Bennis, Elizabeth (Eliza) (1725–1802), methodist activist and diarist, was probably born in Limerick, one of two surviving daughters of Isaac and Alice (née Mitchell) Patten . The Pattens were presbyterian, and Elizabeth had a conventionally pious upbringing and evidently received a good education. An omnivorous reader, as an adolescent she was deeply impressed by Joseph Alleine's classic work of seventeenth-century evangelicalism, An alarm to the unconverted (1671), but she continued to be troubled by a sense of spiritual emptiness and longed for 'a Christian friend … to whom I might declare all that passed in my heart' (Journal, 175).
Elizabeth's father died when she was eighteen. Two years later, in 1745, she married her cousin Mitchell Bennis, son of James and Elinor (née Mitchell) Bennis, and set up home in Bow Lane in Limerick, where Mitchell carried on a saddlery and hardware business. Four of the couple's children survived to adulthood: the eldest, Eleanor, was born in 1748, followed some years later by Thomas and Henry, and finally Elizabeth, born in 1765. She also played an active part in the family business, deputising for her husband in the shop during his absences, and later assisting Thomas to set up his own business in Limerick.
Bennis's first encounter with methodism occurred on the morning of 17 March 1749, when Robert Swindells, the first Wesleyan preacher to visit Limerick, passed by her door on his way to preach at the Castle gate. Initially disapproving, she was persuaded to attend the evening sermon, and was much affected. When a methodist society was founded in Limerick about a month later, she was one of the first to join. Not long afterwards, on 23 June 1749, she made the first entry in the journal in which for the following thirty years she would minutely assess her behaviour, state of mind and spiritual development.
Intelligent, zealous and able, Bennis soon achieved a position of leadership in her local society. In 1753 she reluctantly assumed leadership of a band, a small group which met weekly for worship, prayer and personal testimony, and when John Wesley (qv) visited Limerick in 1758 he substantially increased her responsibilities by appointing her leader of a class. Meanwhile, she embarked on a voluminous correspondence with preachers such as Thomas Walsh, John McGregor (qv), Samuel Bradburn, and John Stretton, a Limerick man who emigrated to Newfoundland and became one of the first methodist missionaries in the region. Her most significant correspondence, however, was with Wesley himself. Her first surviving letter to him dates from 1763 and, like most of her early letters, was primarily concerned with matters of faith and spirituality. As his confidence in her increased, however, Wesley encouraged her to ever greater activity, sought her views on the state of methodism and the performance of the preachers, and urged her to make contact with potential recruits. In 1769 her admiration for Richard Bourke, then stationed preacher in Limerick, prompted her to seek the extension of his stay for a further year, the earliest example, according to Crookshank, 'of the voice of the people being heard in connection with a preaching appointment', and when a dispute threatened the unity of the Limerick society in 1770, Wesley commissioned her to exert her influence to restore order. Her intervention was successful, and her suggestion of the appointment of 'a succession of strange preachers' to reignite members' fervour was approved by Wesley as 'preferable to any which I have heard proposed' (Journal, 44).
In 1768 Eleanor Bennis married Jonas Bull of Waterford, and in late 1769 Elizabeth visited her there for the first time. In the course of her two-month stay she immersed herself in the life of the local congregation, reporting to Wesley on conditions in the Waterford society and on the need for an unmarried resident preacher as 'the people are poor, and think the expense of a preacher's horse and family more than they can well bear' (8 July 1770, Christian correspondence). On her frequent visits over the next few years, she devoted much of her time to fostering methodism in the city, and by April 1772 was able to report that the Waterford society was in a thriving condition, with three preachers on the circuit, all fully employed.
While Bennis's journal is primarily concerned with her own spiritual development and with her role within methodism, it also touches on more mundane matters, notably the care of her children and household and her involvement in the family business. Despite her undoubted affection for her husband, Bennis repeatedly expressed disapproval of his extravagance and poor judgement, and recorded a series of financial crises alternating with periods of prosperity. Sometime during the 1780s, however, the Bennis fortunes went into steep and irreversible decline. According to Bennis's American grandson Henry, the family's financial collapse was precipitated by 'grandfather making a bad speculation in buying some property, & father endorsing his notes', as a result of which 'both of them had to close up together' ('Recollections of Henry Bennis', 68).
Mitchell died in 1788, and in the following year six houses which had belonged to him and to his elder son, Thomas, were advertised for sale by bankrupt's auction. At about the same time Elizabeth moved to Waterford, where she maintained her association with methodism. During this period, however, her financial difficulties were augmented by some unspecified scandal within her family, and in 1792 she and Thomas left Ireland for North America. They settled for a few years in New York before moving to Philadelphia in about 1796. According to her grandson, Elizabeth, together with Thomas and his wife, Ann, joined St George's Methodist Episcopal Church in Philadelphia, and was among the group which split from the congregation in 1801, and went on to form Union Methodist Episcopal Church. However, her name is not included on St George's membership list for the period, and she seems to have made little impression in her new home. She died in Philadelphia in June 1802, aged seventy-seven.
In 1809 Thomas Bennis published an edited version of his mother's correspondence with John Wesley and other methodist preachers. Her journals passed to her descendants, and from them into the care of two repositories: the first volume (1749–64) to Willamette University, Oregon, and the second (1764–79) to the archives of St George's United Methodist Church in Philadelphia, which also holds some of her correspondence. A further collection of her papers is held by the Wesleyan, Holiness, Pentecostal Research Center of Asbury Theological Seminary, Wilmore, Kentucky. A pastel portrait (unsigned) of Elizabeth Bennis is in Winterthur Museum, Delaware, together with an appliqué quilt made by her. Another quilt, signed 'EB' and dated 1795, is in the Smithsonian Institute, Washington DC.