“I realized death. My faith it is true, was weak, but my hopes in the mercy of God, in a Redeemer, were strong. It pleased God to restore me and for some time afterwards to continue upon my mind a considerable sense of divine things.”
Benjamin Rush, a signer of the Declaration of Independence, was an outspoken opponent of slavery in the late 1700s. Rush believed that all men were created equal and that slavery was against God. Rush was also a supporter of the American Revolution and founded Dickinson College. As a social reformer, he advocated for free public schools, better education for women, humane improvements to the prison system, and public health measures.
Rush, a leading physician in Philadelphia, impacted the medical profession in early America and paved the way for later medical research. His research and publications on mental illness led to the founding of the American Psychiatry Association. He was also one of the first doctors to recommend that the mentally ill should be treated, not imprisoned. As an educator, Rush wrote the first American textbook on chemistry.
As a politician, Rush was involved with the Sons of Liberty and then the Continental Congress. In 1776 Rush was elected to represent Philadelphia, and he signed the Declaration of Independence. Rush was also a surgeon in the Continental Army.
Rush became a bold and respected voice against slavery after witnessing hundreds of slave ships in England. In 1787 he joined the Pennsylvania Abolitionist Society, one of the first in early America, and he authored its constitution. Rush worked with Philadelphia’s African American community and even helped found the city’s first black church. Rush used science to argue against false beliefs that African Americans were intellectually or morally inferior to whites, a justification for slavery. In writing against slavery in the new nation of America, Rush stated, “Remember that national crimes require national punishments and without declaring what punishment awaits this evil, you may venture to assure them that it cannot pass with impunity, unless God shall cease to be just or merciful.”
CENTERED ON CHRIST
Rush stated in his autobiography that his mother was very influential in his religious upbringing. Rush had not been a fully devoted Christian until he had a near-death experience. Describing it, he said, “I realized death. My faith it is true, was weak, but my hopes in the mercy of God, in a Redeemer, were strong. It pleased God to restore me and for some time afterwards to continue upon my mind a considerable sense of divine things.”
Rush also stated, “I early devoted myself to the interests of science, and humanity, and have through the mercy of God led a life in which the good I have enjoyed, has predominated infinitely over all the evil I have felt and merited.”
Admission Ticket to Lecture
Admission ticket, Benjamin Rush's lectures at what is now the Perelman School of Medicine
Painting of Benjamin Rush, 1817 Artist: Charles Wilson Peale
Painting of Benjamin Rush, 1783 Artist: Charles Wilson Peale
Benjamin Rush Birthplace
The birthplace of Benjamin Rush, photographed in 1959. Photo: Jack Boucher