A George Whitefield statue is coming down at the University of Pennsylvania

Whitefield

George Whitefield was arguably the most popular man in colonial America. His preaching was the catalyst for the colonial-wide evangelical revival that historians call the “First Great Awakening.”

Recently, the University of Pennsylvania decided to remove a Whitefield statue on campus because the evangelist promoted and defended slavery in eighteenth-century Georgia.

Here is a taste of Zoey Weisman’s piece at The Daily Pennsylvanian:

Penn President Amy Gutmann, Provost Wendell Pritchett, and Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli wrote in the University-wide email that, after considering Whitefield’s support for and advancement of slavery in the American colonies, they have decided to take down the statue that stands in front of the Morris and Bodine sections of Ware College House.

“Honoring him with a statue on our campus is inconsistent with our University’s core values, which guide us in becoming an ever more welcoming community that celebrates inclusion and diversity,” the email read. 

Although the email vowed the statue would be removed from campus, it contained no mention of when it would be removed or whether it would be replaced with another figure.

The bronze statue of Whitefield was created by R. Tait Mckenzie in 1919. Whitefield, a prominent evangelical preacher in the mid-18th century who successfully campaigned for slavery’s legislation in the Georgia colony — where the practice had been previously outlawed — owned 50 enslaved persons himself. 

Penn’s announcement to remove the Whitefield statue comes shortly after other Ivy League institutions have made efforts to reconcile their ties with slavery and racism. Last Saturday, Princeton University announced that it will remove the name of U.S. President Woodrow Wilson from its School of Public and International Affairs and a residential college due to his record of supporting racist practices and segregation as president.

Whitefield’s connection to the University comes from his church meeting house located on 4th and Arch streets in Philadelphia, the email read, which Penn founder Benjamin Franklin purchased for the Academy of Philadelphia that eventually became the University of Pennsylvania. The email made no mention the lifelong friendship between Whitefield and Franklin, or Whitefield’s ownership of enslaved persons. 

Since the announcement, the University has removed a 2013 Penn Today article called ‘For the Record: George Whitefield’ that described Franklin’s relationship with Whitefield, but failed to mention any of the preacher’s ties to slavery. The article was still accessible earlier this week.

Read the rest here.

You can also read the official University of Pennsylvania statement. It makes an effort to separate Whitefield from the university’s founding in 1740: “Whitefield’s connection to Penn stems from a church meeting house he owned at 4th and Arch streets in Philadelphia  which was purchased by Ben Franklin to house the Academy of Philadelphia, a predecessor to the University of Pennsylvania. Given that Whitefield prominently advocated for slavery, there is absolutely no justification for having a statue honoring him at Penn.” (I believe a Wyndham Hotel now sits on the spot where the Whitefield meeting house was located, or at least that is what I tell students and K-12 teachers when I give them tours of colonial Philadelphia).

The Penn statement makes it sound as if Franklin answered a classified ad for a vacant building that just happened to be owned by Whitefield. It ignores the fact that Whitefield and Franklin were close friends, worked together on projects of moral improvement, and even thought about establishing a colony in Ohio. (The history of the Whitefield statue published on the website of the University of Pennsylvania archives is more nuanced about the relationship between the two men).

I am not writing to defend Whitefield or to criticize Penn’s decision to remove the statue.  They can do whatever they want with it. Whitefield will continue to be an important and flawed figure in American history and Penn’s decision will not “erase” history. News of the removal, as historian Peter Choi points out, might also awaken contemporary evangelicals to the fact that one of their heroes helped to contribute to America’s history of systemic racism.

Indeed, Whitefield’s relationship to slavery was morally problematic. Baylor University historian Thomas Kidd, a somewhat sympathetic biographer of Whitefield, refuses to give the “Grand Itinerant” as pass on slavery. Here is a taste of a piece he published in 2015 at The Christian Century:

Here is a man who was the most tireless gospel preacher of his era, and who seemed to care a great deal about orphans and African American converts. But he also became one of colonial America’s staunchest advocates for slavery’s expansion. Are we permitted to admire such a man, in spite of his glaring blind spots? (The question is hardly limited to Whitefield: we might ask the same about slaveowning historical figures from George Washington to Stonewall Jackson.)

I do admire Whitefield because of his passionate commitment to the gospel, but his relationship to slavery represents the greatest ethical problem in his career. It represents an enduring story of many Christians’ devotion to God but frequent inability (or unwillingness) to perceive and act against social injustice. Instead of condemning Whitefield as irredeemable, I would suggest that we let his faults—which we can see more clearly with 300 years of hindsight—caution us instead. Even the most sincere Christians risk being shaped more by fallen society than by the gospel. 

Read the rest here.

As Kidd notes, many important people in colonial and revolutionary America owned slaves. George Washington and Thomas Jefferson come immediately to mind. It is also worth noting that the university’s decision to remove the Whitefield statue from campus seems to break with some prominent American historians who have weighed-in on our current monument debate.

For example, Harvard’s Annette Gordon-Reed, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian of Thomas Jefferson and his relationship with his slave Sally Hemmings, has argued that Jefferson statues and monuments should remain in place because the author of the Declaration of Independence and the third United States president made major contributions to American life that went beyond his commitment to the institution of slavery.

Award-winning historian of abolitionism Manisha Sinha recently told NPR:

I think it is important not to go from one extreme to the other. And while it is true that many of the Virginian Founding Fathers – Washington, Jefferson, Madison – all owned slaves, we put up their statues not to commemorate their slave holding but for different reasons. So these statues, I think, need to be contextualized historically. We shouldn’t shy from the fact that many of these men were slave owners, but we should also be able to judge each case individually. The Confederate statues have no redeeming qualities to them, but other statues certainly do.

I don’t know what Gordon-Reed or Sinha would say about the Whitefield statue. (Sinha discusses Whitefield in her book The Slave’s Cause: A History of Abolition). But it is fair to ask whether Whitefield, like Washington, Jefferson, and Madison, also made contributions to American life that extend beyond his defense and promotion of slavery.

I am not in the camp of historians who believe that Whitefield had something to do with the American Revolution, but I do think there are many Americans–past and present–who would say that the evangelical message he preached had a spiritual and moral influence on their lives. Christians continue to read Whitefield’s sermons for their devotional value. The evangelical movement he helped to found, though not without its flaws, has been a source of meaning and purpose for many Americans. And the evangelical theology he championed, promoted, and popularized also influenced many future abolitionists.

As Jessica Parr has argued in her book Inventing George Whitefield: Race, Revivialism, and the Making of a Religious Icon, Whitefield’s legacy is a complicated one:

To slaves owners and slaves alike, Whitefield also represented the duality of Christianity in the lives of slaves. For those who opposed slavery, his preaching about equality in the eyes of God inspired antislavery sentiments. Black abolitionists invoked his preaching. White abolitionists invoked his early criticisms of slavery. And although many a southern planter doubted his sincerity, Whitefield was also a model of proslavery paternalistic slaves’ well-being (spiritually and otherwise) but who saw no contradiction between slave owning and his faith.

What if we thought about the University of Pennsylvania’s Whitefield monument in the same way American historians have been thinking about Confederate monuments? Most American historians today argue that Confederate monuments should be removed because they were erected during the Jim Crow era as a celebration of the Lost Cause. In 1931, African-American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois wrote,

The most terrible thing about War, I am convinced, is its monuments,–the awful things we are compelled to build in order to remember the victims. In the South, particularly, human ingenuity has been put to it to explain on its war monument, the Confederacy. Of course, the plain truth of the matter would be an inscription something like this: “Sacred to the memory of those who fought to Perpetuate Human Slavery.” But that reads with increasing difficulty as time goes on. It does, however, seem to be overdoing the matter to read on a North Carolina Confederate monument: “Died Fighting for Liberty!”

Most of these monuments were erected between 1900 and 1920 for the purpose of advancing the cause of white supremacy. Read historian W. Fitzhugh Brundage here. Read the American Historical Association here.

They were also erected to celebrate Confederate military officers like Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson. These men were traders to their country.

So why was the Whitefield statue was erected? It was unveiled on the Penn campus in June 1919. Here is how the Philadelphia Inquirer reported on the event:

Fri, Jun 13, 1919 – Page 6 · The Philadelphia Inquirer (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) · Newspapers.com

A quick search at Newspapers.com reveals that the erection of the monument drew attention throughout the country and beyond. Reports of the event–some more extensive than others–appeared in newspapers in Victoria, BC; Corsicana, TX; Paducha, KY; Annapolis, MD; Harrisburg, PA; Pittston, PA; Wilmington, DE; Tampa Bay, FL; Lexington, NC; Pittsburgh, PA; Chanute, KS; Atlanta, GA; Winfield, KS; Casper, WY; Nashville, TN; Salisbury, NC;  Wausau, WI; Lawrence, KS; and Winston-Salem, NC. An article in the Harrisburg Telegraph discussed Whitefield’s visit to south central Pennsylvania and his relationship to John Harris, the founder of the city.

Rev. Wallace MacMullen’s speech on the occasion was published in The Brooklyn Daily Eagle on June 16, 1919. It focused on Whitefield’s evangelical convictions, his relationship with John and Charles Wesley, his powerful preaching in the British transatlantic world, his printed sermons, his family life, and his commitment to education.

As might be expected at such an event, there was no mention of Whitefield’s flaws or his promotion of slavery in Georgia. Unlike the Confederate monuments, the Whitefield statue was not erected in 1919 to celebrate slavery, white supremacy, or racism. It was erected because Whitefield had a connection to the University of Pennsylvania, was a friend of Ben Franklin, had made significant contributions to the religious life of America, and was an advocate of learning.

Of course the Penn administration may view statues differently than historians such as Gordon-Reed or Sinha or Yale historian David Blight. Perhaps they believe that any statue of a slaveholder has no place on their campus. If that is the case, then the removal of Whitefield is consistent with the university’s beliefs.

I am thus assuming, based on the way they handled the Whitefield statue, that Amy Gutmann (President), Wendell Pritchett (Provost), and Craig Carnaroli (Executive Vice President) would also argue for the removal of statues commemorating Washington, Jefferson, James Madison, John Jay, Patrick Henry, or John Hancock. They were all slaveholders and many of them were complicit in the preservation of slavery between 1776 and 1789. Of course the university would have no reason to have a statue to any of these figures on campus, but let’s remember that Quaker William Penn also owned slaves. This might get a little closer to home. (For the record, there is no statue of Penn on the University of Pennsylvania campus).

And let’s not forget that Ben Franklin was also a slavemaster. As David Waldstreicher writes in his book Runaway America:

Franklin’s antislavery credentials have been greatly exaggerated…His debt to slavery, and his early persistent engagement with controversies surrounding slaves, have been largely ignored. He profited from the domestic and international slave trade, complained about the ease with which slaves and servants ran off to the British army during the colonial wars of the 1740s and 1750s, and staunchly defended slaveholding rebels during the Revolution. He owned a series of slaves between about 1735 and 1781 and never systemically divested himself of them…He declined to bring the matter of slavery to the Constitutional Convention of 1787 when asked to do so by the abolition society that he served as president. There are enough smoking guns, to be sure, to condemn Franklin as a hypocrite, Jefferson-style, if one wishes to do so.

While Franklin relied upon slaves and servants for his success, he also, later in life, became an abolitionist. If the Penn administration ever has to justify the three Franklin statues that currently stand on the campus, I am sure they will appeal to this anti-slavery work. They would probably argue that Poor Richard was a complex person. They might even say that his role in the preservation of American slavery should not be the only thing that defines him and his legacy. Whitefield, however, does not seem to get the benefit of such complex and nuanced thinking.