The Institution Recently Established

‘I shall give you a familiar statement of the condition and prospects of the institution recently established by the Virginia [Baptist] Education Society.’—Letter from Robert Ryland to Archibald Thomas concerning the progress of the new Seminary, c. 1832

The material below is drawn from Reuben Alley’s History of the University of Richmond (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977) and Shelby M. Driskill’s “A Season of Discipline”: Enslavement, Education, and Faith in the Life of Robert Ryland (2021).

In March 1832 the plans for a permanent Baptist institution began to accelerate. Ten trustees were selected for the seminary and Robert Ryland (1805-1899) was selected as the first superintendent of the school, a position that would eventually encompass roles as the institution’s principal, teacher, and steward. Ryland was a well-educated young minister who had led the successful growth of a Baptist church and small school in Lynchburg, Virginia. 

Despite Ryland’s devotion to education, particularly classical languages and literature, he had previously turned down leading Columbian College due to concerns over the institution’s financial vulnerability. He had also been among those who recommended against the formation of a Virginia-based seminary, believing that funds would be better directed toward supporting the financially fragile Columbian.1 Nevertheless, when Edward Baptist declined leadership of what would become Virginia Baptist Seminary, Ryland accepted with a clear commitment to prioritizing the liberal arts over theology. Ryland advocated that “science, and literature, and language be taught first,” since academic subjects would provide the students with a foundation for intellectual development that would enhance their ministerial efforts. Both liberal arts and theology were “desirable” for the institution, Ryland believed, “But if one must be omitted, let it be the latter.”2

Hand-drawn color survey map showing a house and roads pinpointing Spring Farm.
Portion of Young Survey showing Spring Farm in October 1838, three years after the seminary's departure (Courtesy of the Library of Virginia)
Old newsclipping of advertisement for sale of Spring Farm with description of property.
Advertisement for the sale of Spring Farm (Constitutional Whig, July 11, 1831)

After plans to purchase one property were abandoned, the trustees settled on Spring Farm in Henrico County, four miles north of what were then Richmond’s city limits, adjacent to what is now Bryan Park in the city’s Northside. The farm consisted of 241 acres previously home to a school for girls.3 The seminary’s campus included a large main house and numerous outbuildings, such as the barn that would be adapted into a chapel and “slab-covered log-cabins” where students would reside. Students would be admitted who were 14 years of age at the start of the term. Those whose studies were not funded by the Virginia Baptist Education Society (VBES)4 would pay $30 for tuition and $65 for room, board, washing, and fuel.5 The seminary began with a manual labor requirement for its students, a demand in place at similar institutions. The requirement that students perform labor for part of the day was, according to Ryland, rooted in three goals: “improving the health, diminishing the expenses, and perhaps guarding the humility of young preachers.”

The experiment was soon abandoned. The agricultural and domestic needs of the campus were largely met through the forced labor of enslaved individuals. Despite Ryland’s hope that he would only be responsible for “the studies of the youths,” his duties extended to the oversight of this enslaved workforce, which included individuals enslaved by Ryland—beginning with a child named Sam—and individuals leased from other slaveholders through the  “slave hire” system. More information on enslavement on the two seminary campuses can be found at Enslavement in the Early Years (1832-1840).

On Monday, July 9, 1832, Virginia Baptist Seminary opened at Spring Farm. For two academic years, students lived in what would eventually be nine outbuildings close to the main house where Robert Ryland resided with his family. The seminary’s academic offerings aligned with Ryland’s liberal arts priorities, and while there were fewer than a dozen students when classes began, their numbers climbed over the ensuing sessions. Even as enrollment grew, however, institutional operations proved to be a struggle for a number of reasons: difficulties in sustaining the manual labor requirement; agricultural disadvantages of Spring Farm, which prevented successful crops from significantly supplementing its funds; distance from the city and its markets, post office, medical services, and well-established churches; early departures of students for ministerial posts; and student frustrations, including their complaints about the “neatness” of the campus and the quality of the food, culminating in their effort to interfere with the campus gardener’s employment agreement, which risked embarrassing Ryland and the trustees. 

Fundraising efforts by members of the society continued, including a 22-church tour by James B. Taylor (1804-1871). As a result, the society was able fully to fund the education of a number of beneficiary students while an expanding group of non-ministerial students paid full tuition. These “literary students” formed an important stream of institutional funds. Eli Ball (1786-1853), who had previously operated one of the two temporary education centers that preceded the seminary, became one of the institution’s more active fundraisers. When confronted by Baptists dubious about the growing number of literary students, Ball called attention to their effect on the seminary’s financial wellbeing and on expanding the seminary’s broader influence, since its “whole aim is to do good to the rising generation.”7 

Despite the relative stability of funding that helped to develop and pay for the property, the inconvenience of Spring Farm remained a concern for trustees and led to their determination to find a new location. Jeremiah Bell Jeter (1802-1880) led the committee that quickly recommended purchase of an attractive estate close to the Richmond city limits and within walking distance of the city center. The mansion known as Columbia and its surrounding 7.75 acres had been the home of Philip Haxall (1770-1831), founder of what became one of the largest milling operations in Virginia. The new location would elevate the seminary’s profile and relieve the pressure of running a large and challenging farm, a task which Ryland described as akin to dealing with “a broken tooth & a foot out of joint.” 

The Baptist newspaper, the Religious Herald, detailed the advantages of the new suburban campus. The brick mansion was “finished in the most durable and elegant style,” and the overall property provided accommodations for “seventy students and faculty with dormitories, chapel, recitation rooms, and outhouses.”8 Situated in a neighborhood described as one of “first intelligence and respectability,” the new location communicated both permanence and promise to potential students, their parents, and the wider community.9 Sixty young men and boys attended the first session on the former Columbia estate—20 subsidized ministerial students and 40 tuition paying literary students. By 1837 courses included “writing, grammar, geography, arithmetic, algebra, geometry, rhetoric, Latin, Greek, and exercises in composition.”10 Broad Baptist support for the institution was still lacking, however.11

Large 2-story brick house with central staircase leading to a covered porch with double doors.
The Columbia Mansion (UR Magazine, Fall 1979)

The prospect of the seminary being chartered by Virginia’s General assembly had been raised a year after the campus relocated to the Columbia estate and remained a priority for some trustees and supporters. By 1838 and 1839, general enthusiasm moved to organized action. Concerns that a Richmond-based institution would divert funding from Columbian College was still an impediment for some VBES members, but general support for the seminary’s incorporation—fueled in part by “a mass meeting of friends in Richmond”—resulted in a formal effort. When the VBES gathered in June 1839 as part of that year’s General Association meeting, the board reported that the seminary was “in a flourishing state” with 60 students then in attendance, 10 of whom were intending to seek ministerial posts. The VBES was “nearly out of debt,” and description of its solidity preceded the announcement of the seminary’s intention to seek a charter from the state legislature. The description of the day’s events published in the newspaper indicated anticipation and attempts to seed long-term support: The institution’s “friends contemplate its gradual enlargement and endowment . . . . The denomination are fully able and from the spirit of liberality and enterprize [sic] which they manifest, we should think, equally willing, to make it a commanding and valuable Institution.”12  

Robert Ryland recalled the growing support for a charter as largely driven by the VBES’s own lack of incorporation, which meant that, should a trustee die, his share of interest in the institution would pass to his legal heirs rather than the institution itself. By chartering Virginia Baptist Seminary as a college without a theology program, the trustees would also satisfy the restrictions of the Virginia General Assembly, which at the time “grant[ed] no charter to any religious body.”13 While the name of the college was a point of contention, with Ryland arguing that it should honor a Baptist leader such as Robert Baylor Semple (1767-1831) or Andrew Broaddus (1789-1848), the name “Richmond College” was eventually selected and the institution was incorporated by the Virginia General Assembly on March 4, 1840:

Be it enacted by the General Assembly, That there be and is hereby established at or near the City of Richmond, a seminary of learning for the instruction of youth, in the various branches of science and literature, the useful arts, and the learned and foreign languages, which shall be called and known by the name Richmond college.14
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