Jefferson Letter to Cooper, 1822

RELIGION AND THE UNIVERSITY

Jefferson Letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, 1822

This letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper is a summary of the previously discussed minutes from the University of Virginia Board of Visitors meeting. For a more comprehensive overview of that piece, see the preceding introduction. Of particular interest in this letter is Jefferson’s characterization of the different religious sects. Some, he thought, would establish their several institutes of religion with pure intentions. Others, he confessed, would do so out of jealousy and competition. Regardless of the motive, Jefferson hoped that the gathering of so many different religious sects in an atmosphere of learning and enlightenment would soften their tempers and lessen their prejudices, thereby producing, overall, a more peaceful and moral general religion.

Lewis Roca Rothgerber Christie Religious Institutions Group

Monticello, November 2, 1822

DEAR SIR,–

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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.

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Source: Thomas Jefferson: writings 1463-65 (Merrill D. Peterson ed., 1984).