Philadelphia Reflections

The musings of a physician who has served the community for over six decades

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Religious Philadelphia
William Penn wanted a colony with religious freedom. A considerable number, if not the majority, of American religious denominations were founded in this city. The main misconception about religious Philadelphia is that it is Quaker-dominated. But the broader misconception is that it is not Quaker-dominated.

Academia in the Philadelphia Region
Higher education is a source of pride, progress, and aggravation.

Colleges and Religions Drift Apart

{Yale Divinity School}
Yale Divinity School

Until fairly recently, academic institutions have existed as an outgrowth of religion, sort of enlarged monasteries charged with acting in loco parentis. The Catholic Church in Europe had its medieval universities, but could probably have got along without them. It was Protestantism, especially American Protestantism, which needed a place to train ministers. Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, Princeton and the other early American colleges were established to train ministers. If there was room, they sometimes took students with no intention of entering the ministry; more often, the non-ministers had enrolled with a religious vocation but drifted away from it. In time, the professional schools of medicine and law joined theology as learned professions, and of course, the colleges needed a supply of educated teachers for themselves.

And so it evolved that colleges and universities of the Philadelphia region almost always had religious sponsors, sometimes rather remotely connected, and among Catholics, the different Orders had their own colleges. Temple had Baptist origins, Princeton was Presbyterian, Eastern University was originally Eastern Baptist Theological Seminary. There is Moravian College, and so on. Since this was once an entirely Quaker region, we have Bryn Mawr College, Haverford College, and Swarthmore, although the Quakers were slow to trust the idea of colleges, since they hoped their members would remain unmoved by clergymen. The other dominant religion of the colonies, the Anglicans, split off from the British church as Episcopalians and then got somewhat scattered by the awkwardness that many Anglicans were Tories. The non-Tory Anglicans tended to wander off into Methodism, a form of Episcopalianism formed by non-ordained leaders cut off from British influences by the Revolution. The Presbyterians, however, were the heart of the American Revolution; their Scotch-Irish ancestors had no trouble saying what they thought of the British. With the attainment of Independence, they prospered as victors. Gradually, the original idea of a college to train ministers evolved into a college to teach future lay leaders of religious groups about their faith. Hidden in this transformation of the schools was an acknowledgment that leadership was migrating away from the clergy. Even the Atlantic Seaboard Quakers, who always declared they had no truck with clergy and had no fixed doctrine to teach, grasped the central point of this and formed their three colleges so that Quaker children could acquire a Quaker education, and presumably, find other Quakers to marry. That was the slogan of the times, but the underlying realization was that the enduring values of religion are guarded and promoted by an educated elite, not an ordained clergy.

This drift toward what is called secularism had some peculiarly Philadelphia variants. The University of Pennsylvania was founded by Benjamin Franklin, a deist, and has never had a divinity school, although it has a school of religious studies. A deist is someone who believes that something called God may have created the world and established its rules. Perhaps so, but since that original and final act of creation, God has simply left the world to run along on its own. Out of this arms-length piety and the dissensions of the Revolution, grew up the tradition of wealthy Philadelphia families sending their children to Harvard and Yale if Episcopalian, and to Princeton if Presbyterian. Princeton was a natural direction to take during the 19th Century when wealthy estates occupied the banks of the Delaware River all the way up to within walking distance of Princeton, and the River was the main highway. This hurt Ivy League University of Pennsylvania by draining off sources of support, either toward other Ivy League schools or to the trio of Quaker colleges. It particularly hurt Penn's undergraduate college, since the Quaker Colleges, and Princeton, held back from forming professional and graduate schools, and looked to send their graduates to Penn after the formative undergraduate years. Dickinson, Franklin and Marshall, Ursinus, Muhlenberg, and Lafayette did the same, remaining content to provide a sound liberal education rather than training for a career. Consequently, an opportunity was created for free-standing graduate schools without an undergraduate base, like Hahnemann, Women's and Jefferson Medical Colleges, or Lehigh and Drexel for engineering,, Moore School for Art. Mergers and academic imperialism have tended to push all of these free-standing units toward fuller university status. All in all, nearly a quarter of a million students now attend colleges in the Philadelphia region, and almost a million in the broad exurban area, depending on what you call a college. But a sound liberal and practical education has long ceased to be the same as a sound religious one.

Meanwhile, religion has lost its dominance in American life. Things reached some sort of climax in 2000 when Yale University officials contemplated closing the Yale Divinity School. It was said to be an expensive distraction, out of the mainstream of University life. Momentarily forgetting that the teaching of Divinity was the main reason for founding the University, those former flower children of the sixties, now fortified with tenured rank, abruptly learned that religious feeling in America is not entirely dead. Dying, perhaps, but not so dead as to forget the legalities of restricted endowment funds.

The next step in this evolution is not so clear. In 2006, while the majority of older colleges may be concentrated in "blue" states, the majority of Americans nevertheless live in "red" states, where religion is both strong and actively displeased with ceding spiritual leadership to secular universities. The decisive outcome becomes whether this topic is deemed mainly educational (decided by professors), or mainly religious (decided by clergy). At the moment it is not decisively either one.

Originally published: Monday, June 19, 2006; most-recently modified: Monday, May 20, 2019