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Bentley, William



  • Existence: 1749 -- 1819 - 1819



William Bentley (1749-1819) graduated from the Harvard College class of 1777. He worked as schoolmaster at the Boston Latin School and preceptor of the North Grammar School before returning to Harvard as a Latin and Greek tutor, where he remained until 1783, when he received a call to the ministry. For the rest of his life he served as pastor for the East Church (Second Congregational Church) in Salem, Massachusetts. He was one of the first ministers to declare himself Unitarian and he continued to be a serious scholar throughout his life.

William Bentley was born in Boston on June 22, 1759, the son of Joshua and Elizabeth Bentley. Very little is known Bentley's early life and childhood. At fourteen years of age Bentley went to Cambridge and entered Harvard College where he graduated with distinction as a member of the class of 1777. After graduation he spent a few years as a schoolmaster serving at the Boston Latin School. Later, he became preceptor of the North Grammar School, also in Boston. From the North School Bentley returned to Cambridge and Harvard, this time as a Latin and Greek tutor where he remained until 1783, when he received a call to the ministry. This call came from the East Church (Second Congregational Church) in Salem, Massachusetts. The East Society tendered Bentley the offer of a joint-pastorate with the Reverend James Diman. Upon meeting the requirements to the apparent satisfaction of all parties, Bentley was ordained on September 24, 1783.

From the outset, however, the joint-pastorate did not work out. Diman seemed to resent his junior colleague and neglected him both officially and privately. Bentley, aware of these slights, brought them to the attention of the congregation and gained some concessions. Any new-found harmony between the two pastors was short-lived, and the rivalry began anew. Rather than support the established pastor the congregation sided with Bentley. Barely two years after Bentley's ordination Diman's association with East Church ended. He was dismissed, and William Bentley became sole pastor. He held that post until his death over thirty years later.

While principally a man of religion Bentley also established himself in secular affairs in Salem. He took a great interest in political, commercial and social events of his town, his nation and the world. His diary attests to this and even today remains a valuable source of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century life in America. Bentley remained a serious scholar all his life and had one of the largest private libraries (over 4,000 volumes) and Persian, Arabic and Chinese manuscripts in the US of the time; he also collected natural history specimens and coins. He had a special facility for languages, he could communicate in over twenty, including classical, Near Eastern, and modern European, and spoke seven languages fluently. He numbered among his correspondents some of the more prominent contemporary scholars of Europe and America and wrote columns in the Salem Gazette and Salem Register from 1797 to 1817 touching on most major US and foreign issues of the time. His diaries were later published.

For all his devotion to scholarly pursuits and political and commercial matters, these were avocations. Bentley's vocation was religion, raised in the stricter doctrines of New England Puritanism, he soon found a more liberal brand of theology to his liking. Through study and meditation Bentley found himself becoming more and more a Unitarian. In fact he became one of the first American ministers to openly declare himself and he pioneered the rise of Unitarianism in Salem. Bentley opened his pulpit to nearly all denominations. In keeping with his Unitarian faith Bentley introduced a more liberal catechism and church music into his congregation and encouraged and supported the teaching of choral music to women.

In later years Bentley continued to amass honors. He was asked to become Chaplain of the United States Congress, and Thomas Jefferson offered him the presidency of the University of Virginia. Both of these offers he declined in order to remain with his Salem congregation. Shortly before his death Harvard honored Bentley with the doctor of divinity degree, a most cherished ornament to a theologian's career. However, because Bentley had been upset at not having received the honorary degree earlier he left his library to the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, and to the Allegheny College, rather than to Harvard.

Bentley died in Salem on December 29, 1819.

Found in 1 Collection or Record:

William Bentley Papers

Call Number: MS009
Scope and Contents

There are over one thousand sermons in the collection along with a few devotional exercises, miscellaneous manuscripts and bound volumes. The handwritten sermons are arranged numerically (essentially chronologically) as numbered by Bentley himself. They are on a variety of subjects. Bentley's diaries are not part of this collection but are in the collection of the American Antiquarian Society.

Dates: Majority of material found within 1783 -- 1819; 1783 -- 1819