I have crept down dark alleys, slithered through muddy basements, walked through crumbling buildings, and braved encounters with all sorts of unsavory characters, all in the pursuit of Philly’s mysteries. Meanwhile, I spent years driving past one of the city’s oldest treasures without a clue that it was right there on the side of the road. And I mean right there on North Broad Street, where thousands of people pass it each day, clueless about what it is and its historical significance.
It’s understandable. People are busy and have places to be, and all you can see passing by is a tall but narrow stone wall. The stone speaks of antiquity, but only to those who are listening. It gives no clue to what it contains or why it is there. It could easily be mistaken for a foundation to some long gone structure. It seems too small to contain much of anything, but it does. For this odd little sliver of West Oak Lane is actually the de Benneville family cemetery, which dates back to 1758.
The cemetery was created by Dr. George de Benneville, Sr. Born July 26, 1703, he was the youngest of nine children. His parents were Huguenot refugees who fled to England, where George was raised in London, in the royal court. His godmother was none other than Queen Anne. At the age of 12 he set sail as a midshipman, traveling to the Barbary Coast and Algiers. He later returned to England where he had a vision of himself “burning as a firebrand in hell.” This was the beginning of more than a year of depression which finally ended with a vision of Christ telling him he had been redeemed and forgiven for all of his sins. He attempted to share his religious fervor (and the idea that all people could be saved) with the French Calvinist church in London. They responded by denying him membership.
At the age of 17, George left to preach for France, but found little welcome. He was arrested several times and was condemned to death. He was on his knees awaiting the executioner’s axe, when he received a pardon from King Louis XV. Not wishing to push his luck any further, de Benneville headed to Germany, where religious radicals were more welcome. From 1723 to 1741, he preached around Germany and the Netherlands, while associating with various radical groups such as the Dunkers, Schwenkfelders and Rosicrucians. Here his ideas became more realized, and he preached a faith that stressed searching within one self for the divine, while deemphasizing traditional ritual and doctrine. His beliefs in the importance of pacifism, mysticism, and the separation of church and state would later find a welcoming home in Philadelphia.
Towards the end of his stay in Germany, de Benneville was struck by a severe fever and was not expected to survive. According to the story, he was declared dead but awoke 42 hours later, in his coffin. This experience drove George to preach a new message of “the universal and everlasting gospel of boundless, universal love for the entire human race.” He attracted much attention with his new message, not all of it welcome, and he was briefly arrested again. In 1741, de Benneville followed the path of many of the German sects he had known and headed to America to provide spiritual and medical services to communities in need.
De Benneville truly practiced what he preached, actively associating with various communities groups. He even befriended the local Native American tribes, seeing validity in all spiritual beliefs. From them he learned about local herbal remedies which he added to his medical knowledge. During the Battle of Germantown, de Benneville stayed true to his ideals and treated wounded from both sides of the war. Later, when the commander of the British forces expressed concern over the burial of two of his officers, de Benneville volunteered space in the family plot for them to be interred. He continued to practice medicine and to preach his teachings right up until the end of his life at 90 years of age. His son, George Jr. followed his father and also became a physician. All are buried there in the family plot, behind the anonymous wall, on North Broad Street.
Note, the large, eroded slab that sits above the British graves reads:
Here lie the remains of General James Tanner Agnew a British Officer who was killed at Germantown on the 4th of October 1777 and of Lieutenant Colonel John Bird a British Officer who died in Germantown on or about the 4th of October 1777. The bodies of the above were removed from the Lower Burial ground Germantown by the order of General Howe and placed in this cemetery with the consent of Doctor George de Benneville in May 1778. Requiescat in Pace. This stone was erected in their memory by His Britannic Majesty’s Government October 4th 1903.