George Whitefield is considered the ‘Founder’ of Methodism and the Evangelical movement in the 18th Century Anglo-American world. George Whitefield’s major contribution to the University of Pennsylvania was the building on 4th & Arch St. intended for his church in Philadelphia. He abandoned that building to start his Bethesda orphanage and went on to overturn the anti-slave laws in Georgia.
In 1740, George Whitefield published his open letter to the ‘Inhabitants of Maryland, Virginia, North and South Carolina concerning their Negroes’ in the Pennsylvania Gazette. In the letter, Whitefield chastised slave owners for mistreating their slaves. But a closer look at Whitefield’s letter reveals that he never condemned the institution itself, focusing only on converting slaves to Christianity. George Whitefield’s opinions about slavery seemed to soften within the next decade. The the same year he wrote the letter to slave owners, he founded an orphanage in Georgia, where slave labor had been outlawed 5 years earlier.
In 1741, he realized the difficulties of taking care of large amounts of land and remaining financially viable. Whitefield wrote An Account of the Orphan House in Georgia expressing his desire to use slave labor,
‘as for manuring more land than the hired servants and great boys can manage, it is impracticable without a few negroes.’
The shift in his opinion of slavery became more apparent in his 1747 letter to ‘a generous benefactor unknown’ in which he claimed
‘God has put into the hearts of my South Carolina friends, to contribute liberally towards purchasing a plantation and slaves in this province which I purpose to devote to the support of Bethesda... One negroe has been given me- Some more I purpose to purchase this week.’
In 1747, the orphanage was struggling financially, and as he realized slavery could alleviate those struggles, he began to campaign for Georgia to allow slavery within the colony. He explained that slavery would benefit, not only his business but the colony as a whole.
‘The constitution of that colony [Georgia] is very bad, and it is impossible for the inhabitants to subsist without the use of slaves.’
He wrote to the trustees of Georgia about the missed opportunity regarding the success of his orphanage,
‘Had negroes been allowed I should now have had a sufficiency to support a great many orphans.’
He claimed that his orphanage would not succeed and that Georgia would fail without the institution of slavery. The most successful part of the argument was when he gave the trustees an ultimatum, threatening
‘I cannot promise to... cultivate the plantation in any manner’
if the anti-slave laws were not overturned. The trustees were convinced.
In 1751, George Whitefield’s campaign was a success and the trustees once more allowed the institution of slavery to exist and thrive within the colony of Georgia.
In 1919 a George Whitefield statue was dedicated at University of Pennsylvania. It stands in the Quad Dormitories on the current campus.