“Mother” Benton-and this is the only name by which we know this remarkable lady, although she was neither a mother nor a Benton when she began- was converted by Dwight L. Moody in November of 1899, at a revival meeting in Kansas City. He had asked her, “Daughter, wouldn’t you like to be a missionary?”
She was 24, and her answer was yes. Moody then gave her a scripture text which would be the star by which she steered: “He that dwelleth in the secret place of the most High shall abide under the shadow of the almighty” (Psalm 91).
Moody collapsed before the meeting ended, and was never well enough to preach again. He died the following month, and his crusade was carried on that night and in years to come by R.A. Torrey. Perhaps the injection of Torrey’s charisma as Mother Benton’s heart was coalescing around her true path is what brought her to Los Angeles. Many missionaries were then looking to the west.
Torrey himself would soon arrive in this city to be both a founding Dean of The Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA), and pastor of the non-denominational The Church of the Open Door, both housed in the Romanesque Revival church and auditorium at 6th and Hope, built in the image of the Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. While in Los Angeles, Torrey would also edit the 4-volume 1917 edition of the influential text The Fundamentals produced at the direction of BIOLA supporter Lyman Stewart.
Mother Benton’s arrival, while less auspicious, would have a lasting impact on the charitable face of the city. On the evening of October 7th, 1907, she arrived at the Union Rescue Mission (URM). There was no pianist that night, so she volunteered. She returned the next day and the next, and soon she was out on the corner of 2nd & Los Angeles with her tambourine and her newlywed husband, Arthur L. Benton, assistant superintendent of the URM. In her 37 years at the URM, Mother Benton passed up through the ranks as pianist, clerk, and finally house mother. She would serve under 32 superintendents.
Mother’s husband Arthur Benton was a cabaret pianist from Grand Rapids, MI, whose life had been ravaged by alcoholism. He had been converted by Melvin E. Trotter of Pacific Garden Mission in Chicago, and had been sent out just a few years earlier to help Melvin’s brother William, who was then the URM’s superintendent.
A project which Mother Benton held particularly dear was the Women’s Auxiliary, organized in 1936. Gathering on the first and third Wednesdays, their meetings routinely attracted over 100 helpers for the mending of old clothes and linens for redistribution in the Mission and for the maintenance of the dormitories. In the late 1930s, the URM had 600 beds for the homeless. In 1946 alone, the Auxiliary produced almost 10,000 garments, nearly a third of the 33,000 items of clothing distributed to the needy at the URM.
In 1944, the aged Mother Benton stepped down from her supervisory responsibilities, but continued to be a consistent presence at the URM until 1952, when her declining health kept her close to home in Glendale. But when the URM’s 63rd anniversary celebration rolled around in 1954, Mother Benton could not stay away. She returned to Main Street in her old glory and rode on the famous Gospel Wagon, now a conversation piece, seated between Mayor Poulson and City Attorney Roger Arnebergh. Shoulder to shoulder, they sang “Jesus, Jesus, Sweetest Name I Know,” “Rock of Ages” and “Rescue the Perishing.”
When asked about her long career on Main Street, Mother Benton replied,”My husband and I used to sing those hymns on the street corner to gather a crowd. Then we’d bring the listeners back to the Mission aboard the Gospel Wagon. I love this dear old Mission,” she told the anniversary crowd. “I’m thinking today of the boys I’ve prayed with.”
One of the boys with whom she had prayed in the URM chapel was the notorious outlaw Billy Stiles. She was sitting with him in the chapel on the day in 1913, shortly after he wandered in from the sinner’s road that was Main Street, when he experienced his rebirth. The next day Stiles presented Mother Benton with a suitcase of nitroglycerine, a gift from a retired safe-cracker who was now on the straight and narrow.
Mother Benton, looking back on her half decade of service at the URM noted, “While this is a man’s Mission, scores of women and girls in distress have been helped and guided.” Perhaps she was remembering the voyage she made in February 1930, when she traveled to the State Penitentiary in Florence, Arizona to sit by the side of convicted murderess Eva Dugan as she awaited her death sentence. Mother Benton sat up all night with Mrs. Dugan on her last night on earth, and heard her testimonial that faith in Jesus Christ had saved her soul. The following morning, Mrs. Dugan went to the gallows, dying instantly when her head was severed from her neck and rolled down among the witnesses. There were five women present, and two fainted, but we do not know if Mother Benton was among that number.
Mother Benton died on October 4, 1956, at the age of 81.