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Benson, Sir Clarence Irving (1897–1980)

by Renate Howe

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Sir Clarence Irving Benson (1897-1980), Methodist clergyman and journalist, was born on 1 December 1897 at Hull, Yorkshire, England, son of Walter Benson, ship foreman, and his second wife Mary, née Mear, a staunch Methodist and Sunday School teacher. Educated at local schools and at Hull Technical College, he developed an interest in literature and history. In 1916 he enrolled at Cliff College, Sheffield, an evangelical training institute for lay missionaries, and in May departed for Australia. He arrived in Melbourne 'as a stranger in a strange land'.

The Victorian Methodist Home Missionary Society appointed him to Cavendish, near Hamilton, where the young man's preaching soon attracted attention. He kept notebooks which documented the careful preparation of his sermons. His conversational style of preaching and well-modulated voice complemented his tall and commanding—if rather austere—presence. In 1918 Benson was accepted as a probationer for the Methodist ministry and appointed to Toorak, Melbourne. There he became a protégé of Rev. W. H. Fitchett whom Benson described as being 'like a father to him' and who encouraged him to write. In 1923 Benson began to contribute a weekly column, 'Church and People', to the Herald. Appearing every Saturday until 1979, it made him widely known beyond the Methodist denomination.

On 14 April 1919 at the Methodist Church, Toorak, Benson had married Agnes Lyell. Ordained in April 1922, he ministered at the Albion Street Church, Brunswick, until recruited in 1926 to Central Methodist Mission at Wesley Church. Occupying the pulpit of Melbourne's most important Methodist church enabled Benson to build a large congregation, especially for his Sunday-evening book sermons and winter lecture series. He was appointed superintendent minister in 1933, a position he held until his retirement in 1967. During these years he became Melbourne's best-known and most controversial minister through the forthright comments he made on public issues in radio broadcasts, such as his 'Questions and Answers' programme (1938-44) on 3LO, in his Herald articles and at the mission's Pleasant Sunday Afternoon gatherings.

Under Benson's direction the P.S.A. became a national institution. He chose a range of speakers and issues, but the overall thrust reflected his belief in spiritual renewal rather than in an interventionist state as the way forward in the postwar period. Its platform was used to promote moral rearmament in the 1940s and anti-communism in the Cold War years. The most frequent speakers were (Sir) Robert Menzies and R. G. (Baron) Casey, whom Benson counted among his friends. Broadcasts of the P.S.A., at first on 3LO and then on 3DB, had by the 1950s an Australia-wide audience, attracted by well-known orators, musical soloists and Benson's opening comments on current issues. He also used the programme to plead for donations to the mission's work.

An enthusiastic Anglophile and patriot, Benson gave broadcasts and published articles which reflected his admiration of (Sir) Winston Churchill, the royal family and the British Empire, while Anzac Day and the main battles of World War II were given special attention. He perceived a moral crisis in the 1950s, and often focussed on liquor and gambling, together with the growing consumer society, as contributing factors. Benson's writing style was more suited to journalism than to books: his sermons and articles were compiled rather than written, and drew on his personal library as well as an extensively-indexed collection of newspaper and magazine cuttings. His published monographs included A Century of Victorian Methodism (1935), The Eight Points of the Oxford Group (1936), and The Man with the Donkey (1965) which presented a selective, heroic interpretation of the Australian legend of Simpson.

Possessing a large personal library, Benson was an avid collector who bought and sold books, manuscripts and autographs. In the public sphere, he was trustee (1942-46) of the Public Library, museums and National Gallery of Victoria (vice-chairman 1945), chairman (1946-66) of trustees of the Public Library of Victoria and deputy-chairman (from 1966) of its successor, the Library Council of Victoria. He was also president (1938-49) of the Library Association of Victoria and chairman (1947-56) of the Free Library Service Board. Having himself substituted the reading of books for his lack of formal education, he regarded libraries as 'a practical demonstration of democracy's faith in universal education as a life-long process'. The main exhibition area of the State Library of Victoria, opened in 1967, was named Irving Benson Hall, though by this time Benson and the council had been criticized for the management of the library, and for its failure to expand and attract resources.

Although he had been elected president of the Victoria and Tasmania Conference of the Methodist Church of Australasia in 1943, Benson used his image and his fund-raising ability to distance himself from the conference. Many of his public statements were in opposition to Church resolutions, and his links with the commercial and political elite of Melbourne—reflected in his membership of the Melbourne and Savage clubs—were regarded with ambivalence. Benson had his supporters and admirers within the Church, but he did not actively participate in denominational committees or in decision making. Late in his career at the mission, he disagreed bitterly with the conference when it voted to support later closing-hours for hotels, and clashed with it over the appointment of his successor. At Benson's farewell, a former minister of the mission observed that, like all great men, Benson had not escaped criticism and that 'probably the criticism from within the Church has been greater than from outside'.

Benson had an international reputation as preacher and journalist. In 1939 the University of Toronto, Canada, awarded him an honorary D.D. He was appointed C.B.E. in 1960 and knighted in 1963. In stature and personality he was a dominating figure whose conservative views on church and society were shared by many Australians, yet his reserved and often supercilious manner prevented him from being a popular Church leader. After twenty-three years as a widower, Sir Irving married Marjorie Ruth Featonby on 30 December 1967 at Wesley Church. He died on 6 December 1980 and was buried in Brighton cemetery; his wife survived him, as did the three daughters of his first marriage.

Select Bibliography

  • Age (Melbourne), 8 Dec 1980
  • Irving Benson collection (State Library of Victoria)
  • Wesley Church Mission records (Wesley Church Mission, Melbourne).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Renate Howe, 'Benson, Sir Clarence Irving (1897–1980)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/benson-sir-clarence-irving-9493/text16705, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 6 December 2016.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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