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Title: Excerpt from the Letter from Elisha Mitchell to John Ravenscroft, February 8, 1825: Electronic Edition.
Author: Mitchell, Elisha, 1793-1857
Editor: Erika Lindemann
Funding from the State Library of North Carolina supported the electronic publication of this title.
Text transcribed by Erika Lindemann and Lisa Przybylinski
Images scanned by Mara E. Dabrishus
Text encoded by Brian Dietz
First Edition, 2005
Size of electronic edition: ca. 23K
Publisher: The University Library, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Chapel Hill, North Carolina
The electronic edition is a part of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill digital library, Documenting the American South.
Languages used in the text: English
Revision history:
2005-05-11, Brian Dietz finished TEI/XML encoding.
Part of a series:
This transcribed document is part of a digital collection, titled True and Candid Compositions: The Lives and Writings of Antebellum Students in North Carolina
written by Lindemann, Erika
Title of collection: Elisha Mitchell Papers (#518), Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Title of document: Excerpt from the Letter from Elisha Mitchell to John Ravenscroft, February 8, 1825
Author: Elisha Mitchell
Description: 4 pages, 4 page images
Note: Call number 518 (Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill)
Topics covered:
Education/Goals and Purposes
Education/UNC Curriculum
Religion and Philosophy/Christianity and Christian Theology
Writings by Non-Students
Editorial practices
The text has been encoded using the recommendations for Level 5 of the TEI in Libraries Guidelines.
Transcript of the personal correspondence. Originals are in the Southern Historical Collection, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
Original grammar, punctuation, and spelling have been preserved.
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Letters, words and passages marked as deleted or added in originals have been encoded accordingly.
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For more information about transcription and other editorial decisions, see Dr. Erika Lindemann's explanation under the section Editorial Practices.

Document Summary

Prof. Mitchell, a Presbyterian, explains to Ravenscroft, an Episcopal bishop, the non-denominational principles that govern his teaching of religion.
Excerpt from the Letter from Elisha Mitchell to John Ravenscroft , February 8, 18251
Mitchell, Elisha, 1793-1857

Page 1
Chapel Hill Febry. 8th 1825.

Dear Sir

I seize the first leisure moment I have had since the receipt of yours to prepare a reply. That you may be the better able to judge respecting the course it will be proper for you to pursue and also to prevent future misapprehensions I will furnish you with a statement of the principles by which I have been governed during the seven years that I have been connected with the University of N.Ca.
One considerable motive to induce me to leave my native state [Connecticut] and accept an appointment here was a desire to escape from those theological disputes which were filling every village in New England with bitterness. At Chapel Hill I hoped to be so far secluded from the contentions of the day as to be at liberty to pass my life in peace. But I should regard my life as spent to no good purpose if occupied in giving instruction in a College built on any other foundation than christianity. No public teachers of religion had been provided by the TrusteesDr Caldwell was evidently overburdened with business—I entered into the work and preached my first sermon in the College Chapel.
I was educated a Presbyterian.2 I immediately settled in my own mind the course which it would be proper for me to pursue and what was required of me in justice to other denominations. It appeared to me that there were certain great doctrines which were common to christians in the state generally—which might be brought to bear with the happiest effect upon the minds of the students whilst their religious creed was left to be fashioned in other particulars by those persons whom their parents might point out as suitable guides in spiritual things. It is an opinion which has been repeatedly expressed by me to the gentlemen with whom I am associated that it was our duty (those of us who preached) so to frame our discourses that the young men should go home to their parents better Episcopalians—better Presbyterians—better Baptists—better Methodists than they were when they came. To this end my labours have been directed and I believe—not without success. Our graduates have been (at least in many places) remarkable beyond other young men of their age for their punctual and decent attendance on divine worship and their respect for religion. I have never known an instance where a young man has forsaken the

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creed of his Fathers during his residence here.
My mathematical recitations have no bearing upon the subject of religion It is found expedient that the young men should have a lesson on sunday—if for no other purpose at least to keep them from profaning the day by unholy diversions. In selecting more than six years ago a book to be recited in the Junior class I had a particular reference to the fact that this a state institution. The book made choice of was Paley's Nat. Theology.3 Pious students have sometimes objected to studying it on sunday on the ground that it was not sufficiently devotional. My reply has been—that a book more devotional must be framed according to the dogmas of some religious sect and that the introduction of anything sectarian was as far as possible to be avoided. The object of the one in question was—to establish the existence of God and point out the evidences of wisdom exhibited in his works—and that no one could read it without profit. These views have been more than once exhibited by to the students in the recitation room with an intention—at least—that it would be proper for them to learn at home what views opinions it would be expedient for them to adopt in relation to those questions about which christians are at variance.
As an evidence that I have not been more zealous for my own creed than became a man who had any at all I may mention that Mr Hooper 4 will tell you that when he thought of taking orders in the Episcopal church he had my hearty concurrence and that when he lefts us it was at my more than once repeated request that he wrote to Mr Eastburn—then about to receive ordination in the Diocese of N. York—requesting him to become a candidate for the vacant professorship. Mr Eastburn had other views but had he come he would have received a hearty welcome I might add more on this topic but will only request you to believe on the word of a man who hopes for heaven—that I have never uttered a sentence to a student either in the pulpit or out of [it] with an intention to make him a Presbyterian .
The inference which I wish you to draw from the above statements is that a man who has been thus just and liberal is not—unless the reasons are very pressing—to be exhibited to the public in the character of religious partizun which does not belong to him—of a religious partizun.
The considerations which independantly of a regard to justice have led to the adoption of the above line of conduct were—A desire to put it into the power of any Father to commit his son to my care in the full confidence that the principles of the parent would be respected—that no obstacle might be interposed to prevent my getting the affections of the youth and heading him along successfully in his studies; by the idea that

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I was the enemy of his faith—and lastly that all hearts might be united in support of an institution which with all its imperfections is of inestimable value to the State.—Unless I deceive myself it is a regard for the institution chiefly and especially rather than personal considerations which make me wish to retire from this contest. [. . .]5

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I remain with Sentiments of Respect
Your Obdt. Servt.

E. Mitchell

To Right Rev. John S. Ravenscroft .


1. Matthias Murray Marshall Papers, SHC. The letter is addressed "To the/ Right Revd John Ravenscroft / Raleigh"; the postage endorsement reads "Chapl Hill 6." Below the address at the edge of the paper, a second hand has written "Professor Mitchell /8th Febry 1825/ Chapel Hill ."
From time to time North Carolinians accused the faculty of being too Presbyterian. In 1824 and early 1825 Presbyterian Elisha Mitchell found himself embroiled in a public controversy with John Stark Ravenscroft (1772-1830) , the first bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. In correspondence with Ravenscroft dated May 1824, Mitchell had defended the University against the charge that it was "building up Presbyterianism," but evidently Ravenscroft was unsatisfied. On December 24, 1824, the Raleigh Register published a piece that Mitchell wrote over the signature "Clericus ," in which he argued that Scripture was the only source of religious truth and that "the use of tradition as an aid to religious interpretation" should be rejected (Dictionary of North Carolina Biography 4:282). From late January to late March 1825, Mitchell and Ravenscroft exchanged no fewer than eighteen letters continuing the controversy. Mitchell apologized for publicly airing a private quarrel; Ravenscroft demanded a public apology, threatening to reveal Mitchell's identity as "Clericus " and thereby embarrassing the University. Though only an excerpt from Mitchell's February 8, 1825, letter appears here, readers wishing to consult the other letters bearing on the Mitchell - Ravenscroft controversy will find them in the Matthias Murray Marshall Papers, SHC.

2. A graduate of Yale in 1813, Mitchell took a brief theological course before receiving his license to preach from the Congregationalist Western Association of New Haven County, CT, in 1817. In 1821 Mitchell was ordained by the Presbytery of Orange in Hillsborough, NC (Dictionary of North Carolina Biography 4:282).

3. William Paley, Natural Theology; or, Evidences of the Existence and Attributes of the Deity (London: R. Faulder, 1802).

4. William Hooper (1792-1876) , professor of ancient languages from 1817 to 1822, became an Episcopal deacon in 1820. In 1822 he left his faculty position to become pastor of St. Johns Church in Fayetteville, NC. His doubts about the church's teaching on baptism, confirmation, and Holy Orders led him to resign his congregation in 1824. The following year, he returned to the University as professor of rhetoric and logic. In 1831 Hooper was baptized a member of Mt. Carmel Baptist Church.

5. In the rest of letter, Mitchell defends himself from Ravenscroft's charge that the "Clericus " piece can be used by others "as an instrument with which to assail the Episcopal church."Mitchell reasserts his argument: "The position of Clericus is merely that 'True Religion Can be found by the Bible Alone.'" By late March 1825, Mitchell and Ravenscroft had settled on printing, each at their own expense, a reply to the other's arguments.