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How Evangelical Christianity Saved the University of Virginia

Before his death on July 4, 1826, Thomas Jefferson left explicit instructions on what the epitaph on his tombstone should read: “Here was buried Thomas Jefferson, Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for religious freedom, & Father of the University of Virginia.”


Yet within a few years after his death, his beloved University of Virginia was in deep trouble, and what would wind up saving it would have been a shock to its founder.


As Carlos Santos and Rex Bowman tell us in their book, “Rot, Riot and Rebellion: Mr. Jefferson’s Struggle to Save the University That Changed America,” Jefferson’s vision for UVA was that of an “academical village” and a “forward-looking community with no religious affiliation.” It was to be a place where “Virginia’s best minds could go to study with the world’s best scholars.”


But within a few years after its founding, UVA was none of these things. As Santos told Public Radio’s “Backstory,” the level of violence at UVA during its first decades is difficult for the modern mind to fathom. The young men attending school in Charlottesville had “hair-trigger tempers” and the slightest insult was to set off fights that employed every conceivable weapon: teeth, fists, rocks, knives, firearms, and even bombs. One student even murdered a professor!


As Santos told “Backstory,” every attempt by the faculty to reign in the culture of violence and disorder “failed miserably.”


The violence at UVA literally brought Jefferson to tears and had him, as well as the faculty, concerned for the future of the university. It called into question Jefferson’s controversial vision of a secular university where the pursuit of truth would be unencumbered by religious dogma. Virginia taxpayers questioned whether their money should go to pay for this failed experiment.


Obviously, UVA survived and went on to thrive. But why? Because, as UVA historian Peter Onuf put it, UVA students didn’t get enlightened—“they got Jesus.” The Second Great Awakening swept through Charlottesville and changed the university’s culture.


Even though some students were still “acting out,” Onufsays there was also “the beginnings of a new culture on the campus–a more evangelical, religious culture.”


The irony of evangelical Christianity saving Mr. Jefferson’s university is not lost on Onuf and the other historians at “Backstory.” Ironically, shortly before his death, Jefferson said that “I trust that there is not a young man now living in the United States who will not die a Unitarian."


But his rationalist deism was not up to the task of taming the unruly passions of young men. It was Christianity that, as Onuf tells us, “finally [succeeded in] creating that kind of serious student that Jefferson had been looking for . . .”  It took “serious Christians” to do the kind of “serious thinking” Jefferson had in mind.


A lot has changed since then. Colleges and universities are trying their hardest to limit or even eliminate Christian expression on campus while, at the same time, dealing with epidemics of binge-drinking and even sexual assault among their students. While Jefferson didn’t live to see the impact of Christianity on his beloved university, today’s college administrators have no such excuse.


It’s also a reminder of why we should never stop praying for revival. The first and second Great Awakenings changed the course of American history. Why should we doubt that a third one would do the same? So, pray, my friends, for revival.


BreakPoint is a Christian worldview ministry that seeks to build and resource a movement of Christians committed to living and defending Christian worldview in all areas of life. Begun by Chuck Colson in 1991 as a daily radio broadcast, BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today’s news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print. Today BreakPoint commentaries, co-hosted by Eric Metaxas and John Stonestreet, air daily on more than 1,200 outlets with an estimated weekly listening audience of eight million people. Feel free to contact us at BreakPoint.org where you can read and search answers to common questions.

Eric Metaxas is a co-host of BreakPoint Radio and a best-selling author whose biographies, children's books, and popular apologetics have been translated into more than a dozen languages.

Publication date: October 3, 2014

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