Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Franklin, Whitefield, and the University of Pennsylvania

Over at The Anxious Bench, Thomas Kidd reminds us of the relationship between Benjamin Franklin and George Whitefield.  The two giants of the eighteenth century worked together in establishing the academy that would eventually become the University of Pennsylvania.  Here is a taste:

One of the most fascinating exchanges between them came in 1750, when Whitefield replied to Franklin’s plans for the Philadelphia Academy, the forerunner to the University of Pennsylvania. Franklin and the academy trustees had recently acquired the “New Building,” a spacious venue which Whitefield’s supporters had originally erected for the itinerant’s preaching. Now Franklin sent Whitefield a copy of his Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania (1749), which made a powerful case for liberal arts education in a time when the colonies still only had four colleges (Harvard, Yale, the College of New Jersey, and William and Mary), and Philadelphia had none. Whitefield was delighted with the plan, and happy to have the New Building put to such a use (especially if it remained available for preaching).

The main problem Whitefield had with Franklin’s proposals – a problem that reflected the fundamental spiritual divide between the men – was that Christianity seemed to be an afterthought. Franklin did note that students would receive instruction in the value of public and private religion, “and the excellency of the CHRISTIAN RELIGION above all others.” But this brief reference came only on page 22 of a 32 page document, and to Whitefield, this was not enough. In the excerpts below from the itinerant’s lengthy letter to Franklin in February 1750, Whitefield cast his own vision for Christian liberal arts education. But Franklin was more concerned with nonsectarianism than evangelicalism, and his vision ultimately won out, making Penn America’s first university with no denominational commitment.

In addition to their work together on the University of Pennsylvania, Franklin and Whitefield also envisioned the establishment of a colony in Ohio Territory.

I am looking forward to Kidd's forthcoming biography of George Whitefield.