Sunday, November 22, 2009

Calvin's Academy in Virginia?

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. -- Inscribed on the library of the Academy of Geneva

Although Thomas Jefferson's hatred of John Calvin and Calvin's God is well-known,* it is less well-known that he once viewed with great favor a proposal put forward by François D'Ivernois (1757-1842) to transplant Calvin's Academy from Geneva to Northern Virginia. A 1794 attempt by revolutionaries to overthrow Geneva's government which targeted the faculty and ministers with imprisonment led D'Ivernois to reach out to American contacts later that year, including both Jefferson and John Adams, to negotiate for the school's relocation to the States. The plan fell apart due to a return to the status quo in Geneva as well as a lack of support from the Virginia legislature, which never voted on the proposal but conveyed in back channels to Wilson Nicholas, a confidante and go-between of Jefferson, its reasons, which in turn Jefferson reported to D'Ivernois.

In a letter to D'Ivernois dated February 6, 1795, Jefferson wrote:

Your proposition, however, for transplanting the college of Geneva to my own country, was too analogous to all my attachments to science, & freedom, the first-born daughter of science, not to excite a lively interest in my mind, and the essays which were necessary to try it's practicability.

He then listed the reasons for the lack of support from the Virginia legislature:

The reasons which they thought would with certainty prevail against it, were 1. that our youth, not familiarized but with their mother tongue, were not prepared to receive instructions in any other; 2d. that the expence of the institution would excite uneasiness in their constituents, & endanger it's permanence; & 3. that it's extent was disproportioned to the narrow state of the population with us.

George Washington later wrote to Jefferson (March 15, 1795) about the matter and listed further reasons for the lack of support:

Hence you will perceive that I have, in a degree, anticipated your proposition. I was restrained from going the whole length of the suggestion, by the following considerations: 1st, I did not know to what extent, or when any plan would be so matured for the establishment of an University, as would enable any assurance to be given to the application of Mr. D'Ivernois. 2d, the propriety of transplanting the Professors in a body, might be questioned for several reasons; among others, because they might not be all good characters; nor all sufficiently acquainted with our language; and again, having been at variance with the levelling party of their own country, the measure might be considered as an aristocratical movement by more than those who, without any just cause that I have been able to discover, are continually sounding the alarm bell of aristocracy. and 3d, because it might preclude some of the first Professors in other countries from a participation; among whom some of the most celebrated characters in Scotland, in this line, I am told might be obtained.

It was not Reformed orthodoxy that appealed to Jefferson; the Genevan Academy by that time had forsaken theological orthodoxy for "enlightenment" and devoted itself to the pursuit of science instead. There was no plan to establish a bastion of Calvinism in Virginia, but Jefferson did earnestly desire to build public education in the young United States, and just as he appreciated Calvin's political theories of resistance, he appreciated the Academy of Calvin as it existed in 1795, if not 1559. He went on to establish the University of Virginia in Charlottesville some years later, which was ahead of its time in banning the teaching of theology altogether.**

As a Virginian, I hope that one day a home-grown institution along the lines of Calvin's vision more than Jefferson's will be planted "over the river and under the shade of the trees."

*Jefferson letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823:

I can never join Calvin in addressing his God. He was indeed an Atheist, which I can never be; or rather his religion was Daemonism. If ever man worshipped a false god, he did. The being described in his 5. points is not the God whom you and I acknowledge and adore; but a daemon of malignant spirit. It would be more pardonable to believe in no God at all than to blaspheme by the atrocious attributes of Calvin.

Jefferson letter to William Short, April 13, 1820:

The Presbyterian clergy are the loudest, the most intolerant of all sects; the most tyrannical and ambitious, ready at the word of the law-giver, if such a word could now be obtained, to put their torch to the pile, and to rekindle in this virgin hemisphere the flame in which their oracle, Calvin, consumed the poor Servetus, because he could not find in his Euclid the proposition which has demonstrated that three are one, and one is three, nor subscribe to the proposition of Calvin, that magistrates have a right to exterminate all heretics to the Calvinistic creed. They pant to re-establish by law that holy inquisition which they can now only infuse into public opinion.

**Jefferson letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, October 7, 1814:

I agree with yours of the 22d, that a professorship of Theology should have no place in our institution.

Jefferson letter to Dr. Thomas Cooper, November 2, 1822:

The atmosphere of our country is unquestionably charged with a threatening cloud of fanaticism, lighter in some parts, denser in others, but too heavy in all. I had no idea, however, that in Pennsylvania, the cradle of toleration and freedom of religion, it could have arisen to the height you describe. This must be owing to the growth of Presbyterianism. The blasphemy of the five points of Calvin, and the impossibility of defending them, render their advocates impatient of reasoning, irritable, and prone to denunciation....

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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