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Religious Debate at UNC-Chapel Hill

Throughout the early months of 1825, two prominent North Carolinians engaged in a heated debate about the nature of religious education at The University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. The argument began on Christmas Eve 1824 when Elisha Mitchell (1793-1857)—surveyor of North Carolina's Mount Mitchell and a Presbyterian professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at UNC—published an article in the Raleigh Register which defended Calvinist doctrine. The article, which Mitchell published under the pseudonym of "Clericus," angered John Stark Ravenscroft (1772-1830)—the first bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina—who was concerned that UNC faculty might be indoctrinating students in Presbyterianism and threatened to embarrass The University by revealing Mitchell's identity as "Clericus." Over the next three months, Mitchell and Ravenscroft exchanged at least eighteen letters in which they argued about the proper relationship between their respective denominations and education at UNC. One hundred and eighty-three years later, Documenting the American South remembers the Ravenscroft-Mitchell letters and other moments of religious debate in The University's history.

In a letter dated February 1825, Mitchell defends himself against Ravenscroft's charges of indoctrinating students by writing that he "never uttered a sentence to a student either in the pulpit or out of [it] with an intention to make him a Presbyterian" (p. 2). Instead, he insists that his goal has been "that the young men [of UNC] should go home to their parents better Episcopalians—better Presbyterians—better Baptists—better Methodists than they were when they came" (p. 1). In this way, Mitchell counters Ravenscroft's charges of denominational favoritism by insisting that his preaching at The University has been general and non-denominational.

Mitchell and Ravenscroft were hardly the first men to worry about issues of denomination as they related to the University. In December 1796, UNC's first president, Joseph Caldwell (1773-1835), received a letter from an "old friend" named Thomas Y. How, who discusses the "progress of Deism in the Southern States" (p. 1). How calls the spread of Deism "a melancholy circumstance" and tells Caldwell that "it is the du[ty of] every friend to virtue to exert himself" in combating Deism because he feels that it is "a sure mark of a corrupted state of soci[ety]" (p. 1). How's negative view of Deism apparently stemmed from his association of it with the bloody excesses of the French Revolution.

Questions about how faith should guide day-to-day life in Chapel Hill also engaged the minds of many students. For example, in 1829, UNC student Solomon Lea (1807-1897) wrote to his brother Lorenzo about his attempt to establish a temperance society on campus. For Solomon, the formation of a temperance society was a project in line with the demands of his Methodist faith, and in his letter he is pleased to report that he has "about fifteen or twenty students who are going to join" (p. 3). Still, he worries that the group will receive "great many sneers & approbrious epithets" from other students because Chapel Hill "has never been famious for morality & virtu" (p. 3, p. 4). Fourteen years later, however, student Exum Whitaker (1823-1847) wrote to his uncle, describing "a revival of religion on the Hill" involving "considerable crying and a great deal of real earnestness" (p. 3). He is careful to note, however, that the revival affected townspeople more than UNC students (p. 3).

Mitchell, Lea, and Whitaker's letters are all part of DocSouth's "True and Candid Compositions" Collection, which reprints 121 documents written between 1795 and 1868, primarily by UNC-Chapel Hill students. How's letter is part of DocSouth's "The First Century of the First State University" Collection, which presents materials that document the creation and growth of the University of North Carolina during the period 1776-1875. And although only an excerpt from Mitchell's February 8, 1825, letter appears on DocSouth, readers wishing to consult the other letters by Mitchell with bearing on the Mitchell-Ravenscroft controversy will find them in the Matthias Murray Marshall Papers in the UNC Libraries' Southern Historical Collection.

Harry Thomas