The Lost Legend of George W.

By Mike Cohen

No, this is not about George W. Bush, 43rd President of the United States. Neither is it about George Washington, first President of the United States. This is about renowned Anglican preacher George Whitefield whose fame predates the presidents and the presidency. Whitefield was addressing large crowds in England before George Washington was old enough to survey land in the colonies. Legend had it that Whitefield’s voice was sufficiently loud and clear to be heard out of doors by audiences numbering in the tens of thousands.

When he got wind of this legend, Benjamin Franklin was skeptical. The microphone not being among his inventions, Ben Franklin doubted the possibility of a human voice carrying well enough to achieve this. Suspecting the legend was just a lot of hot air, Franklin decided to test the possibility as Whitefield preached at a Philadelphia court house. He stood at the furthest distance from Whitefield where he could still make out the words of the preacher. Franklin was surprised when he calculated that at two square feet per person, the space from where Whitefield was speaking to where Franklin was standing could accommodate over thirty thousand people. If you have ever spoken before a small crowd at an outdoor poetry reading, you must appreciate the projecting power of this preacher’s potent pipes.

Whitefield came to the U.S. in 1738 and became one of the most recognized religious figures in the nation. He was readily recognizable visually for his cross-eyed gaze and audibly for his booming voice. Benjamin Franklin, his contemporary and eventual close friend, remains a recognizable figure to this day, while Whitefield has faded into the gray annals of history. The Schuylkill Valley Journal takes this opportunity, in the year of Whitefield’s 300th birthday, to bring this remarkable historic personage to light.

Born in England in 1714 as the seventh child of a poor inn-keeper, young George early on showed a strong penchant for theatrical acting that would later serve to enliven his sermons. Whitefield was educated at Oxford. Since his family could not afford tuition, he was accepted at the university in the lowly status as servitor. Instead of paying tuition a servitor would have to serve other students by helping them bathe and prepare for the day, carrying their books, removing their rubbish, and even by aiding them in getting their academic assignments done.  As his education proceeded he succeeded John and Charles Wesley as leader of the “Holy Club” at Oxford.

Whitefield went on from Oxford, developing his distinctively emphatic evangelical style, eventually becoming the best known religious figure in England and her colonies. George Whitefield was instrumental in spreading a revival movement known as the Great Awakening. He was one of the founders of Methodism and an influential proponent of evangelism.

The statue of George Whitefield is to be found on the University of Pennsylvania campus at 37th Street and Woodland Avenue. Although it is nearly forty years since I attended classes at the University business school, I expected to have little difficulty locating the sculpture. Unfortunately, 37th Street and Woodland Avenue morph from roadways to walkways on the Penn campus, and vanish into a gated dormitory community in the area where they intersect. This protected province of dormitory denizens is designated The Quadrangle. True to its name The Quadrangle is composed of buildings that together form a box-like structure. It is in this box that George Whitefield is held captive.

In our many sculptural excursions, my wife Connie and I have located works in areas of various degrees of accessibility. But we have never before been so utterly thwarted in our attempt to view a piece of public sculpture. From the gate at the Quadrangle entrance, we could barely make out the sculpture standing amidst a row of trees in the courtyard. Connie did her best to persuade the guard to allow us to enter, assuring him that we would neither leave his sight nor do any damage. Still we were not admitted. Connie and I have no aspirations to be terrorists nor vandals, but the notion that we might be perceived from any perspective as dangerous appealed to us in some wry way. And as we left the Quadrangle entrance and walked into the sunset, it was not without a bit of spring and swagger.

At least we had glimpsed the statue from within a couple of hundred feet. From that distance, two and a half centuries ago, we would have been able to hear Whitefield’s oration clearly. While the preacher was seen and heard by multitudes in his time, the sculpture of the preacher is now hidden from the view of most. It seems a shame that Robert Tait McKenzie’s artistic homage to Whitefield should be sequestered in an area of such limited access. The segment of the public that is privy to this work of art is perhaps not as appreciative of the privilege as one might think.

Outside the hallowed grounds of The Quadrangle I accosted several of the privileged students whose smart cards afford them passage, and asked about the statue of George Whitefield. Of all these highly educated who live in close proximity to a sculptural work they must pass in their daily comings and goings, not one seemed to have any awareness of the fine sculpture of this great orator of colonial times.

Short and cross-eyed, Whitefield cut an unlikely figure for a charismatic presence. His unimposing physicality makes his celebrity all the more impressive. It must have been an awe-inspiring experience to stand amidst a throng of spellbound souls and hear the man preach. Many of those present were so impressed by his speeches that they became devoted followers of the little orator and took his cross-eyed gaze as a sign of heavenly favor.

It was not only the religious who were impressed with George Whitefield. The skeptical Benjamin Franklin found Whitefield’s conversation intellectually stimulating. Franklin may not have been convinced of the preacher’s theological views, but admired the man as a thinker and enjoyed his company. The two became close friends.

The George Whitefield sculpture was rendered by an artist with strong ties to the University of Pennsylvania. Born in Canada in 1867, Robert Tait McKenzie was a childhood playmate of James Naismith. One game they did not play as children was basketball.  Naismith would later invent the game that was to make Wilt Chamberlain, Bob Cousy, Julius Erving, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James famous. Naismith also changed McKenzie’s life by inspiring an interest in athletics that would lead McKenzie to achieve prodigious heights. McKenzie set a record in the high jump of five feet nine inches in the 1880’s. Subsequent high jumpers have dwarfed McKenzie’s feat, and McKenzie himself would ascend to greater heights, pursuing higher education at McGill University where he earned his M.D. degree.

Dr. McKenzie would later become Director of the Physical Education Department at the University of Pennsylvania. During World War I, McKenzie designed prosthetic devices and developed many of the physiotherapy techniques that became accepted practice. His 1918 book, A Handbook of Physical Therapy, became the official hospital rehabilitation manual for British, Canadian, and American armed forces.

As a sculptor, McKenzie was commissioned by the American Olympic Committee in 1912 to design a commemorative medallion. The result was the Joy of Effort medallion that became one of his notable works. His most famous sculpture is The Ideal Scout, casts of which stand before many Boy Scout offices throughout the United States.

A sculpture is a transcendent presence that survives the subject, the sculptor and very often the public memory of either. This sculpture of George Whitefield is an impressive and expressive work. The emphatic gesture of the figure conveys a sense of the ardor of the orator. Standing on a pedestal and devoid of pupils, the statue does not suffer some of George Whitefield’s physical disadvantages. The lack of height and cross-eyed gaze are not a problem for a statue. But more is lost than is gained, for the bronze figure of the preacher must stand ignored in the Quadrangle, silent as a stone.