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Role of Religious Leaders in Forming Virginia's Public Schools

Following the war, Virginia joined the national movement to create public schools for all children, including those who formerly were in bondage. The push for public schools in Virginia began much earlier in the century and was led primarily by religious groups.

Religious communities were among the most supportive of education in early Virginia. Many of the Commonwealth’s institutions of higher education began as religious schools. Support was especially strong among the Scottish. Both the Presbyterian and Methodist denominations were instrumental in creating institutions of higher learning, including today’s Hampton-Sydney, Washington and Lee, Randolph-Macon, and Emory and Henry. Other lasting institutions created by religious communities include the University of Richmond (Baptist) and Roanoke College (Lutheran).

A religious and education leader from the western counties who was a native of Ireland but of Scottish descent, Alexander Campbell was founder of Bethany Academy and served as a delegate to the 1829 Virginia Constitutional Convention, at which he proposed a statewide public school system.

He was not well received, according to one historian: “Alexander Campbell presented that singular spectacle, a cool and cautious Scotsman, thoroughly imbued with and active in carrying out the most enthusiastic ideas. He was too much carried away by his love of reform; and his views, embracing every subject, made him, like many reformers, too much a citizen of the world to be a perfectly safe counselor for Virginia.”

Campbell spent his time in Richmond spreading his mission of public schools by speaking at many churches in the city. In 1840, he was the featured speaker at the Clarksburg convention, one of the earliest education conventions held to agitate for greater support for public schools.

His efforts were joined by president of Washington College in Lexington, Henry Ruffner, who became an outspoken leader for the creation of public schools. He, too, was educated as a Presbyterian minister, having served congregations in Kanawha County and elsewhere before returning to his alma matter as president in 1837. His son, William, eventually became Virginia’s first Superintendent of Instruction following the Civil War.

Many of the academies that provided most of the primary education in Virginia before the Civil War were operated by churches and ministers. It was educators connected to these academies who called together the founding convention of what was to become the Virginia Education Association.

Abner Johnson Leavenworth, the president of the Leavenworth Academic and Collegiate Seminary of Petersburg, was one of the seven educators who called together the founding convention in 1863. Leavenworth, also a Presbyterian minister, was outspoken in both Virginia and North Carolina in his support for creating public schools.

From an 1838 sermon in Charlotte, North Carolina: “…There are in our boasted land not less than two million and a half of children entirely destitute of Common School instruction; these are the future elements of society.

“When thirty years are gone, if we shall live and have a country, they will choose its rulers and shape its laws, and keep the keys of its treasury; they will fill the jury box, and command the military, and say who may enjoy the fruits of his own farm, or worship God according to his own conscience, or live in his own house, or wear his own head.

“…Is it not then, a question for the people of this nation to ask, What are we doing to give to successive generations the means of education?”

A few years later, Rev. Leavenworth brought his zeal for educating children to Virginia, first to Warrenton and then to Petersburg where he founded a school for the education of women. Here he joined with other educators in a quest to create an association to promote schools and to help teachers develop their skills. It was this effort that led to the development of what today is the Virginia Education Association.

In drafting the call to educators to create a statewide educational association, Leavenworth wrote, “In the mighty struggle which now engages us, no class of the community is involved in a weightier responsibility than the teaching profession…. Let us then rise at once to the lofty spirit of the occasion, and the noble level of our duties and our responsibilities, and with a firm and prayerful reliance upon the Almighty, for that guidance and support without which all human endeavors are in vain, let us enter resolutely and heartily upon the work….”

Leavenworth was both an organizer of the convention that created VEA and served as an officer until his death in 1869.


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