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God on the Grounds

A History of Religion at Thomas Jefferson’s University
Harry Y. Gamble

BUY Cloth · 264 pp. · 6 × 9 · ISBN 9780813944050 · $32.50 · May 2020
BUY Ebook · 264 pp. · ISBN 9780813944067 · $32.50 · May 2020

Free-thinking Thomas Jefferson established the University of Virginia as a secular institution and stipulated that the University should not provide any instruction in religion. Yet over the course of the nineteenth century and into the early twentieth, religion came to have a prominent place in the University, which today maintains the largest department of religious studies of any public university in America. Given his intentions, how did Jefferson's university undergo such remarkable transformations?

In God on the Grounds, esteemed religious studies scholar Harry Gamble offers the first history of religion’s remarkably large role—both in practice and in study—at UVA. Jefferson’s own reputation as a religious skeptic and infidel was a heavy liability to the University, which was widely regarded as injurious to the faith and morals of its students. Consequently, the faculty and Board of Visitors were eager throughout the nineteenth century to make the University more religious. Gamble narrates the early, rapid, and ongoing introduction of religion into the University’s life through the piety of professors, the creation of the chaplaincy, the growth of the YMCA, the multiplication of religious services and meetings, the building of a chapel, and the establishment of a Bible lectureship and a School of Biblical History and Literature. He then looks at how—only in the mid-twentieth century—the University began to retreat from its religious entanglements and reclaim its secular character as a public institution. A vital contribution to the institutional history of UVA, God on the Grounds sheds light on the history of higher education in the United States, American religious history, and the development of religious studies as an academic discipline.


Harry Gamble has produced a very impressive work of scholarship on the religious history of the University of Virginia, including the best shorter treatments of Jefferson’s religion I have seen.  God on Grounds not only intersects with Virginia history and Jefferson studies, but also makes a significant contribution to American religious history. Gamble should be commended for his comprehensive research and elegant prose. He has done UVA and those of us interested in religion and education in American history a great service.

John Fea, Messiah College, author of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?

Esteemed scholar of religion Harry Gamble has written a lively, fascinating, and definitive history of religion at Mr. Jefferson’s University. But it is much more. With delightful surprises and detail, Gamble tells a much bigger story about religion, politics, secularization, and the life of the mind in modernizing America.

Matthew Hedstrom, University of Virginia, author of The Rise of Liberal Religion: Book Culture and American Spirituality in the Twentieth Century

About the Author(s): 

Harry Y. Gamble is Professor Emeritus of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia and the author of Books and Readers in the Early Church: A History of Early Christian Texts, among other works.

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