Ben Franklin, Anti-Catholicism, and the Founding of the University of Pennsylvania

Ben Franklin, Anti-Catholicism, and the Founding of the University of Pennsylvania December 8, 2015

Historians have generally cast the founding of the University of Pennsylvania (or the College of Philadelphia) in 1755 as a step toward secular education in America. While the early college met in the great evangelist George Whitefield’s preaching building, Ben Franklin was the brains behind the school. As I noted in an an earlier post, Whitefield and Franklin both supported the idea of an academy and college, but they did not agree on the spiritual aims for it:

Franklin and the academy trustees acquired the “New Building,” a spacious venue which Whitefield’s supporters had originally erected for the itinerant’s preaching. Franklin sent Whitefield a copy of his Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pennsylvania (1749), which made a powerful case for liberal arts education in a time when the colonies still only had four colleges (Harvard, Yale, the College of New Jersey, and William and Mary), and Philadelphia had none. Whitefield was delighted with the plan, and happy to have the New Building put to such a use (especially if it remained available for preaching).

1762 portrait of Franklin by Mason Chamberlin, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Public domain, Wikimedia Commons.

The main problem Whitefield had with Franklin’s proposals – a problem that reflected the fundamental spiritual divide between the men – was that Christianity seemed to be an afterthought. Franklin did note that students would receive instruction in the value of public and private religion, “and the excellency of the CHRISTIAN RELIGION above all others.” But this brief reference came only on page 22 of a 32 page document, and to Whitefield, this was not enough… Franklin was more concerned with nonsectarianism than evangelicalism, and his vision ultimately won out, making Penn America’s first university with no denominational commitment.

This is all true enough, but the University of Pennsylvania also shared a pro-Protestant, anti-Catholic sentiment to which both Whitefield and Franklin adhered. In 1755, Franklin and other officials of the new college swore an oath of fidelity to King George II. They also repudiated Catholic power and beliefs. For the new college to expect imperial support, it had to show itself loyal to British power, especially in light of the burgeoning Seven Years’ War, which had started the year before and which matched Europe’s great Catholic and Protestant powers in a struggle for the control of North America.

The college leaders denied the authority of the pope, and of the Stuart Pretender (the successor representing the Catholic royal line of King James II), within the British empire. The most distinctive theological commitment Franklin and the others made was repudiating the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, or the idea that during the Lord’s Supper, the bread and wine become the body and blood of Christ. Franklin, provost William Smith, and the rest agreed to these staples of British Protestant belief “willingly and truly, upon the true Faith of a Christian.”

I am discovering in my religious biography of him that, while Franklin was a skeptic and a “deist” (as he called himself), he was also a conventional British Protestant in many ways. He would have taken for granted that a respectable new college within the British Empire would have to abjure the authority of the Pope, and deny transubstantiation. That these things were common sense to him speaks to how much Catholic-Protestant conflict colored Franklin’s mental world.

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  • kierkegaard71

    Let me posit a hypothesis which may very well be incorrect: Church influence and royal power went together to the extent that it is hard to dissect an opinion of which was more meaningful to a person. In the phrase describing Franklin as a “conventional British Protestant”, which was more determinative for Franklin? “Conventional British” or “Protestant”? Can one say? Could there be a secular counterpart to this? Is it possible that an Iraqi politician after the US takeover of Iraq could swear loyalty to “democracy” based on the realities of US military power, rather than a heart-and-soul commitment to democracy? He may have spoken like a liberal democrat while, perhaps, not caring about that issue as much as he cared about the reality of the power behind the politics. Just wondering, and trying to understand the nature of Franklin’s commitment to church matters.

  • Erp

    I should point out that many of the wars in Europe in the 18th century cut across religious lines. In the Seven Years War Protestant Sweden sided with Catholic France, Catholic Portugal with Protestant Britain. However anti-Catholicism was very much part of British life both in Britain and its American colonies. BTW if anything the American colonists were more anti-Catholic than the British Parliament which after all had passed the Quebec Act allowing among other things the Catholic Church to be official in Quebec and for the residents to swear a modified oath that a Catholic could take.

  • Ald

    I think that one other aspect of colonial Protestant Christianity must be considered, nearly the entire lot of Christian denominations in the colonies had a “dissenter’s” opinion when it considered the leadership of British Protestantism. Case in point, the work of John Wesley and George Whitefield both encountered the heresy of the British Bishops who were inescapably linked to the British Parliament- in their day, if one wanted to be a leader in the Anglican Church, one had to be politically connected. American denominations since the time of the Pilgrims and Puritans experienced this problem.

  • Ald

    One other note, In my nearly two decades of researching church history, I remember coming across a little known fact that early deism was not like deism of today. The early deist actually believed that Jesus was the Christ and was needed to solve the sin issue. This is far from an absent Creator. Reading much by Franklin and the men of his day, they believed the same.

  • candide

    The amount of anti-Catholicism in early America was great. One of the causes of the American Revolution was opposition to George III’s granting of religious rights to Quebec Catholics after the British defeated the French in the Seven Years War. Our New England worthies were worried that the king intended to reinstitute Catholicism in the colonies. Any rational person would have laughed but there were plenty of bigots in New England. Remember, the Puritans who came to New England did not come to practice religious freedom; they came to practice their religion and to persecute anyone who would not conform to it.

  • candide

    By the way, Ben also feared that German would become the national American language and he entertained ways of limiting its spread. Sounds like the Donald in regard to Islam.

  • ek ErilaR

    I find your use of the term “British Protestant” entirely unhelpful. Between 1640-60, English Protestants fell into three categories; there were two varieties of Reformed protestants, Presbyterians and Independents and then there was the barely reformed Church of England.

    During the English Civil Wars of the 1640s, each denomination was closely associated with a political faction. The Parliamentary faction was a Reformed alliance of Presbyterians and Independents where the Presbyterians were closely associated with the Grandees and Parliament and the Independents were closely associated with the Leveller faction and the New Model Army. The CoE was closely associated with the Stuart monarchy.

    In the American colonies, the Presbyterians and Independents (called Congregationalists in the Colonies) dominated both religious and political life. The CoE had some presence in the plantation South but it was not well established elsewhere and was entirely banned in Massachusetts until 1692.

    After the Restoration in 1660, the Reformed sects that could not conform to the Act of Uniformity (1661) were suppressed in England (before 1707) and in Great Britain (after 1707).

    In the 18th Century, British Protestantism was decidedly high church Anglicanism while American Protestantism was decidedly low church and evangelical in the Calvinist tradition.

  • ek ErilaR

    A very shallow and decidedly one sided analysis.

  • Ald

    Thank you for your insight on the 17th century. I was focusing only on the 18th century, perhaps I should have stated that. What would be your take on individuals like Charles Carroll, a colonial Catholic who was respected by the strongly-Protestant founding generation?

  • ek ErilaR

    If Charles Carroll of Carrollton, a Jesuit educated Catholic, was accepted as a patriot by the founding generation, then that would be because he was judged to be a friend of liberty; probably by Virginians like Richard Henry Lee, George Mason and Patrick Henry who likely knew him best.

    Reformed English protestant anti-Catholicism has its roots in the 16th Century when Henry VIII supplanted the pope as the head of the Church of England. The Tudor “new men” like Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer were almost uniformly more radically Reformed than the Lutheranism that Henry VIII imposed on England. They were Calvinists, not Lutherans. They were low church evangelicals not high church episcopalians. These differences persisted through the 18th Century and persist up to this day.

    The anti-Catholicism of the low-church American colonists was chiefly the product of the actions of the Catholic Church between 1533-1606. For two generations, the Vatican had no compunction about attempting to assassinate individual English monarchs, fomenting revolution and crusades against the English government and conducting pogroms against Calvinists in France, Germany, the Netherlands and Spain. The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre (1572) in France is the most famous but Mary Tudor burned more than 200 Calvinists during her short reign between 1553-58. All of this was catalogued in Fox’s Book of Martyrs, a book that was kept open to be read by the public in most Reformed English and American churches.

    The key ideas of the English Reformers were:
    Every man has a one to one relationship with God; every man is a priest of God’s true religion; and two believers are sufficient to form a church. They believed that God has written His laws on the hearts of all men and that all valid lessons from the Bible, and all valid laws of men, had to be consistent with the Ten Commandments. They believed that everyone is competent to read and interpret the Bible but that useful conclusions about scripture could be arrived at only after careful deliberation with fellow believers with the understanding that they still could be wrong.

    As the church was part of the state, Reformed ideas about religion had immediate political consequences. As James I famously observed; If the people discover they don’t need bishops they will soon also discover they don’t need kings either. James was right. Between 1642-49, the Presbyterians and Independents (collectively called the “Puritans”) who controlled Parliament attained and executed Archbishop Laud and Lord Stafford (Charles I’s scourges of the Puritans). They abolished the House of Lords and executed Charles I for treason against himself and the people of England. They replaced a monarchy with a republic. In political terms, they were radical republicans.

    You may find Ezra Stiles interesting. He was a patriot, an Independent (Congregationalist) minister in New Haven and president of Yale during the Revolution. He corresponded with John Adams, Franklin and Jefferson. His journals and his correspondence have largely survived. In 1775, his defense of the execution of Charles I implicitly supported the idea that George III could be treated in the same way. That was a conclusion no contemporary British Protestant, not even the Wilkesites, could possibly have endorsed. John Wilkes’ supporters in London in the 1760-70s were the closest thing religiously and politically to American patriots in the Colonies.

  • Ald

    Thank you ek for taking the time to detail all this. Question, is it correct to call all that you have detailed “dissenting theology” or is this too broad a label? I’ve run into the term, dissenters, but have never taken the time to nail it down.

  • ek ErilaR

    Reformed or evangelical or Calvinist would be more precise because those terms are usually understood to describe a Christian theology dissenting from both Catholicism and Lutheranism.