The Place of Religion in the Early University
    by Connor Andrews

           Over the course of his life, Thomas Jefferson had developed very particular and thoroughly organized thoughts on religion and the role of religion in public life. As a deist, Jefferson’s religious views were very untraditional for his time, and he demonstrated his view on religion, especially in the realm of public and private life, through his work as a politician and as a private citizen. He sought to protect religious liberties through the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and believed in a separation between church and state. Jefferson’s religious beliefs and thoughts on the role of religion were not strictly limited to his own writings; rather, they extended into how he addressed the subject and role in his creation of the University of Virginia.

            Jefferson designed the University of Virginia to be organized around the Rotunda, which served as the main library as well as classroom space. In total, the Rotunda served as a space for academics and intellectual development. This design was a break from many other universities at this time, many of which had organized their campus around a place of religious worship or space indicative of a specific religion. Jefferson, however, believed that a public institution such as the University of Virginia should not be tied to a particular denomination or religion. In fact, Jefferson never even incorporated a place of religious worship in his designs for the University. Instead, he symbolically placed the Rotunda in the center of the University of Virginia to illustrate the centrality of education and intellectual growth to the University.

            It was not until the end of the nineteenth century that the design of the University Chapel was complete, almost sixty years after Jefferson’s death. The purity of the separation of church and state featured in Jefferson’s University of Virginia proved to be complicated by the reality that after his death in 1826, the future of the University would be placed in the hands of the Board of Visitors and in those of the Faculty of the University.

            In one particular incident in 1833, the role and place of religion at the University is brought forward very clearly. According to the Minutes of the Board of Visitors, the proposed creation of a “Sunday School” held in the University and particularly in the Rotunda is discussed by the Board of Visitors (Board of Visitors, 1833). The Chairman of the Faculty did not believe that the power to decide this matter should be held by the Board of Visitors, but rather should be a matter of the Chairman and the Faculty. The Board of Visitors recounts,


“The Chairman of the Faculty having intimated a doubt in the record of its proceedings during the present session as to the power of the Board to permit any of the Rooms in the Rotunda to be used for the purpose of holding a Sunday School therein” (Board of Visitors Minutes, 1833).


The Board of Visitors ultimately conceded the power to decide this matter regarding the holding of a “Sunday School” in the Rotunda to the Chairman of the Faculty. However, the Board of Visitors appeared to be strongly in favor of establishing this religious activity in the Rotunda and was “highly approving the objects of such a school and desiring to extend to it every proper encouragement it is therefore,” which stands ironically given the intended secular nature of the building (Board of Visitors, 1833). Yet the hesitation that was expressed in the Board of Visitors minutes as being held by the Chairman appears to be simply for the physical well being of the building instead of being founded in ideological or symbolic reasons.

            Maintaining Jefferson’s vision of a University separated institutionally from religion was difficult as Chaplains began to become affiliated with the University. However, the actions of the Chairman, Faculty, and Board of Visitors continued to shape and limit the reflection of religion in the University’s institutions and regular practices. Students did attend religious services, especially in the town of Charlottesville, as is referenced in many journals and minutes of the Chairman and of the Faculty, however, occasionally, ministers would push to preach at the University itself. In 1837, Reverend Goss, who was a reverend in Charlottesville, reached out to the Chairman of the Faculty asking for the Faculty to permit a Mr. Thomas from Richmond to preach at the University (Chairman of the Faculty Journal, 1837). The response of the Chairman is complicated but interesting in light of the University’s mixed institutional interactions with religion. The Chairman denied the request and wrote


“I today replied to his letter, & declined to grant the permission asked, on two grounds; first, because, to avoid such application from persons of whom we know nothing, or to whom it would not be propert to extend the indulgence, I have adopted as a rule for my own government whilst Chairman, to grant authority, to preach here to none but those who are invited by the Chaplain or myself, & in no case to give such authority upon application; and secondly, because it is not proper to allow the University to be made the arena of religious controversy, which might, & probably would, be the consequence of granting Mr. Thomas’s request” (Chairman of the Faculty Journal, 1837).


The controversy being referred to is unclear, yet there is the possibility that it stemmed from Mr. Thomas’s being a “Campbelite Baptist.”

            The religious developments at the University of Virginia over the course of the early nineteenth century did, in some respects, stray away from a complete separation of church and state. However, the University remained unaffiliated with any denomination or religious faith and through the Chairman of the Faculty, the Faculty, and the Board of Visitors, established a balance in the institutional involvement of religion at the University.


Chairman of the Faculty Journal from 1837

The Minutes of the Board of Visitors from 1833