Jefferson and Presbyterians

In Jefferson’s Albemarle County, there was a great deal of influence—more than realized today—of Presbyterians. Much of the education, including that which Jefferson received and that he was to provide for his children and grandchildren—was positively impacted by Presbyterians.

In Albemarle County and environs different denominational groups grew up side by side during the first settlement period, producing a unique tradition of religious diversity, tolerance and interdenominational cooperation. Included in that mix were Scotch-Irish Presbyterians. According to “recent scholarship,” the “Scotch-Irish Presbyterians now appear to have introduced as much religious energy into the eighteenth-century middle and southern colonies as the Puritans did in seventeenth-century New England;…(although) Scotch-Irish religious activity was less visible and more poorly recorded than that of the New England Puritans because much of it was shrouded in the wilderness of western Pennsylvania and points south.”[1]

Religious groups had an enormous impact on the early culture of the Piedmont. Their influence was not only on the soul through worship, but also on the mind through education. Tutors were especially influential in this formative period. Author Gaillard Hunt observed: “One reason why the ruling class in Virginia acted with such unanimity [during the Revolution]…was that a large proportion of them had received the same kind of education. This usually came first from clergymen…”[2] Even if most people worshipped in Anglican buildings, many of the tutors and schoolmasters were Scotch-Irish Presbyterians. For instance, Samuel Black, of the Mountain Plains Presbyterian Church, started a school on Mechum’s River in western Albemarle sometime after 1747. Historian George M. Marsden writes that “it is not much of an exaggeration to say that, outside of New England, the Scots were the educators of eighteenth-century America.”[3] This is especially true in the Central Virginia region. The experiences of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison provide excellent examples of this influence.

Scottish (and, usually Presbyterian) tutors exercised a large influence on the gentry of the area through their schools and colleges. Their Christian-oriented Enlightenment philosophy, which emphasized the compatibility of reason and revelation, was the most common intellectual foundation of the region’s leaders. LSU professor Ellis Sandoz writes correctly that, “The founders were united in what John Adams long after called ‘the general principles of Christianity.”[4]

[1]   Hutson, 22.

[2]  Gaillard Hunt, The Life of James Madison (New York: Doubleday, Page and Co., 1902), 13.

[3]  George M. Marsden, The Soul of the American University: From Protestant Establishment to Established Nonbelief  (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 59-60.

[4]   Sandoz, 149.

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