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Ben Franklin and George Whitefield were a true odd couple in the history of 18th-century friendships. Whitefield was the greatest evangelical preacher of the era, while Franklin called himself a deist and doubted basic points of Christian orthodoxy. As I show in my new religious biography of Franklin, Whitefield routinely pressed Franklin about his need to receive Christ as Lord and Savior. "He used indeed sometimes to pray for my conversion," Franklin recalled, "but never had the satisfaction of believing that his prayers were heard."

Franklin and Whitefield’s clashing ideas about faith also became an issue in the founding of the Academy of Philadelphia, a predecessor of the University of Pennsylvania. Franklin's hyperactive mind was always planning new ways to do good. By the early 1740s, he had begun to toy with the concept of an academy for Philadelphia. After some failed earlier attempts, in 1749 he published a note in the Pennsylvania Gazette explaining the need for a school where the colony's youths could receive a "polite and learned education." Evangelical Presbyterians, allies of Whitefield, had founded the College of New Jersey (what became Princeton) in 1746, but it was originally located some 80 miles from Philadelphia. Franklin hardly envisioned the academy as a sectarian seminary, anyway.

Statue of Benjamin Franklin in front of College Hall.  Matthew Marcucci, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

Statue of Benjamin Franklin in front of College Hall. Matthew Marcucci, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain.

Drawing on John Locke's Some Thoughts Concerning Education (1693), Franklin's Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania (1749) laid out plans for the academy, with educational goals of virtue and practical service. Theology and ancient languages (Greek, Hebrew, and Latin) were de-emphasized. English grammar was a primary emphasis, because it was more useful than "foreign and dead languages," Locke had written.

Historical studies, however, remained at the center of the curriculum. History, unlike Greek and Latin, inculcated practical values. Among history's chief benefits were its lessons in morality and the value of religion. Quoting John Milton's Of Education (1644), Franklin noted that students would find the historical basis of law "delivered first and with best warrant by Moses" in the Pentateuch. Reading about moral exemplars in the past would remind students of the "advantages of temperance, order, frugality, industry, perseverance" and other virtues. It would also reveal the "necessity of a public religion," he argued. Franklin even noted that pupils would learn of the "excellency of the Christian Religion above all others ancient or modern." But on that subject, Franklin was terse.

For explanation of Christianity's value, he footnoted Scottish moral philosopher and Anglican minister George Turnbull's Observations upon Liberal Education (1742). Franklin restated Turnbull's view regarding the "excellence of true Christianity above all other religions." Turnbull had contended that Christianity was the best known source of virtue: "That the persuasion of a divine providence, and a future state of rewards and punishments, is one of the strongest incitements to virtue, and one of the most forcible restraints from vice, can hardly be doubted.," he wrote. Turnbull's view of Christianity's practical benefits tracked closely with Franklin's own convictions.

What, then, was the aim of the academy? What was the proper goal of education? For Franklin, it was to impress upon the students the desire "to serve mankind, one's country, friends, and family." Franklin knew that some potential supporters would balk at such a human-centered vision. Thus, in an extended footnote, he insisted that the aim of service to mankind was another way of saying the "glory and service of God." Here Franklin was re-stating his notion of true religion: "Doing good to men is the only service of God in our power; and to imitate his beneficence is to glorify him."

Franklin quoted Milton to bolster his point, even though Milton seems to have shared the older Christian view of education, that students should first learn about and glorify God. Milton wrote that the "end of learning is to repair the ruins of our first parents, by regaining to know God aright." Knowing God aright would lead us to love God and to imitate him. This would produce virtue, in Milton's formula. Locke and Turnbull were closer to Franklin's view on this matter. For them, virtue was learning's primary aim, not a secondary result.

Franklin arranged for the underutilized New Building, a preaching venue supporters had built for the itinerating Whitefield, to become the academy's home. He knew that using the building required Whitefield's support. So he sent the itinerant a copy of his plan. Whitefield loved the idea of the school. He did not love the absence of Jesus in the Proposals, however. The school "is certainly calculated to promote polite literature," Whitefield told Franklin, "but I think there wants aliquid Christi [something of Christ] in it." The itinerant appreciated the proposals' recognition of Christianity's superior merit, but Franklin mentioned the topic too late, and moved on from it too quickly.

Virtue in this life was not the main point of education, according to Whitefield. In the context of eternity, this life would pass in a blink. Thus, the great focus of Christian education was not this world, but the next. Every Christian school should seek to convince students "of their natural depravity, of the means of recovering out of it, and of the necessity of preparing for the enjoyment of the Supreme Being in a future state. These are the grant points in which Christianity centers. Arts and sciences may be built on this, and serve to embellish and set off this superstructure, but without this, I think there cannot be any good foundation."

In case Franklin had not gotten the point, Whitefield circled back at the end of a long letter, saying that he would pray for God to show Franklin how "to promote the best end; I mean, the glory of GOD, and the welfare of your fellow-creatures." Unsurprisingly, the preacher also suggested that each student practice oratory for a couple of hours each day. Franklin's plans for the academy stumbled along until 1755, when the “College, Academy and Charitable Schools of Philadelphia" formally received its charter.

We might be somewhat impressed by Franklin’s vision of an education designed to inspire students to “serve mankind, one's country, friends, and family,” and to inculcate virtue. That’s a more morally rigorous vision than the purely pragmatic, vocational aims of many schools and colleges today. But Christian educators need to remember that even the inculcation of virtue, and fostering the desire to serve, can only be a secondary goal in truly Christian education. As Whitefield suggested, truly Christian education must have a more transcendent vision for Christ and his glory.

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One thought on “Ben Franklin and George Whitefield Debate the Purpose of Education”

  1. Channing Kilgore says:

    Good article…highly recommend the 1st chapter in Van Til’s and Berkhof’s book in education “Foundations of Christian Education”…first chapter is worth the price of the whole book.

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ThomasSKidd

Thomas S. Kidd, PhD


Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, and the author of many books, including Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father  (Yale, 2017); George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale, 2014) and Baptists in America: A History with Barry Hankins (Oxford, 2015). You can follow him on Twitter and subscribe to his weekly author newsletter.

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