Satan’s rebellion.” Of the Anglican bishop of Quebec, Jacob Mountain*, he wrote in his journal: “I am sadly afeard his Lordship is at present nothing but an unprofitable servant and unless mercy prevent will be cast into outer darkness for ever. I really never saw so much pride ascend a pulpit before it is so evident that few perceive it not. This makes him little beloved and little thought of.” The bishop did not extend the hand of friendship either and must have let his feelings be known in Quebec society. In 1801 he described Bentom to the archbishop of Canterbury, John Moore, as “a very young man, but remarkably confident; and possessing that sort of noisy and random eloquence which captivates weak and enthusiastic people.” He added that Bentom had “not scrupled to perform the ceremony of mock Marriage for some of his deluded followers.” To Mountain, it was inconceivable that registers of civil status could be given to clergymen other than those of the Church of England, the Roman Catholic Church, or (and he was grudging here) the Church of Scotland.
Bentom, who claimed the right to carry out normal ministerial functions, baptized, married, and buried in spite of increasing pressure from Mountain and Attorney General Jonathan Sewell*, the bishop’s close friend. In 1801 and 1802 he succeeded in having his registers authorized by Thomas Dunn, a judge of the Court of King’s Bench. In January 1803, however, authorization was refused. As a matter of conscience, Bentom continued to perform ceremonies without a register, and in March he was charged by Sewell with illegally exercising the office of a clergyman. The trial was delayed, and in 1804, while on a missionary tour of New York, Bentom had an inflammatory pamphlet printed which explained his position. After his return to Quebec the same year, he lost the case to hold registers and was consequently forbidden to act as a minister in the colony. Moreover, he was later found guilty of having libelled ministers of the crown in his pamphlet. He was sentenced to six months in jail from 1 Nov. 1804 to 30 April 1805, fined £50, and ordered to deposit a bond of £300 as security that he would keep the peace. The fine was paid by “Christian friends” at Glasgow, Scotland, principally the great philanthropist David Dale. During his imprisonment his congregation and other friends stood by him, and after his release an unrepentant Bentom performed two marriages and two baptisms in the three-month period before he set sail for England early in August 1805.
In England Bentom was disappointed by the reaction of the Missionary Society to his plea for assistance. It had not helped him during his troubles, and it did not intend to help him afterwards. Consequently Bentom left the society, no doubt to its relief, and enlisted in the Royal Navy as a ship’s surgeon. He very likely joined the squadron, under the command of Rear-Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren, that sailed for Madeira and the West Indies in late January 1806. Bentom served as a ship’s surgeon for several years, possibly until Napoleon I was defeated at Waterloo in 1815. He then retired to Jamaica, where he died, probably early in 1820.
Bentom lived at the end of an age. It fell to him to oppose his common sense to a too rigid ecclesiastical and legal structure. It would have been easy for him, after having climbed the social ladder from footman to missionary and surgeon, to have complied with the wishes of Mountain and the “Superior Orders” of Quebec society. He might then perhaps have been accepted by them, or at least have avoided their harassment. But this independent Englishman had a robust, outspoken courage and a conscience that would not let him compromise on matters of principle. In a letter to the Missionary Society on 28 Nov. 1804 he stated, “As a man and a citizen I have acted uprightly whether altogether becoming the character of a meek and humble christian is a point that must be left to my conscience when I have peace free from the hands of my enemies – But when a man becomes a christian among us must he cease to be an Englishman?” He suffered for what he believed, and in so doing struck a blow against the presumption of the Church of England that it should be regarded legally as the established church in the colony. Clark Bentom played his part in advancing the rights of nonconformists to worship as they chose and be recognized and protected by law.
Clark Bentom is the author of “Journal and observations on my passage to Quebec arrival &c” in the Council for World Mission Arch., Methodist Missionary Soc., at the School of Oriental and African Studies, Univ. of London (London). A microfilm copy of this manuscript is available at ANQ-Q. Bentom published Talebearing a great sin, a sermon preached Lord’s Day February 22, 1801; to which is added thoughts on the glorious gospel of Christ (Quebec, 1801) and A statement of facts and law relative to the prosecution of the Rev. Clark Bentom, Protestant missionary from the London Missionary Society, for the assumption of the office of a dissenting minister of the gospel in Quebec, by the king’s attorney general of Lower Canada (Troy, N.Y., 1804).
C. S. Cook (Ottawa) has in his possession a copy of George Spratt, “A history of the church and congregation meeting for worship in St. John’s Chapel, St. Francis St., Quebec.” AP, Chalmers-Wesley United Church (Quebec), Reg. of baptisms, marriages, and burials, 1801–5. School of Oriental and African Studies, Univ. of London, Council for World Mission Arch., Methodist Missionary Soc., Corr., folder 7, nos. 1, 3–8, 15, 18, 21–22, 24–28 (mfm. at ANQ-Q); Candidates papers, 15 Aug. 1798; London Missionary Soc., Board minutes, 11 Nov. 1799; North American corr., 28 Nov. 1804. [James Kerr], Letter to Mr. Clark Bentom ([Quebec, 1804]). “Religious intelligence,” Missionary Magazine (Edinburgh), 10 (1805): 440–42. London Missionary Society; a register of missionaries, deputations etc., from 1796 to 1923, ed. James Sibree (London, 1923). Richard Lovett, The history of the London Missionary Society, 1795–1895 (2v., London, 1899), 1: 64. Rev. Dr. Burns, “A visit to Quebec and Lower Canada . . . , Nov. and Dec. 1852,” Ecclesiastical and Missionary Record for the Presbyterian Church of Canada (Toronto), 9 (1852–53): 57. W. R. Riddell, “When a few claimed monopoly of spiritual functions: Canadian state trials – the king against Clark Bentom,” OH, 22 (1925): 202–9.