Thomas Jefferson was not a lifelong skeptic. Our book, DOUBTING THOMAS, documents that. But he did harbor serious doubts about key Christian doctrines later in life. Furthermore, it is not accurate to say that Jefferson believed in the strict separation of church and state, the way the ACLU and other such groups work to suppress and censor any kind of Christian expression in the public arena these days.
There were three things Jefferson was most pleased with, as to his life’s accomplishments—even more than being a U. S. president, even more than substantially increasing the size of the U.S. through the Louisiana Purchase. These three items he had listed on an obelisk, which one can see marking his grave on the grounds of Monticello in Charlottesville. The three things were writing the Declaration of Independence and the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom and creating the University of Virginia.
The rest of this blog post focuses on the last of those three. After serving as president, Jefferson began to consider a project for a new non-denominational Christian school of higher learning beginning in Charlottesville called the Albemarle Academy. Its Board of Trustees met on March 25, 1814, and Jefferson was a member of the Board, for which he drafted his Plan for Albemarle Academy that included three “Professional Schools,” one of which was “Theology and Ecclesiastical History.” On September 7, Jefferson wrote to his nephew Peter Carr and enclosed this plan. Jefferson shared this information with several people, and Unitarian scientist Thomas Cooper wrote Jefferson on September 22 that having a professional school of Theology was not a good idea. But a week later Catholic Rev. José Correa da Serra disagreed with Cooper and advised that a divinity professor would be good to have.
Presbyterian Rev. Samuel Knox had previously proposed a plan for public institutions of higher learning that avoided establishing a divinity school in order to maintain a nondenominational character. Jefferson sided with Knox and Cooper. Jefferson wrote to Cooper that: “I agree with yours of the 22d, that a professorship of Theology should have no place in our institution. But we cannot always do what is absolutely best. Those with whom we act, entertaining different views, have the power and the right of carrying them into practice….” It could be argued that if he were able to, Jefferson would eliminate some things that he could not do in a collaborative board process but at the same time it could be argued that Jefferson was open to a theology professorship, and other religious elements because he was more pragmatic in the way he approached issues of church and state than many modern secularists portray him to be.
In short, the incubus of what became the University of Virginia was essentially the idea to create a nondenominational school. It would still allow Christianity to be taught, but not exclusively through the lens of one particular denomination—in the way that Harvard was initially a Congregational school, William and Mary an Anglican institution, or Princeton, a Presbyterian college. In short, the initial vision of the University of Virginia was to be a non-sectarian, not a secular college. There is a world of difference between the two.