UVA, Secularism, and the American Mind

Today marks the 200th anniversary of the Commonwealth of Virginia chartering what became the University of Virginia, an institution which remains to this day one of the most prominent schools in the South.  Indeed, the school boasts of its multiple disciplines and has numerous famous and accomplished alumni.  The campus itself is beautiful and the architecture is something to marvel.  Its reputation is such that the school has become a focal point for gatherings both good and evil.  In 2017, for example, the campus infamously attracted a group of white nationalists who protested their grievances openly by torchlight.  Other events on the campus, however, were not so dark.  The point remains that UVA has become a symbol in its own right.

UVA’s influence on the shaping of the American mind is ultimately traced to its founding.  Thomas Jefferson’s dream of establishing a state-funded school of higher education came to reality late in his life and this also meant that it would be a school which reflected the rationalist worldview of its chief founder.  Over time, Jefferson soured on his alma mater–the College of William and Mary–because of its lingering Christian ethos.  Students there were required to learn and recite a catechism, not to mention Jefferson thought that the school was not adequately teaching the sciences.  UVA was established, in part, as a way of correcting what he considered to be deficiencies within American education.

The particulars of UVA’s creation were not only intentional, but revolutionary.  It was the first institution of higher education in America to be founded on secularism.  As much as was possible in the culture at the time, Jefferson wanted to create a school that was detached from any Christian influence.  For example, UVA was created with no divinity school and was completely independent of any outside religious organization.  Even the layout of the university was influenced by rationalism.  Traditionally, a chapel would be placed at the center of a college or university.  At UVA, the library would be placed at the center in order to emphasize the ultimate authority of human reason.

Jefferson’s secular scheme would not go unnoticed, however.  The capstone of his efforts was the appointment of philosopher Thomas Cooper to be a professor of natural science and law at UVA.  While a spirit of apostasy had prevailed among the elites of the South in the late 18th century, this sentiment had already reached its zenith and was fading away as revival had begun to sweep through the region.  Historian Ernest Trice Thompson provides us a chronicle of what happened after Cooper’s appointment:

Presbyterians were also interested in the University of Virginia…. Jefferson secured the election of Dr. Thomas Cooper, a rationalist, who shared his views regarding the separation of church and state, as a professor in the new institution.  The Virginia Evangelical and Literary Magazine, edited by Rev. Dr. John Holt Rice, pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Richmond, had favored the establishment of the university, pointing out at the same time that religion could not be excluded from its walls.  “As surely as the University of Virginia shall be established,” its editor had written in 1818, “…it will be either Deistical, or Socinian [i.e., Unitarian], or Christian.”  Dr. Rice now opposed Cooper’s appointment because of his Unitarian leanings; his rejection of the doctrine of the immortality of the soul; his belief that if a man were a good citizen society had no grounds of complaint, even though he were an atheist; and his ridicule of orthodox religion.  To permit Dr. Cooper to come to the university, he declared, would “alienate a very considerable part of our people.”  The opposition of this influential Presbyterian journal led to Dr. Cooper’s resignation from the faculty, to the considerable disappointment of Jefferson, who regarded Cooper as “the greatest man in America in the powers of mind and in acquired information.”  The watchfulness of the Bible societies of the state, in which Presbyterians were particularly active, also prevented the appointment of two other suspected professors from Unitarian New England. ¹

With this event, the threat of Unitarianism to the Virginia and the rest of the South had been halted in its tracks.  Cooper later served as president of South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina) until he was forced to resign again because of his Unitarianism.  With revival in the South came a resurgence and vigorous defense of biblical orthodoxy.  More and more of the Southern elites were affirming those very truths which they themselves had mocked and derided.  What became known as the Second Great Awakening had already started in places like Hampden-Sydney College under the prayerful direction of such devout men as John Blair Smith. ²

Much to his chagrin, Jefferson had to grapple with the changes taking place all around him.  The Holy Spirit was working to change the hearts and minds of the people of these institutions, both students and faculty alike.  Indeed, those who came after Jefferson had to make certain concessions regarding the religious climate at UVA:

Probably to meet this criticism, arrangements were made this same year [1826] for Episcopal and Presbyterian clergymen to conduct religious services on alternate Sundays in the rotunda of the university.  Five years later an annual chaplaincy was established, supported by voluntary contributions, with the chaplains being selected in turn from the four leading denominations–Presbyterian, Episcopal, Methodist, and Baptist. ³

While the Presbyterians and their allies had won the battle over men like Jefferson and Cooper, they lost the war in the long run.  As the fires of revival faded into embers and then went out entirely, UVA was left with its rationalist foundations as its default educational philosophy.  Indeed, no school can ever rise above the worldview of its founders.  That history doesn’t go away and its baggage will remain in perpetuity.  Going on the campus of UVA today, you’d never know that a revival ever touched the place.  Like so many other colleges and universities, it’s a popular venue for evangelistic groups like the Gideons to distribute Bibles and proclaim the Gospel.

In light of that reality, there’s an argument here for why Virginia and other States should have retained their religious establishments (or at the very least simply modified them).  As many people have argued before, no civil government operates in a state of neutrality.  And that reality extends to all of its chartered institutions.  If the newly independent Virginia had humbly acknowledged the Lordship of Christ and declared herself to be a Christian commonwealth, then the creation of UVA as it was would have been impossible.

UVA does indeed have a religious foundation and worldview, but it’s one which is a product of the so-called “Enlightenment.”  As universities go, this has proven to be the norm in America–and our current culture is a testament to that fact.  While higher education is certainly not the only culprit in the West’s cultural decline, it has made one of the largest impacts.  Our society’s collective act of dethroning God and putting human reason in His place was the ultimate goal of Jefferson, et al.  To that end they succeeded, having the University of Virginia as the template for their success.

¹ Ernest Trice Thompson, Presbyterians in the South–Volume One: 1607-1861 (Richmond: John Knox Press, 1963), 258.

² Al Baker, “Hampden-Sydney College: “What Hath God Wrought?,” banneroftruth.org, May 21, 2013, https://banneroftruth.org/us/resources/articles/2013/hampden-sydney-college-what-hath-god-wrought/

³ Thompson, Presbyterians in the South, 259.

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