The American History Podcast

A Program Of Virginia Foundation for the Humanities


A Chapel On Mr. Jefferson’s Grounds


An image of the University of Virginia Chapel, July 2, 1912. Source: Holsinger Collection, UVA Special Collections Library

University of Virginia Chapel, July 2, 1912. Source: Holsinger Collection, UVA Special Collections Library

Unlike all other nineteenth century institutions of higher education—like Harvard, William & Mary, and Yale—the University of Virginia was founded without a designated religious affiliation. Although Thomas Jefferson envisioned an academic village in which students enjoyed religious freedom, UVA was not a truly secular institution. According to UVA professor, Alan Taylor, “He [Thomas Jefferson] did not want any one denomination to obtain ascendency or even for several to contest for primacy.” Rather, UVA was truly trans-denominational, not non-religious, and the establishment of the University chapel exemplified Jefferson’s vision of free worship on campus. From the words of Jefferson himself:

“In conformity with the principles of our constitution which places all sects of religion on an equal footing – with the jealousies of the different sects in guarding that equality from encroachment and surprise, and with the sentiments of the legislature in favor of freedom of religion manifested on former occasions [as in the Virginia Statute for Religious Freedom] – we have proposed no Professor of Divinity.”

Despite the absence of a Professor of Divinity, religious services were held every Sunday. Alexander G. “Sandy” Gilliam Jr, University Protocol and History Officer, claims “Jefferson decreed that religious services be held on Sundays, the difference in UVA was that attendance wasn’t required.” The very epicenter of Jefferson’s academic village—The Rotunda—could accommodate religious worship. According to UVA’s meeting minutes of Oct. 4, 1824, “One of it’s [the Rotunda] large elliptical rooms on it’s middle floor shall be used for annual examinations, for lectures to such schools as are too numerous for their ordinary schoolrooms, and for religious worship, under the regulations allowed to be prescribed by law.” Jefferson served as UVA’s rector during this period of time. 

When the wave of the Second Great Awakening—a religious revival of the 1840s—rippled through Virginia, attention was drawn to the lack of a chapel at UVA. Astounded and outraged by this unfortunate deficiency, an organization comprised of faculty wives initiated the process by raising funds and drawing plans for UVA’s chapel. According to Gilliam, the original plans “stuck” the chapel “…in the middle of the lawn about half way down.” Obviously, these plans changed.

An image of the University of Virginia Chapel, March 16, 1914. Source: Holsinger Collection, UVA Special Collections Library

University of Virginia Chapel, March 16, 1914. Source: Holsinger Collection, UVA Special Collections Library

Though the Civil War prolonged construction and jeopardized the funds, Gilliam said the cornerstone of UVA’s Chapel was laid in 1885 under the supervision of Chaplin Otis Glazebrook. Construction was slow, but the Chapel was completed approximately ten years later.

The architectural style of the Chapel stands out against the Jeffersonian style seen throughout Grounds.  According to Gilliam, the Chapel’s gothic style is indicative of the architectural tastes of the mid-1800s. While the Greek Revivalist architecture was considered vaguely Pagan, Gothic architecture was the preferred style for churches.

Gilliam noted that the last University Chaplin died in 1895, the same year the UVA Chapel started withdrawing from religious affiliation. The many outside preachers who commuted to hold services in the structure eventually stopped as well.

Today, the Chapel is regularly used for a variety of things including weddings, funerals and student organization events. High in demand, the University of Virginia Chapel continues to uphold Jefferson’s vision of a unique academic village. When asked whether the chapel coincides with Jefferson’s beliefs regarding religious freedom, Jamal Millner, CLAS ‘93 alumnus responded, “From my understanding of Jefferson as an individual, no. But as a statesmen, yes, the chapel was an interdenominational space that supported ideals of religious freedom.”

Some may deem the chapel a divergence from Jefferson’s ideals and intentions for the academic village of UVA, pointing to its past limitation to Protestant religions and even its gothic architecture. University of Virginia Professor, Emeritus, and Historical scholar, Peter Onuf points out in a Coursera lecture “the architecture, the sensibility, the taste itself would be revolting to Jefferson.” Considering the location of the chapel, positioned beside the Rotunda, Onuf goes on, “Jefferson would say, as he turns over in his grave, ‘Oh my God.’”

Despite opposing positions, this hallmark of University Grounds sustains the Jeffersonian model and advances our capacity for religious freedoms.

“The relations which exist between man and his Maker – and the duties resulting from those relations – are the most interesting and important to every human being and the most incumbent on his study and investigation.” ~ Thomas Jefferson

Learn more about the history of American presidents and spirituality by listening to BackStory‘s episode, “Believer-In-Chief.”

Editor’s note: This story was updated on Nov. 3, 2016. A paragraph about UVA students raising funds for the first chaplain’s salary was removed. The quote from the UVA meeting minutes was corrected and attribution of that quote was changed from Thomas Jefferson (because it is not apparent in the document that it was said by Jefferson). Finally, additional attribution was made to primary source Alexander “Sandy” Gilliam to further clarify that statements about construction of the chapel and the death of the last University Chaplin came directly from Gilliam.

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