[Photo by Jerry Newcombe of Edgar Allan Poe’s room at the University of Virginia] Thomas Jefferson seemed to start his life (even young adulthood) as a Christian, but later in life he came to have a more Unitarian view, rejecting the Trinity. And yet, when Christ Episcopal Church opened up in Charlottesville the last six years or so of Jefferson’s life, he faithfully attended. He even had the priest bury him. Jefferson did many things that showed an overall friendly relationship with churches of various kinds. Even his University of Virginia, while explicitly and purposefully not tied to any denomination, was a non-sectarian, not a secular school. The following comes form our book, DOUBTING THOMAS, in reference to the creation of this new university.
Evangelicals gave their support for its passage in the General Assembly and were very much interested in it as a non-denominational alternative to the Episcopal College of William and Mary. In October 1818, Rev John Holt Rice, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Richmond and the most influential person of that denomination in Virginia, visited the site of Jefferson’s proposed University in Charlottesville and wrote approvingly: “The plan humbly suggested [for the university concerning religion] is to allow Jews, Catholics, Protestants, Episcopalians, Methodists, Baptists, any and all sects, if they shall choose to exercise the privilege, to endow professorships, and nominate their respective professors;…The students shall regularly attend divine worship; but in what form, should be left to the direction of parents; or, in failure of this, to the choice of the students.” In 1818, Rice started the Virginia Evangelical and Literary Magazine, and in 1819, was elected as the national moderator of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. Rice’s support of Jefferson’s school was no small endorsement.
The Board of Visitors of Central College, of which Jefferson was the leading part, had extended its first invitation to hire a professor in 1817. As noted, that person was Presbyterian Rev. Samuel Knox of Maryland. Unfortunately, Knox did not accept at that time for reasons that are unclear (perhaps never having received it?), but he inquired over a year later on November 30, 1818. His recent application to Jefferson ended saying “…That it may please Divine Providence to spare your useful life, to see its’ advantages realized by society is the sincere prayer of your greatly respectful and most obedient humble servant.” To this Jefferson replied on December 11 to explain that hiring was no longer something that he was responsible for, now that the private Central College had been changed into the public University of Virginia. Jefferson wrote: “… Its present situation then is such that…no new authorities yet exist who can act on any applications. As to myself, I give all the aid I can towards bringing it into existence, but, that done, age and declining health and strength will oblige me to leave to other characters the details of execution.”