First UU Teacher in America

Unitarian Universalists prefer that personal experiences, rather than scriptural texts, determine one’s core values. One prominent example is Dr. George de Benneville (1703-1793), a physician and friend of Benjamin Franklin, who brought Universalism to America.

George was raised by his godmother, Queen Anne of England. His parents were French aristocrats, who fled to England’s Royal Court because they were Protestants threatened by the ruling French Catholic crown.

George had a privileged childhood in London. He went to sea as a teen, to learn navigation, as a midshipman on a war vessel bound for the Barbary Coast.  At this point in his life, he believed that he “belonged to a different class from mankind in general [and was] self-exalted.”

His ship docked in Algiers. One morning, he was reclining on the deck, when “loud noises came from a group of Moors on the pier who brought refreshments to sell.”

Disgusted and furious, de Benneville ordered his servant to bring the group before him. He reprimanded them for their outcries. They begged his pardon, and told him that a brother had fallen and injured his leg, so they kissed the wound to sympathize with him, shed tears upon it as they believed tears were a helpful remedy for the hurt; and cried out to the rising sun to implore its Creator to have compassion and heal the wounded man.

Upon hearing how totally he’d misunderstood their behavior, de Benneville realized deep in his heart how misguided so many of the judgments that he, and many other people of his time, make about each other.

This led him to question religious divisions among people and to form his Universalist belief that “no church is pure in all things, and none can be found that does not contain some truth. Glorious truths are found in every religion under the sun. And, when they understand, this glorious chain of truths will someday unite all of them into one form of love.”

[SUUF Member Paul Friedman continues to provide weekly articles for publication in the Red Rock News. This article – or a variation thereof – appeared in the Mar 3, 2023 issue]