Skip to main content

William Bentley (1759-1819) Papers

William Bentley (1759-1819) Papers

1 of 2
Open Finding Aid
small (250x250 max)
medium (500x500 max)
Extra Large
large ( > 500x500)
Full Resolution

WILLIAM BENTLEY (1759-1819) PAPERS, 1700, 1776-1819


Processing of this collection was funded by a grant from the NHPRC (National Historical Publications and Records Commission).

Collection Summary

Repository:The Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum 132 Essex Street Salem, MA 01970 Phone: 978-745-9500 Fax: 978-531-1516
Creator:Bentley, William, 1759-1819
Title:William Bentley (1759-1819) Papers
Dates:1700, 1776/1819
Quantity:1.75 linear feet (2 boxes)
Abstract:The collection contains correspondence, sermons, and other material belonging to Rev. William Bentley, a Salem, Massachusetts minister.
Identification:MH 36

Series List

SERIES I. Personal Papers
A. Correspondence
B. Printed Material
SERIES II. Miscellaneous

Scope and Content Note

The collection contains correspondence, sermons, and other material belonging to Rev. William Bentley. It has been organized into two series. The material is arranged chronologically within subseries.

Series I. Personal Papers consists of two subseries. Subseries A. Correspondence includes correspondence with many people, ranging from an old Marblehead sailor to a gentleman in Martinique to Elbridge Gerry, Vice President during the administration of President James Madison. The correspondence deals mainly with political affairs and scholarly activities, especially the study of linguistics. Subseries B. Printed Materials includes a sermon delivered on the occasion of the death of one of his parishioners and an address delivered "upon the festival of Saint John the Baptist." Two handwritten sermons numbered 1171 and 1231 were removed and incorporated into the Sermon Collection of William Bentley (SER 12).

Series II. Miscellaneous consists of a manuscript booklet describing the island of Saint Michaels, instructions for trading in various countries, newspaper clippings, and genealogical material relating to the Crowninshield family. It also includes a manuscript booklet dated 1776 which starts, “The book from which this was taken was the only one I could meet with in London, being out of print."

Biographical Sketch

William Bentley was born on June 22, 1759, in Boston, the son of Joshua Bentley and Elizabeth Paine. Bentley's grandfather, William Paine, was the benefactor of his education at Harvard College which he entered in 1773 at the age of fourteen. After graduating with high honors in 1777, Bentley taught at Boston grammar schools for three years, until he was appointed a tutor in Latin and Greek at Harvard. During this time, he developed a growing reputation as a popular speaker in Boston.

On September 24, 1783, Bentley was ordained as the pastor of the East Church in Salem, Massachusetts. He served as a co-pastor for two years before becoming the sole pastor of East Church in 1785, a position he held until his death.

Rev. Bentley was an accomplished scholar who had a reading knowledge of more than twenty different languages, including a familiarity with Arabic and Persian. He also wrote and spoke most of the popular European languages. Rev. Bentley also had many varied interests including, but not limited to, natural history, coins, and rare books. His days were filled with writing sermons for the forthcoming Sabbath, writing to his many correspondents both in the United States and abroad, reading books in both English and foreign languages, and recording detailed information in his diaries of the births, baptisms, marriages, illnesses, and deaths that had occurred in the parish, and the arrival and departure of all sailing vessels owned by parishioners. Rev. Bentley also contributed to the town newspapers, The Gazette and The Republic by writing two columns twice a week for close to thirty years.

During the administration of President Thomas Jefferson, he was a candidate for the chaplaincy in Congress, a position he declined. Later, when Jefferson was planning the construction of the University of Virginia, he not only consulted with Bentley, he also extended Bentley the honor of becoming the University's first president but Bentley declined this position too, citing "he had been so long wedded to the East Church, he could not think of asking a divorce from it."

Rev. Bentley died unexpectedly from angina pectoris in the Crowninshield home on December 29, 1819.

Index Terms

This collection is indexed under the following headings in Philcat. Researchers desiring materials about related topics, persons, or places should search the catalog using these headings.

Alden, Timothy, 1771-1839
Bentley, William, 1759-1819
Bowen, Ashley, 1728-1813
Fowle, William Bentley, 1795-1865
Gerry, Elbridge, 1744-1814
Varnum, Joseph B. (Joseph Bradley), 1751-1821
Walsh, Michael, 1763-1840
Whitefoot, Samuel
U.S. Customs Service
Tutors and tutoring
United States - Politics and government
Salem (Mass.)


Restrictions on Access

This collection is open for research use.

Administrative Information


Request for permission to publish material from the collection must be submitted in writing to the Manuscript Librarian in the Phillips Library at the Peabody Essex Museum.

Preferred Citation

William Bentley (1759-1819) Papers, MH 36, Phillips Library, Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Mass.


The provenance of the bulk of this collection is unknown. The copy of Bentley's will was a gift of the Bostonian Society in 1965. The bookplate was a gift of Miss Etta Falkner in 1972. The manuscript booklet entitled “Memoria technica…” was part of Bentley’s manuscript library which he bequeathed to the American Antiquarian Society in Worcester, Massachusetts, at his death in 1819. Formerly housed in the library of the AAS, the manuscript is currently on indefinite loan to the Peabody Essex Museum of Salem, Massachusetts. Two letters to Bentley from Ashley Bowen dated 1808 and 1809 (box 1 folder 6) were purchased in April 2018 (acc #2018.004).

Processing Information

Collection processed and cataloged by Jennifer J. Quan in June 2012 and revised by Tamara Gaydos in May 2013, October 2016, and May 2018.

Related Material

Bentley, William. The Diary of William Bentley, D.D., Volume 1-4. Salem: Essex Institute, 1905.

Johnson, Allen, ed. Dictionary of American Biography, Volume 1. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1957.

Sermon Collection of William Bentley SER 12 and SER 1

William Bentley Middle Eastern Language Manuscripts Collection, circa 1692-1806, MSS 488

you wish to report:

Select the collections to add or remove from your search