Formation & Early Years


The University of Richmond’s origins and much of its growth were closely entwined with the history of the Virginia Baptists. The formation of what became the university began with state Baptist leaders’ increasing attention to formal education for ministers, leading to the 1830 organization of the Virginia Baptist Education Society (VBES) and a two-year period in which temporary home-based education centers offered aspiring ministers the chance to be educated and mentored by established and educated Baptist figures. In 1832, the society purchased a Henrico County farm located four miles north of Richmond’s then-city limits to serve as the first campus for the Virginia Baptist Seminary, the institution that would evolve into Richmond College in 1840, and the University of Richmond in the early 20th century.

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Baptist Beginnings

After decades of Baptists having been marginalized as fringe dissenters against the dominant Anglican Church, when their religious liberty had been constrained by law, the number and influence of Virginia’s Baptists expanded significantly from the mid-18th century onward.1 Rapid post-Revolutionary denominational growth, the 1786 Act for Establishing Religious Freedom, and the enthusiasm of the Second Great Awakening prompted suggestions that Baptist seminaries be developed in the state. The effort lacked organized support from Virginia’s Baptist churches, regional associations, and the General Committee.2 Baptists’ lack of hierarchical structure and belief that a call to ministry and oversight by established preachers,3 versus formal training, should fill the preaching ranks also worked against seminaries. 

The publication of an 1807 critique regarding the lack of education among Baptist ministers4 prompted more leaders to favor formal learning, leading to the formation of several education societies and fragmented support for the Columbian College, which started in Washington, D.C. in 1821 (later becoming George Washington University). A rising generation of leaders committed to meeting the educational needs of aspiring pastors formed the Education Society at the June 1830 annual meeting of the Baptist General Association of Virginia (BGAV).5 

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Virginia Baptist Education Society

Sepia photographc headshot of Taylor.
James Barnett Taylor (Courtesy of Virginia Baptist Historical Society)
Black and white portrait of Jeter.
Jeremiah Bell Jeter (Theodore F. Adams, et al, First Baptist Church Richmond: 1780-1955)

At the 1830 annual meeting of the BGAV, which drew white Baptist leaders from across the state to Richmond’s Second Baptist Church, two young and successful ministers, James B. Taylor and Jeremiah Bell Jeter (1802-1880), organized like-minded colleagues in an effort to gain support for a formal system of ministerial education. Some voiced concern at the financial risk the effort posed, since the endeavor’s success would depend on individual Baptists providing sustained funding. Others recommended concentrating support around Columbian College, the existing Baptist institution in Washington, D.C. Despite the opposition among some leaders, the Virginia Baptist Education Society was successfully formed to advance the development of a seminary in the state. Lacking the infrastructure and funding for a formal institution, the society devised a temporary solution in which educated ministers would board small groups of students in their homes, providing both instruction and mentoring. 

Portion of minutes.
Excerpt of June 8, 1830 Education Society minutes relating to the creation of home education centers (Courtesy of Virginia Baptist Historical Society)
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Education Centers

Portion of painting showing two students seated at table writing with window and hearth in background.
Detail from Sidney E. King’s painting, Edward Baptist and the Beginnings of Education, recalling the education center established at Baptist’s home, Dunlora, in 1830 (Copyright and courtesy of Virginia Baptist Historical Society)  

To provide immediate educational support for aspiring ministers, the Education Society funded two home-based education centers between 1830 and 1832. Edward Baptist (1790-1863) of Powhatan County and Eli Ball (1786-1853) of Henrico—Baptist ministers and vice presidents of the society—agreed to board and teach students at their respective residences.The year the education center opened, between nine and 14 ministerial students studied there.

Baptist was a highly educated, wealthy, and influential advocate of the creation of the General Association and the Education Society. His education center was housed at the Dunlora plantation, where he and his family had resided for more than a decade. They shared the home of his wife’s aunt, Ann Hickman, the owner of the plantation following the 1821 death of her husband. In addition to founding schools on the property, Baptist oversaw the operations of Hickman’s estate, including the nearly 60 enslaved people she held.

While the revival activity in the area often drew the aspiring ministers away from formal classwork and toward opportunities to preach, their success at increasing the membership of area churches reassured some who were previously reluctant to embrace formal ministerial education. 

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Virginia Baptist Seminary

Black and white headshot of Robert Ryland.
Robert Ryland (undated photograph, University of Richmond Magazine, Fall 1979)

Members of the Education Society continued to pursue a permanent seminary, purchasing Spring Farm, a 241-acre property in what is now the Lakeside neighborhood of Henrico County, as the seminary’s first location in 1832. When Edward Baptist declined the seminary’s leadership position, James B. Taylor recruited Robert Ryland (1805-1899), a 27-year old Columbian College-educated pastor, teacher, and enslaver, to lead the new seminary. The educational priorities of the early institution were shaped by Ryland’s belief that the liberal arts should form the foundation of study for all students.

At Spring Farm and on its subsequent campus, the Columbia estate, the seminary provided ministerial preparation and also emphasized liberal arts education. Those preparing for a life in the ministry were referred to as “beneficiaries” or “ministerials” and did not pay tuition. Tuition paying liberal arts (or “literary”) students were enrolled with with no denominational restriction.7 The literary students quickly outnumbered the ministerials, and both cohorts were educated in ancient languages, mathematics, literature, and other standard subjects.

Hand-drawn color survey map showing a house and roads pinpointing Spring Farm.
Young Survey showing adjacent Spring Farm property, October 1838, following Seminary ownership (Courtesy of the Library of Virginia)

The two-year location of the seminary on the farm was part of the institution’s initial philosophical and financial model. The Education Society had envisioned a manual labor requirement through which student labor would help support the institution, repay the costs of their board, and encourage humility.8 The idea was phased out in 1833 due to a number of factors, including students’ failure to participate.9 Throughout the seminary’s existence, the labor needs fell largely to a growing number of enslaved people bound to the seminary through “slave hire” lease agreements in which the institution paid enslavers for the labor of those they enslaved. Institutional reliance on the labor of enslaved people began when the farm was being prepared for student arrival and Ryland, acting as principal, superintendent, and steward, secured servants, including enslaved persons, and also leased out to the institution a child he enslaved. That child, Sam (d. 1849), was to be available for the shared use of the small group of students and faculty who would live at the farm. Reliance on enslaved labor, including additional enslaved persons leased from Ryland, continued after the formation of Richmond College in 1840 through the institution’s temporary closure during the U.S. Civil War. 

Large 2-story brick house with central steps leading to a covered porch with double doors.
Columbia mansion, undated photograph (The Valentine)

In 1835, diminished enthusiasm for a farm-based seminary led to the purchase of the Columbia estate and adjacent acreage closer to the city of Richmond. Located at what is now the corner of Grace and Lombardy streets in the city’s Fan District, the Columbia property would be the core of the institution’s expanding campus for close to 80 years. The move to the attractive estate communicated permanence to Virginia Baptists and the larger community. The new campus, an expanding student body, and the promise of additional funding set the stage for the eventual charter of Richmond College in 1840.

For more information on the formation and operation of Virginia Baptist Seminary, see The Institution Recently Established. For details on the enslaved labor force on the two seminary campuses, see Enslavement in the Early Years (1832-1840).

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