Sunday, September 29, 2013

James Madison on UVA & Religion

The way Jefferson's UVA dealt with religion was and is controversial. Here is James Madison to Frederick Beasley on the controversy, dated Decr. 22. 1824.
The peculiarity in the Institution which excited at first most attention & some animadversion, is the omission of a Theological Professorship. The public opinion seems now to have sufficiently yielded to its incompatibility with a State Institution, which necessarily excludes Sectarian preferences. The best provision which occurred, was that of authorizing the Visitors to open the public rooms for religious uses, under impartial regulations (a task that may occasionally involve some difficulties) and admitting the establishment of Theological Seminaries, by the respective Sects, contiguous to the precincts of the University, and within the reach of a familiar intercourse, distinct from the Obligatory pursuits of the Students. The growing Village of Charlottesville also, is not distant more than a mile, and contains already Congregations & Clergymen of the Sects to which the Students will mostly belong.


Tom Van Dyke said...

Sectarianism was always the biggest fear--one sect [or a combination of say Presbyterians and Episcopalians] gaining power over the others. There is no surprise here.

Ben Franklin started the University of Pennsylvania as America's first non-sectarian university. A bleg--I recall Franklin complaining that later the Presbyterians took control of the U of P, but haven't been able to find the quote again.

I might be misremembering, though.

wsforten said...

Jefferson's plan may not have been as controversial as we have been led to believe. The idea of not teaching a specific view of theology in a state institution was proposed by the Presbyterian pastor, Samuel Knox in an essay submitted to the American Philosophical Society in 1796. This essay by Knox was entitled "An Essay on the Best System of Liberal Education," and it won second place in the Society's contest for the best design of a system of public education in America. Here is a relevant excerpt from that essay:

It is a happy circumstance peculiarly favourable to an uniorm plan of public education, that this country hath excluded ecclesiastical from civil policy, and emancipated the human mind from the tyranny of church authority; and church establishments. It is no consequence of this principle of our happy civil constitution, that Theology, as far as the study of it is connected with particular forms of faith, ought to be excluded from a liberal system of national instruction, especially where there exist so many various denominations among the professors of the christian religion. The establishment of education on some national or public plan would not prevent the several religious denominations from instituting, under proper instructors, Theological schools for such as were intended for the ministry, after their academical course had been compleated at the public seminaries...

Instead of this measure being degrading to the study of Theology, the most sublime of all sciences, it would, on the contrary, if properly managed, exhibit in the most respectable view, and at the same time render it more effectual, and, consequently, more salutary to society. It would prevent that jealousy of partial treatment that would arise if conducted by professors of different religious principles in the public seminaries. - pg 78-79

wsforten said...

Jefferson also wrote a letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper providing insight into the design referenced by Madison:

In our university you know there is no Professorship of Divinity. A handle has been made of this, to disseminate an idea that this is an institution, not merely of no religion, but against all religion. Occasion was taken at the last meeting of the Visitors, to bring forward an idea that might silence this calumny, which weighed on the minds of some honest friends to the institution. In our annual report to the legislature, after stating the constitutional reasons against a public establishment of any religious instruction, we suggest the expediency of encouraging the different religious sects to establish, each for itself, a professorship of their own tenets, on the confines of the university, so near as that their students may attend the lectures there, and have the free use of our library, and every other accommodation we can give them; preserving, however, their independence of us and of each other. This fills the chasm objected to ours, as a defect in an institution professing to give instruction in all useful sciences. I think the invitation will be accepted, by some sects from candid intentions, and by others from jealousy and rivalship. And by bringing the sects together, and mixing them with the mass of other students, we shall soften their asperities, liberalize and neutralize their prejudices, and make the general religion a religion of peace, reason, and morality.

wsforten said...

All in all, the evidence seems to support Tom's observation that Jefferson's plan was crafted to avoid sectarianism.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Of course. Thx. ;-)

Elsewhere I believe you'll find Jefferson speaking of a professor of "ethics" teaching the "proofs of God," which I imagine are the same ones referred to by Madison re his days at Princeton--Samuel Clarke's Aristotle/Aquinas-influenced theistic metaphysics.

If my memory is correct, we see that even Jefferson wasn't "neutral" on the subject of God. That God exists wasn't the least bit controversial--it was considered "proven" in the Founding era, by the common people and the elite alike.

That's why when I hear people say the "Founding principles" or the First Amendment require we be "neutral" between God and no God--that for practical purposes we must pretend that God does not exist--I don't think that's remotely true.