Penn’s Fallen Founder: Reverend George Whitefield

Sebastian Ochoa Garcia, W’22

During the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, sculptures started coming down across the country, including the University of Pennsylvania. Before the removal of The Reverend George Whitefield from the Quad, I didn’t know about Whitefield’s history—frankly, I didn’t even know who the reverend was. When I interviewed some friends from the Class of 2022 who lived in the Quad, I learned that none of them know any more than I did. This begs the question: What was the original purpose in having this statue in an iconic location on campus?

Figure 1: “George Whitefield Statue,” photographed by R. Tait McKenzie, Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania, 1920, From Penn University Archives: Online Exhibits: Art on Campus,

Religious figure

George Whitefield was born in 1714 in Gloucester, England. He was most known for being an evangelist in America who was part of the Great Awakening and one of the founders of Methodism (George Whitefield, n.d.). The Great Awakening was the religious revival of Christianity that impacted English colonies in America (Great Awakening, 2019). Whitefield did a month-long tour through New England where he found great success. Thousands of people would listen to him talk and follow him around different towns. His preaches convinced colonis to join churches and reconnect with their Christian faith. Throughout his time in America, he preached more than 18,000 sermons (George Whitefield, n.d.).

Whitefield is considered one of the most influential Anglo-American evangelists of the eighteenth century. Christians believe that there is no better example of an individual who lived out his theological beliefs since he was always committed to the preaching of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Wellum, 2014). Whitefield’s legacy includes three churches that were established in England in his name and the famous Bethesda Orphan House (George Whitefield, n.d.). Bethesda Orphan House, now Bethesda Academy, is the oldest child-caring institution in North America. Benjamin Franklin was one of the earliest supporters of the project (Bethesda Academy History, n.d.).

Slavery figure

George Whitefield’s history with slavery is intriguing. In 1740, he was conflicted about enslaving. His ministry was inclusive and embraced the idea of evangelizing African Americans. He wrote an open letter in the Pennsylvania Gazette in which he condemned enslavers for mistreating the enslaved. However, in 1741, after realizing the financial difficulties in maintaining the Bethesda Orphan House, Whitefield wrote An Account of the Orphan House in Georgia, in which he expressed his support of slave labor. And in 1747, he began to advocate for the legalization of slavery in the Georgia colony, which happened in 1752. Whitefield viewed slaves as essential to sustain the orphanage’s operations. He died leaving 4,000 acres of land and 50 slaves to the Countess of Huntington (George Whitefield, n.d.).

University figure

George Whitefield started building a Philadelphia charity school in 1740. He was seeking to improve the education of the poor and their life standards. However, due to limited resources, the project was not finished for almost a decade (Penn in the 18th Century, n.d.). It was not until 1749 that Benjamin Franklin gathered 24 trustees to form an institution of higher education in the unfinished building (Penn’s History, n.d.). Even though Benjamin Franklin was a religious skeptic, he admired Whitefield ’s ability to speak in public, which eventually led the two to become friends. There were letters exchanged between Franklin and Whitefield discussing the creation of a charity school. These letters can be found at the American Philosophical Society in Philadelphia (Taylor, 2017). This friendship may have influenced Franklin’s decision to establish an institution of higher learning in Whitefield’s unfinished building.

The University of Pennsylvania officially started operating as an academy in 1751, and obtained its collegiate charter in 1755. Not until much later—under Samuel Pennypacker, who served as governor of Pennsylvania from 1903 to 1907—did the the state-chartered university change its official founding date to 1740, making it the “first” university in the United States. His argument for changing the date was as follows: When the new trustees of the academy in 1749 took over the property from the old trustees of the charity school, they incorporated several of the same provisions in their deed of trust. Hence, there was a legal connection between both schools. One may even look at it as a line of descent. Penn does not explicitly acknowledge George Whitefield as the “founder” of the school, even though they trace the origin of the university to the construction of Whitefield’s building in 1740 (Penn Founding Date, n.d.). It seems that the University of Pennsylvania was in search for an origin story that allowed them to predate Princeton without upstaging Ben Franklin.

Monumental figure

Currently, the process of siting a monument on campus is rigorous. There are various criteria that a sculpture has to meet. There is a committee called the Campus Iconography Group in charge of adding and removing monuments from campus. This committee looks at the value of benchmarks to justify the acquisition of a piece. Moreover, the more valuable the piece, the more approvals are necessary. A monument may be reviewed by the Campus Iconography Group, the art committee, the university curator, the Board of Trustees, and by the President of the University. Overall, what they are trying to determine is whether the art is worthy to display in public on campus.

In the early 1900s, the process was much simpler. Any person who was willing to make a case—and raise the money—could get a monument placed on campus. According to the William Joseph Thompson Papers at the University Archives, the proposal to commemorate Reverend George Whitefield was first made by Reverend William Thompson. Thompson was a Methodist Episcopal minister and professor, and an alumnus of Penn. In 1915, following the bicentennial of George Whitefield’s birth, Thompson wrote to Provost Edgar Smith about the idea of placing a statue to celebrate Whitefield’s life. Adding the campaign was another local pastor and Penn graduate, Reverend Orville S. Duffield (Penn Archives, 2017). In their minds, they were honoring the memory of an eloquent preacher of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and a zealous patron of higher learning in the American colonies. They needed to raise $10,000 dollars to erect the statue, which was more less what the Young Franklin statue had cost. They reach out Penn’s Methodist alumni. The initial proposal was presented to the Board of Trustees on May 10, 1915, and accepted one year later.

Even though the Board of Trustees approved the erection of the statue, there was an additional modification that Reverend Thompson had been advocating for years. He wanted the engraving on the pedestal to recognize George Whitefield as a Charter Trustee. The reasoning behind this was that because Whitefield served as a trustee for the charity school, and because Penn had adopted the year 1740 as the founding of the university, he was technically a university trustee. Thompson exchanged various letters with Horace Lippincott, Secretary of the General Alumni Society. After several letters, Lippincott put an end to the discussion in 1918. In his concluding letter, Lippincott recognized that although Whitefield was indeed a trustee of the charity school, there was no record of him being at any of the trustee meetings. Additionally, it is impossible to consider him a Charter Trustee because Benjamin Franklin bought the building in 1749, and Penn did not receive its charter until 1755.

The statue was unveiled during commencement week, 1919. It was a big celebration for the students and the University of Pennsylvania.

The Reverend George Whitefield was designed and sculpted by Robert Tait McKenzie. McKenzie was a recognized sculptor as well as a physical educator. He was the first Professor of Physical Education of the University of Pennsylvania. He sculpted designed several sculptures for the University including the sculpture of Young Benjamin Franklin in 1911 (R. Tait McKenzie Papers, n.d.).

The Whitefield monument was made out of bronze and stood 8 feet tall. McKenzie decided to show George Whitefield as a young man with a Bible on his left hand and his right hand raised. It represented one of the many sermons that Whitefield gave during his preaching years. The Reverend George Whitefield was located in the Quadrangle Dormitories at the University of Pennsylvania. The monument bears this inscription: “The University of Pennsylvania held its first session in a building erected for his congregation and was aided by his collections, guided by his counsel and inspired by his life” (Statue of George Whitefield, 2021).

Controversial figure

The University of Pennsylvania was under a lot of pressure to remove The Reverend George Whitefield after the Penn & Slavery Project uncovered Whitefield’s historical connections to slavery amid a national reckoning over monuments that represented white supremacy.

On July 2, 2020, the University announced its plan to remove this statue located in the Quad. Penn’s announcement came shortly after other Ivy League institutions made efforts to address to institutional racism. The reason behind this decision was that George Whitefield was a big advocate for slavery in Georgia in 1752, a state which had previously abolished slavery (Weisman, 2020). The statue was eventually removed later that year, breaking some of the established protocols when it comes to removing a monument from campus. Normally, the whole process to deaccession a statue requires a rigorous investigation and trustee approval. In this case, removal was almost immediate, given the action of President Amy Gutmann.

The decision to remove the statue of George Whitefield did not come without some people making the case for the status quo ante. The historian Darryl Hart argued that history books measure legacies, and that histories of slavery do not feature George Whitefield—while histories of religion do. That fact suggests that Whitefield’s legacy is in the realm of Methodism, not enslavement. Richard Gamble, another historian, argued that it is important to remember why monuments are erected in the first place. The Methodists who erected the statue at the University did it to commemorate his work for Christianity, not what he did to support slavery. Gamble recognized that the commemorators might have been naive, but that their original intentions should be considered.

More than one Methodist congregation has offered to take and care for Penn’s unwanted monument (Johnson, 2020). The statue is currently being stored by the University, and the short-term plan is to keep it in storage.



“George Whitefield.” Retrieved 13 October 13:

“George Whitefield’s Troubled Relationship to Race and Slavery.” Retrieved 16 October 2021:

“Great Awakening.” Retrieved 13 October 2021:

“Bethesda History.” Retrieved 14 October 2021:

Johnson, Julia. “Historians Dispute Penn’s Explanation for Removing Statue of Early American Preacher.” The College Fix, 20 October 2021:

“Penn in the 18th Century: Charity School.” Retrieved 15 October 2021:

“Penn Founding Date, Campus.” Retrieved 15 October 15:

“Penn’s History.” Retrieved 14 October 2021:

Taylor, Justin. “Ben Franklin and George Whitefield Debate the Purpose of Education,” retrieved 14 October 2021:

Weisman, Zoey. “Penn Announces Plan to Remove Statue of Slave Owner George Whitefield from the Quad,” Daily Pennsylvanian, 2 August 2020:

Wellum, Stephen J. “The Life and Legacy of George Whitefield (1714–1770).” Southern Baptist Journal of Theology, retrieved 13 October 2021: legacy-of-george-whitefield-1714-1770/.

William Joseph Thompson Papers. University Archives and Records Center: