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Christian Union
September 26, 2013

George Whitefield Influenced Founding of Penn, Princeton, Dartmouth

Nearly 300 years ago, George Whitefield was born in Gloucester near the mighty River Severn and the historic docks that serve as links to England's navigational legacy.

Just as the fast-flowing River Severn is famed as the longest waterway in the United Kingdom, one of its sons also is remembered for charting a far-reaching course that shaped the rich spiritual heritage of both the New and Old Worlds.

The spring issue of Penn Current highlighted the contributions of Whitefield, an Anglican minister best known for his role in spreading the Great Awakening revival across the British colonies of North America and his ancestral homeland of England.

The University of Pennsylvania publication also noted Whitefield and longtime pal Benjamin Franklin were instrumental in the creation of the Ivy League institution.

As a tribute to the influence of the celebrated evangelist in Penn's roots, the university features a statue of Whitefield in the Dormitory Quadrangle. It reads, "Humble Disciple of Jesus Christ, Eloquent Preacher of the Gospel."

Whitefield, who studied at the University of Oxford with John and Charles Wesley, also was a founder of Methodism.

But he secured his place in history after attracting thousands to his eighteenth century preaching tours of towns, including Philadelphia, across the fledgling British colonies. The meetings became known as the Great Awakening of 1740.

The revivalist, who believed personal study was indispensable, played a role in shaping the educational landscape of the future United States, namely by helping in the creation of the religious schools that became Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Dartmouth universities.

Whitefield was an original trustee of the Charity School of 1740, which was created on the grounds of his revival meeting house at 4th and Arch streets. The school, a forerunner of the University of Pennsylvania, offered free instruction "in the knowledge of the Christian religion and in useful literature" to low-income children.

Franklin purchased Whitefield's meeting house as the site for Franklin's Academy of Philadelphia, which became the College of Philadelphia and, later, the University of Pennsylvania.
Whitefield solicited the first donations to Penn's Library, according to Penn Current.

Whitefield's keen interest in education also helped birth other primitive schools that became the roots to the Ivy League. He was instrumental in establishing the "Log" college, which played a role in the creation of Princeton University, and he helped orchestrate supplies for the Indian Charity School, a forerunner to Dartmouth College.

For the 200th anniversary of his birth in 1714, a group of Penn alumni commissioned a statue of Whitefield to honor him for his role in the founding of Penn. Unveiled in 1919, the memorial is located in the Quad in front of the Morris and Bodine sections of Ware College House. Famed sculptor and former Penn professor R. Tait McKenzie created the statue.

The inscription on the panels of the memorial's pedestal includes this quote from Franklin: "I knew him intimately upwards of thirty years. His integrity, disinterestedness, and indefatigable zeal in prosecuting every good work I have never seen equalled and shall never see excelled."

Franklin, who was shaped by the teachings of his close friend, was an advocate of Christianity being taught in history classes at Penn.

As important, some scholars suggest Whitefield's boisterous preaching may have played a significant part in unifying the disparate colonies into a future united nation, according to The Providence Forum.

Whitefield died in 1770 in Massachusetts at age 55.