WM itinerant, born on 25 January 1749 (N.S.) in Melmerby, Kirkoswald, Cumberland, where he was educated by a Presbyterian minister. He was a studious youth and had some thought of taking Anglican orders; but having encountered the Methodists he travelled to London to meet John Wesley and eventually met him in Bristol. While still in his teens was appointed classics master at Kingswood School, where, with some hesitation, he began preaching to the miners. In 1769 he enrolled at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford, but within months, on the recommendation of John Fletcher, was appointed 'headmaster' at Lady Huntingdon's college at Trevecka. Together with Fletcher he left after nine months because of the renewed dispute between the Calvinist and Arminian wings of Methodism in 1770. He returned to Oxford, but, failing to gain support for taking Orders, he became a Methodist itinerant.
From 1771 to 1800 he served mostly in northern circuits and was a close friend and confidant of Wesley, with whom he corresponded frequently. A conservative sympathetic to the 'Church Methodists', in 1775 he joined with Fletcher in proposing a scheme to the Conference for keeping the Methodists within the Church by the ordaining of suitably qualified itinerants and by using Kingswood School to train others for the ministry. At the 1780 Conference he was cleared of charges by Thomas Coke of holding Arian views on the person of Christ. In the dispute at Bristol in 1794 he caused concern to his colleagues by siding with the New Room trustees in opposing the administration of the Sacrament by the itinerants. He had a high concept of the Pastoral Office and strongly opposed Kilham's radicalism, seeing great danger in giving people the power to appoint and dismiss the Preachers. He was twice President of the Conference, in 1798 and 1810.
One of the leading Methodist scholars of his time, following John Fletcher's death in 1785, Benson undertook with Wesley's encouragement to complete Fletcher's response to Joseph Priestley's History of the Corruptions of Christianity. He also produced A Defence of the Methodists (against Dr Edward Tatham of Oxford) and A Farther Defence (both 1793), a life of Fletcher (1804, frequently reprinted) and a five-volume Commentary (1810-1818). As editor at the Book Room 1804-1821 he gave new life to the Magazine and produced a new edition of John Wesley's Works in 16 octavo volumes (1809-1813). James Everett described his life as a 'monotony of greatness'. He died in London on 16 February 1821 and was buried at Wesley's Chapel.
His eldest daughter Ann, born at Sheffield on 29 June 1786, was given a good classical education by her father. She married a Mr. Mather in 1811. The family emigrated to Tasmania in the hope that the climate wouild bebefit her health, but she died there in 1831.
'His whole external appearance was utterly opposed to the dignity and majesty we attach to the orator … When in the pulpit, his hands were often either employed with, or resting on the Bible and the cushion… His voice had but little compass, and was sometimes shrill to a cry or a squeak, like that of the celebrated Charles Fox… All, however, whether shrill or low, conversational or vehement, was forgotten, the moment the torrent began to pour…
'It cannot, with any propriety, be affirmed of him, that he was a close reasoner, or an argumentative speaker. His discourse was not a long chain of ratiocination; nor did it bear any affinity to Euclid's demonstrations; it was more frequently a doctrine, with its connexions and dependencies, with one text of scripture added to another for its support - then a thunderclap at the close…. Benson's understanding may be considered as having been eminently theological. He could conduct a theological argument with the most perfect success; and his familiarity with the sacred text rendered him great in the pulpit - being looked up to by others than Wesleyans as one of the most eminent divines in his day. His memory was accurate and retentive in an extraordinary degree, … he never forgot anything - not even a text of scripture essential to his sermon or necessary to any single point of doctrine…
'Joseph Benson was a hard student; - four or five hours out of the twenty-four generally sufficed for sleep; - and when he awoke, he neither lay in bed, nor lolled on the sofa, reading newspapers the day long.'
Wesleyan Takings (1840), pp.215-31