Fig. 1. Portrait of Reverend William Bentley, Unitarian Minister, New England Historical Society

Copyright © 2011-2018 John N. Lupia III

William Bentley (1759-1819), was born on June 22, 1759, at Boston, Massachusetts. He graduated Harvard University in 1777. He was ordained a minister in 1783. He became the pastor of the East Church (Second Congregational Church) at Salem where he remained lifelong.

Rev. William Bentley is most noted for having compiled the second largest library in the United States, comprising over 4,000 volumes, and was only second to that of Thomas Jefferson.

In his biography written by Judge Waters, he recorded:

“The collection of coins and rare books was another of his favorite pursuits, and to gratify him in these respects was a leading object of every ship-master of our parish who went abroad. Scarcely a vessel arrived that did not bring valuable contributions to his cabinet or library, so that some of his collections were indeed very rare and valuable and often consulted by every virtuoso in the neighborhood.

The coins were mostly transmitted to his friend, Judge Winthrop of Cambridge. All the specimens in natural history thus furnished were suitably arranged in their respective classes and upon the establishment of the East India Marine Society, made an important addition to its valuable museum.”[1]

Rev. Bentley was the central numismatic figure in late 18th century Salem creating interest and inspiring some to study and collect coins.

His interest in coin collecting and coin dealing was widely known during his lifetime and his most celebrated client was Judge Winthrop of Cambridge. Below is an inventory for an invoice sent by Rev. Bentley to Judge Winthrop for various coins quoted from his Diary.

“A list of Medals & Coins sent to Mr. Winthrop of Cambridge. Medal from Sweden in honor of the Augsburg Confession.

A George reigning.

A Pitt.


Russian, 4 Copec.

Danish, XXIV skill:

XII skill:

George II, penny: eng:

Charles I, penny.

Charles rose. Jus divinum.

St. Pelegrin.

five northern Copper Coin.

& besides Chinese Lanthorn.”[1]

It appears that the majority of the proceeds from his coin sales were given to the poor and needy. The entrepreneurial coin dealer had no self-interest whatsoever but used his coin dealings as a charity fund raiser to help support the downtrodden of his parish and others known to him. It would serve readers well to learn from him.

Rev. Bentley was known to haunt the wharfs of Salem for incoming ships soliciting to acquire new numismatic specimens. It seems highly probable that among these seamen bearing coins and medals from afar was Benjamin H. Watkins (q.v.). Bentley was the authority and central figure of the late 18th century at Salem, who undoubtedly was responsible for Benjamin Watkins being a coin collector. It appears to this writer that Rev. Bentley was the spiritual father not only of souls but also of coin collecting and coin sales in Salem since the late 18th century.

Rev. Bentley died on December 29, 1819, at Salem, Massachusetts.

[1] The Diary of William Bentley, D.D. Pastor of the East Church, Salem, Massachusetts. Vol. 3 (Salem: Essex Institute, 1905) : 79

The above inventory is noted in the Diary of William Bentley. He was a polymath who also had a passion for numismatics and also was engaged to some extent as a coin dealer to Judge Winthrop (1752-1821).

[1] Diary of William Bentley, xvii

Bibliography :

Dave Bowers, American Numismatics Before the Civil War 1760-1860. (Bowers & Merena, 1998) : 22-23