University History

Rev. Robert Ryland


Born at Farmington, King and Queen County, Virginia, March 14, 1805, he was the son of Josiah Ryland and Catharine (Peachey) Ryland. Josiah Ryland planned to give each of his sons a farm, but his son Robert preferred to have his portion in money so that he might acquire an education.

Dr. Ryland prepared for college at Humanity Hall in Hanover County, Virginia, where he studied Latin and Greek under Reverend Peter Nelson from 1820 to 1823. He then attended Columbian College in Washington, D.C., where he graduated with the A.B. degree on December 23, 1826. He received the A.M. degree from Columbian in 1829.

He was pastor of the First Baptist Church of Richmond for 24 years. On the Sunday after the evacuation of Richmond, an officer was sent with a detail of troops to the First African Church. A U.S. official announced to the congregation that for the first time in their lives they would have a free vote. He then asked them to choose who should preach to them, Dr. Ryland or the chaplain of a Negro regiment. They chose Dr. Ryland.

Dr. Ryland was one of the most eminent ministers of his day. He was influential in the progress of the Baptist denomination, being a distinguished educator, author, and leader in denominational affairs. He once gave as the reason for his long life that some people need more discipline than others to fit them for heaven’s “pure society and employment.”

Dr. Ryland was President of the Baptist General Association of Virginia for 1862. He was chaplain of the University of Virginia, 1835–36 and chaplain of the Southwest Virginia Institute at Bristol from 1893–1897. His published writings include Lectures on the Apocalypse, and at least a score of pamphlets on religious and educational subjects. Columbian College conferred on him the honorary degree of Doctor of Divinity.

When the Virginia Baptist Seminary was established, Dr. Ryland was chosen as its first Superintendent. He took charge of that institution July 1, 1832. He was not only Superintendent but the only teacher, when the Seminary opened on July 4, 1832, at Spring Farm, with a student body that “did not exceed ten” – all preparing for the ministry. On June 8, 1841, the Board of Trustees of Richmond College elected him President.  He also served as Professor of Moral Philosophy until 1866.

Under Dr. Ryland's leadership, the institution grew from a Seminary with one teacher to a College which at the beginning of the Civil War had an endowment of $100,000, a faculty of six professors and one tutor, and an average attendance of about one hundred twenty students. He placed the College on a firm foundation.

After resigning as President of Richmond College in 1866, Dr. Ryland taught for two years at the Richmond Female Institute, and also taught for a period of time at the Richmond Theological Institute.

In 1868 he moved to Shelbyville, Kentucky. There he served as President of Female Schools at Shelbyville, Lexington and Newcastle. In addition to his education work he served as pastor of several churches.

He was married in 1830 to Josephine Norvell of Richmond, Virginia. He died April 23, 1899, at the home of his son-in-law, Mr. Frank Atkins, in Lexington, Kentucky. Funeral services were held in Richmond College Chapel, conducted by Dr. William E. Hatcher. All exercises at Richmond College were suspended during the services. He was interred in the Richmond College section in Hollywood Cemetery.

 - Excerpted from Hackley, Woodford B., Faces on the Wall - Brief Sketches of the MEN and WOMEN whose PORTRAITS and BUSTS were on the campus of the University of Richmond in 1955, Virginia Baptist Historical Society, 1972.