The University of Pennsylvania is the oldest university and the fourth oldest institution of higher education in the United States. Alone among the colonial colleges formed before the American Revolution, The Academy of Philadelphia (as Penn was once known), was intended to be non-sectarian. Several of the historic universities which date back to this time period were originally established for the education of those preparing for clerical and religious careers but Penn, under the pioneering guidance of Dr. Benjamin Franklin, presented the soon-to-be-nation with its first liberal arts education at a non-sectarian institution. Non-sectarian, yet by no means irreligious. [1]

The original University campus at 4th and Arch Street was originally developed by friends of the prominent Great Awakening preacher George Whitefield. Though Franklin did not share Whitefield’s theology the two men developed a lifelong friendship and Franklin served for a time as Whitefield’s American publisher. A statue of Rev. Whitefield stands in the Quad today.

Our beloved university was intentionally founded without direct association with a particular denomination (unlike the Congregationalist affiliated Harvard, the Church of England affiliated Yale and Columbia, or the Baptist affiliated Brown). However three-fourths of the original trustees of the University were affiliated with the Church of England and the first head of the institution, Provost William Smith, was an Anglican priest. Our second provost, John Ewing, was a Presbyterian minister. Indeed a succession of 5 ordained Anglicans headed the University for all but 15 years between 1802 and 1868, the last year that a clergyperson was the chief administrator. 

The Office of the Chaplain was established under the leadership of University President Thomas S. Gates. The Newman Catholic Center, The Christian Association and the Predecessor to Penn Hillel on campus already existed and were thriving, but as Dr. Mary Ann Meyers, former Secretary of the University states, “there was a feeling among at least some (administrators, faculty, students) and alumni that Penn had an institutional responsibility for the spiritual welfare of students – an obligation it had neglected since discontinuing compulsory chapel.” (Which were held in Room 200 College Hall, a room originally designed for religious services.) After consulting members of the university community, President Gates, in 1932 made a personal gift to the trustees of $600, 000 to establish the Office of the Chaplain.

To date, there have been six University Chaplains.

The Rev. Walter Brook Stabler (1932-1940)

The Rev. Jacob Clemens Kolb (1941-1949)

The Rev. Edward George Harris (1950-1961)

The Rev. Stanley Ethan Johnson (1961-1995)

The Rev. William Christian Gipson (1996-2007)

The Rev. Charles Lattimore Howard (2008-Present)

Today, the religious landscape of Penn, and indeed the nation has changed tremendously since the founding the university and the establishment of the Office of the Chaplain. Likewise, the role and nature of the chaplaincy has adapted as well. The university is now a cosmopolitan place with students, faculty and staff literally from around the world. The more than 30,000 women and men that comprise this community represent every major world religion and nearly every major unique sect and movement. A larger part of our population (conservative estimates place it at about 35%) is involved in a weekly fellowship or worship service with the communities on campus. This number does not include those students who leave campus to attend services in off campus congregations, nor those students who pursue personal spiritual practices. Religion and Spiritually are an important part of life here at Penn and the Office of the Chaplain continues to serve this very important part of the lives of those on this historic campus.

[1] Much of the information in this section is drawn from the article “In the Name of God: A survery of the ritual, intellectual, and spiritual manifestations of religious on campus” written by Dr. Mary Ann Meyers (former Secretary of the University) in the December, 1986 Pennsylvania Gazette.