Whitefield, Franklin and the Early History of the University of Pennsylvania

With his arrival ashore in the mid 18th century, George Whitefield brought with him the Great Awakening, the first mass religious movement in America.  In a PBS special about the Great Awakening, George Whitefield’s message for America was described as nothing new, but rather it was his charismatic preaching style that captivated Americans.  Often described as dramatic and captivating, Whitefield was, according to Stephen Marini, a professor of Religion at Wellesley College, the right person in the right place at the right time for his preaching style to spread like wildfire throughout colonial America.  Scholar Stephen Prothero of Boston University writes, “Whitefield is this amazing salesman.  He grows up; he wants to be an actor.  He’s a dramatic guy… And he takes that into his religious life with him.”  Whitefield’s overwhelming popularity in Philadelphia would be one of the key factors of the eventual founding of the University of Pennsylvania; however, there is a lot that happened between Whitefield’s arrival in 1739 and the official naming of the University of Pennsylvania after the Revolutionary War.

Whitefield was welcomed at many pulpits throughout the country, but there were a few places that were not entirely sold on Whitefield’s revivalist preachings, including Harvard and Yale.  With respect to Cambridge, MA, Whitefield was viewed as entirely too secular for Harvard.  140 miles Southeast of Cambridge in New Haven, Whitefield sent Yale into turmoil with the various religious controversies he started preaching in the community (Rudolph 17).  One place that welcomed Whitefield was Philadelphia, the City of Brotherly Love.

An established publisher, among many other things, Ben Franklin, took a special interest in Whitefield; Franklin, in one of his many publications, writes, “In 1739 arriv’d among us from England the Rev. Mr. Whitefield, who had made himself remarkable there as an iterant Preacher… It was wonderful to see that Change soon made in the Manners [behavior] of our Inhabitants [because of his sermons]; from being thoughtless or indifferent about Religion, it seem’d as if all the World were growing Religious.”  Franklin describes his friendship with Whitefield as, “a mere civil friendship sincere on both sides, and lasted to his [Whitefield’s] death [in 1770]” (Franklin 105).  Franklin and Whitefield had many minor disagreements, most notably that of where to establish a charity school, but one thing that Franklin always noted about Whitefield has his effectiveness as a Great Awakening preacher and disciple: “His delivery of the sermon was so improved by frequent repetition that every accent, every emphasis, every modulation of voice, was so perfectly well turned and well placed that without being interested I the subject once could not help being pleased with the discourse; a pleasure of much the same kind with that received from an excellent piece of music” (Franklin 106-7).  Franklin saw something special in Whitefield and truly believed he can be more than just an itinerant preacher in Philadelphia.

In late 1739 and early 1740, it became apparent in Philadelphia that George Whitefield needed a larger church to preach since most of the smaller churches denied Whitefield the opportunity to preach due to his seemingly hostile sermon delivery style (Turner 179).  Whitefield’s followers, most notably Edmund Woolley, John Coates, John Howell and William Prince, helped purchase a plot of land from Jonathan Price that would later be the location of the Charity School with the intent to use this school to instruct poorer children in useful literature about Christian literature (Scharf and Westcott 1472).  Also instrumental to the founding of the Charity School was Whitefield’s close friend, Benjamin Franklin.  In his autobiography, Franklin convinced Whitefield to build his Charity School in Philadelphia rather than in Georgia, where Whitefield was similarly widely-accepted as a preacher (Franklin 104).

Whitefield would primarily use this Charity School building as a location to hold his powerful sermons throughout the 1740s.  The intention of the Charity School was, as previously mentioned, to educate the poor Philadelphia youth, but the trustees of the Charity School did not share the same intentions (Scharf and Westcott 1472).

Whitefield focused on his preachings and not so much on education of the youth.  It appeared that the Charity School would only serve as a church instead of additionally as an education school.  That was the case until Whitefield’s longtime friend Mr. Benjamin Franklin published Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth In Pensilvania in 1749.  In the opening line, Franklin writes, “It has long been regretted as a Misfortune to the Youth of this Province, that we have no ACADEMY, in which they might receive the Accomplishments of a regular Education.”  Franklin was able to raise a considerable amount of funds to start his education initiative, which officially began with opening the Charity School to the city’s youth.  Within four years of running a very successful operation, the Charity School expanded its reach and began to appeal to older students; in 1753, the name was officially changed to the College, Academy and Charitable School of Philadelphia.

What would later become the College of Philadelphia and one of our Ivy League rivals, the University of Pennsylvania, the Charity School’s purpose in the 1750s was unique compared to the four colleges that were in existence in the United States (Harvard, Yale, William and Mary, Princeton) in that the Charity School focused on higher education in business and public service rather than for service as a clergy member (Friedman).  Benjamin Franklin chose the Reverend William Smith as the college’s first Provost, and Smith was instrumental in creating a comprehensive Classics’ curriculum along with an emphasis on “pragmatic sciences” (Friedman).  Under the guidance of Franklin and Smith, the College, Academy and Charitable School of Philadelphia was well on its way to becoming an instrumental institution for higher education in colonial America.

In the midst of the Revolutionary War, the city of Philadelphia took control of Smith’s institution and renamed the College to the University of the State of Pennsylvania in 1779 with a more egalitarian vision for its future students (Friedman).  The name was once again changed in 1791, after the revolution spirit began to die down, officially becoming the University of Pennsylvania.  The lineage of University of Pennsylvania definitely had an interesting couple of decades from Whitefield’s arrival until 1791.

Benjamin Franklin’s vision for higher education, inspired by Whitefield’s wondrous sermons, led to America’s first official University, with both a collegiate and medical school education in Philadelphia.  Without Whitefield’s captivating sermons and Franklin’s publishing resources, the University of Pennsylvania would not be the same school we know it to be today.


Franklin, Benjamin. Autobiography. Macmillan, 1917.

Friedman, Steven Morgan. A Brief History of the University of Pennsylvania. University of Pennsylvania Archives and Records Center.  Updated 1996. Accessed 2/8/2014.

< http://www.archives.upenn.edu/histy/genlhistory/brief.html>.

Rudolph, Frederick. The American College and University: A History.  Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1990.

Scharf, John Thomas, and Thompson Westcott. History of Philadelphia: 1609-1884. Vol. 2. LH Everts & Company, 1884.

Turner, William L. “The Charity School, the Academy, and the College Fourth and Arch Streets.” Transactions of the American Philosophical Society 43.1 (1953): 179-186.


This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply