Thomas Jefferson Donated Money to a Christian School, Later Known as Washington and Lee

Thomas Jefferson was not a lifelong skeptic. But he was a lifelong donor to Christian causes. He took meticulous notes of his gifts to various Christian causes. For example, in November 1777, he donated some of his money to a Christian school—we know it today as Washington and Lee University. At the time, it was known as “the Timber ridge academy.” This donation was to what normally was known as Liberty Hall Academy located near Timber Ridge in present Rockbridge County. What is significant with this entry is that it was a Presbyterian founded and controlled institution that Jefferson was supporting. Its head was Rev. William Graham from Princeton. It shows for the first time no qualms on Jefferson’s part about personally investing in the efforts of dissenters, particularly Presbyterian educators. (Again, this academy eventually became known as Washington and Lee University in Lexington. Graham also was a supporter of religious freedom.)

Whenever Jefferson was residing in Williamsburg to do legislative business, he apparently was involved with the Bruton Parish Church still led by Rev. John Bracken. His account book reveals little things, such as when he “Paid for hearing organ at church” a year later in June 1778. Although this is minor evidence, he said later in his life that he was a lifelong member of the Episcopal Church, and it certainly would have aroused some reaction if he avoided church there or later in Richmond—especially when he was the governor. Since there was never a single comment in any Virginia clergyman’s writings, nor in any Virginia newspaper, indicating Jefferson’s absence at church or of communion, it makes it very likely that he maintained attendance. Nothing at this time would have suggested to anyone that Jefferson was anything but orthodox (straight in his views) and orthopraxic (straight in his practice) in his faith. Therefore, it gives a different context than modern commentators suggest for his work on revising the state’s religious laws.

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