Ruffner was born on February 11, 1824, in Lexington. He was the son of Henry Ruffner, a professor at Washington College, and his first wife, Sarah Montgomery Lyle Ruffner. He attended a local academy and, as a teenager, joined one of Lexington’s debating societies. An honors graduate of Washington College, he earned his AB in 1842 and gave a commencement speech on “The Power of Knowledge.” The following year he was sent to revive the family’s salt-mine business in Kanawha County. There he joined a temperance society and the local chapter of the American Society for Colonizing the Free People of Color of the United States (generally known as the American Colonization Society). Ruffner expressed concerns about the spiritual and physical health of enslaved and free African Americans who labored in the region’s salt and coal mines. He believed that slavery was not economically viable, although he did not oppose biblical-based arguments in favor of slavery.
Ruffner returned to Lexington in January 1845. In June he received his AM from Washington College. About the same time he established a Sunday school for African Americans at the Presbyterian church, although it was discontinued when he left to continue his studies at Union Theological Seminary (later Union Presbyterian Seminary), in Prince Edward County. In 1846, he matriculated at Princeton Theological Seminary, where he was exposed to the conservative Calvinism of its influential professors. Poor health caused him to withdraw during the spring of 1847. That year his father published Address to the People of West Virginia, in which he advocated the gradual emancipation of slaves in western Virginia to prevent unproductive slave labor from causing the same kind of economic malaise experienced in the eastern part of the state. The resulting controversy played a large role in Henry Ruffner’s resignation as president of Washington College.
In November 1847 Ruffner became a traveling agent for the American Colonization Society and spent the next two months raising funds and transporting a group of manumitted slaves from Montgomery County to Baltimore for immigration to Liberia. He returned to New Jersey, where he was licensed by the Presbytery of New Brunswick on February 2, 1848. During the remainder of the year, he supplied Presbyterian churches near Lexington while caring for his ailing mother. After working as a colporteur for the Virginia Synod, distributing Bibles and other literature, he accepted the pastorate at Charlotte Court House in February 1849. Later that year he became chaplain at the University of Virginia, a two-year post. He held weekly morning and evening prayer services, preached twice on Sundays, and in 1850–1851 organized a lecture series by Presbyterian ministers, which he later compiled and published as Lectures on the Evidences of Christianity (1859). While serving as chaplain, Ruffner audited classes with W. H. McGuffey and William B. Rogers, who inspired Ruffner’s lifelong fascination with geology.
Slavery, Colonization, and War
Ruffner married Harriet Ann Gray, the daughter of a wealthy Rockingham County planter, on September 3, 1850. They had two sons, both of whom died young, and two daughters. After Ruffner accepted the call of Seventh Presbyterian Church in April 1851, they moved to Philadelphia. He was ordained there on January 14, 1852. As pastor he began a lecture series on science and the Bible, but opposition led him to abandon the attempt. Ruffner joined the board of the Pennsylvania Colonization Society, and on July 4, 1852, he gave a sermon describing colonization as the best solution to the problem of slavery in America and the most effective way to advance the “civilization and Christianization of Africa.” At the request of some of his parishioners, he published his sermon under the title Africa’s Redemption (1852). In 1853 he anonymously published Charity and the Clergy, in which he argued that the Protestant church suffered from increased secularization and that clergy must devote more of their ministries to the biblical charge to care for the poor for the benefit of all. The book received much criticism in religious periodicals and in defending its arguments, Ruffner identified himself as the author of the published work.
Periodic episodes of poor health and a severe throat ailment, in addition to the controversy surrounding his book, led Ruffner to resign as pastor in April 1853. Settling in Rockingham County, he leased a farm near his wife’s family and also invested in a Harrisonburg tannery. He hired at least four slaves and relied on the labor of six others who were gifts from his father-in-law. As he did in Lexington, Ruffner established a Sunday school for African Americans, although he was careful to note that he provided only oral instruction, since Virginia law forbade. Between April and December 1856 he also edited the Virginia Farmer, a short-lived monthly periodical. He indulged his love of geology during the summer and autumn of 1860 when he took an expedition around the state with his friend and Washington College professor John L. Campbell.
A slaveholder who hoped that gradual emancipation and colonization could bring about an end to slavery and diffuse the country’s tension over the issue, Ruffner was a moderate during the sectional crisis that came to a head after Abraham Lincoln‘s. In February 1860 he joined other Rockingham residents in calling for a union meeting in Harrisonburg. His brother-in-law Algernon S. Gray was one of the county’s delegates at the that met to consider secession. After Virginia seceded in April 1861, however, Ruffner supported his native state and joined the local home guard. During the Civil War he sold his Rockingham properties and moved to Rockbridge County. The fled to Bedford, Campbell, and Amherst counties during 1864–1865, but after the war they returned to Rockbridge, where Ruffner built a home, Tribrook, and raised a variety of fruit and vegetable crops. He also served as a supply pastor at Ben Salem Church, near Lexington, in 1868–1869, although problems with his throat led him to request divesture from the church in 1874.
Superintendent of Public Instruction
After the Civil War, Congress required the former Confederate states to write new constitutions before they could be readmitted to the United States. In July 1869 Virginians approved a constitution that provided for the creation of a free public school system in the state. Ruffner believed that public schools were essential to rebuilding Virginia and solicited testimonials from a variety of influential Virginians, including W. H. McGuffey,leader , and Washington College president , recommending him as the superintendent of public instruction. On March 1, 1870, the Conservative caucus of the General Assembly nominated Ruffner for the new office and the assembly elected him to the post the following day. He then had thirty days to write the legislation outlining the public school system.
His plan was based in part on systems with which he was familiar in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and may have had some foundation in a plan for public education that his father had proposed before the war, although Ruffner later wrote that he had been unaware of his father’s work. He also consulted with John B. Minor, a law professor at the University of Virginia, and Barnas Sears, a former president of Brown University and the general agent for the Peabody Education Fund. The school system Ruffner outlined was racially segregated and centralized, with the superintendent and state board of education having supervisory control over all school matters. The assembly approved the legislation and it was signed by the governor on July 11, 1870.
With four months until schools were scheduled to open, Ruffner and the board of education, which consisted of himself, the governor, and the attorney general, hired about 1,400 county superintendents and school trustees. Schools began opening on November 1, 1870, although funding was still not entirely in place and some teachers were not fully paid until the end of the five-month school year. About 130,000 students attended the almost 3,000 public schools that opened in the first year, including about 39,000 African Americans. Ruffner realized quickly that the great demand for teachers meant that standards for qualification were not always met and he therefore advocated teacher institutes and a normal school to provide adequate training. The General Assembly rebuffed his requests for a normal school, but he secured money from the Peabody Fund to help finance local institutes. In 1880 Ruffner was able to implement separate six-week summer institutes for white and African American teachers.
Throughout his career Ruffner stressed the importance of providing an equal education for white and black students, primarily because he feared the effect on the state’s governance if uneducated men of either race voted in large numbers. A strong supporter of segregation, he published an essay in Scribner’s Monthly in 1874 opposing any suggestion of mixed-race schools as had been proposed in a recent congressional civil rights bill. He argued that natural differences between races and the hostile attitude that southern whites had toward African Americans would doom public schools if an attempt were made to require interracial schools, although he believed that one day such prejudices would come to an end. In 1876 Ruffner engaged in a public debate with, an old friend and an influential Presbyterian minister. Dabney called for the elimination of public schools because of their cost and because they threatened the social order by educating African Americans who, he claimed, were suited only to manual labor and had no need for education. Ruffner countered with a series of articles in the Richmond Dispatch and Enquirer that the state had a moral imperative to educate all of its citizens.
He had to combat additional hostility toward the school system, including an 1875 attack by the Richmond College professor Bennett Puryear, who argued that public schools undermined parental authority by controlling what children learned about any subject, including morality and religion. Ruffner responded in the Educational Journal of Virginia that public schools were a “fixed fact” and that while moral instruction was an important part of the curriculum, the schools left religious instruction to parents and the church and were not a threat to the social order.
His extensive public advocacy for schools attracted attention across the state and throughout the country. Washington and Lee University awarded him an honorary LLD for his work in 1874. In 1875–1876 he served a term as president of the Educational Association of Virginia (later Virginia Education Association). He served multiple terms as a vice president of the American Social Sciences Association between 1876 and 1882. Ruffner attended meetings of the National Educational Association’s Department of Superintendence (later the American Association of School Administrators) and served a term as president in 1882. He chaired its committees on national legislation and aid to education in 1874 and 1880, and on multiple occasions urged members of Congress to distribute more money from the sale of public lands to school systems in southern states.
When the General Assembly established Virginia Agricultural and Mechanical College (later Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University) in 1872 under the terms of the Morrill Land Grant Act (1862), Ruffner was given responsibility for about $500,000 worth of bonds purchased by the board of education. As the state superintendent of public instruction, Ruffner was named one of the curators of the fund at Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (later Hampton University), which received one-third of the land grant funds, and a board member of the new college, which received the remainder. He chaired the committee to develop a plan of organization for the agricultural school, which he believed should be technical in nature to meet the practical needs of its students, although the board ultimately adopted a more traditional liberal arts curriculum. Twice offered the presidency of the new college in Blacksburg, he declined in 1872 and in 1880.
Virginia suffered severe financial difficulties following the passage of the 1871 Funding Act to pay the state’s antebellum public debt. State revenues declined dramatically because taxes could be paid in coupons rather than currency and in 1876 Ruffner pointed out in his annual report that the state owed the school system at least $400,000. He continued to publicize the missing revenue and calculated that the state was in arrears for $1.1 million in 1878, which led to the closing of 2,000 schools in 1878–1879. To those who claimed that public schools were a luxury the state could not afford, he countered that public schools paid a debt owed toin the Civil War by freely educating their children who would go on to build a stronger Virginia. Ruffner did not believe Virginia should repudiate part of its public debt, however, as was advocated by the , who won control of the General Assembly in 1879 and passed legislation reducing the principal and lowering interest payments, thereby making funds available for the schools.
Ruffner was twice reelected state superintendent of public instruction, although he faced opposition from some Conservatives in 1874, in part because of his refusal to name a uniform series of textbooks for the entire state, angering publishing houses. The board of education selected recommended texts in each subject, but Ruffner believed that local school systems were the most qualified to select suitable books for each locality. After his reelection in 1878, he faced a serious battle for the post in 1882. On January 13, the assembly elected, a Readjuster member of the House of Delegates, as superintendent of public instruction. Rather than serving out his term, Ruffner submitted his resignation later that month, effective February 1.
During his twelve-year tenure Ruffner gave Virginia’s public school system a strong foundation and ensured its survival. He traveled more than 50,000 miles across the state and made more than 300 public speeches on behalf of the school system. By the time he resigned, more than 250,000 students attended approximately 5,500 schools and the percentage of the enrolled school-age population had increased from 37 percent in 1870–1871 to 54 percent in 1881–1882 for white students, and from 23 percent to 35 percent for African American students. Ruffner was often described as “the Horace Mann of the South” and educator J. L. M. Curry wrote that “every page of the public school history of Virginia is luminous with his triumphs.”
After retiring, Ruffner accepted a faculty position at Roanoke College, where he taught geology, mineralogy, and the science of teaching. Later in 1882, he and John L. Campbell completed a survey for the Georgia Pacific Railway Company and published A Physical Survey Extending from Atlanta, Ga., … to the Mississippi River … (1883), which played a key role in developing industry in northern Alabama. Ruffner’s return to geology was short-lived, however. In 1884 the General Assembly approved the creation of a teacher training school for white women at Farmville, which he had long advocated. Ruffner was named to the board of trustees and at its first meeting on April 9, he was elected principal of the State Female Normal School. He visited normal schools around the country to study their curricula and hired the faculty before the new school opened on October 30. Intended to train teachers for all grade levels, its early emphasis was on training elementary school teachers. Students took courses in grammar, literature, history, math, and science in addition to those in instructional methods and school management. Ruffner taught classes in didactics, ethics, psychology, and natural science and he called for more educational opportunities for women. He declined reelection as principal in April 1887 and resigned in June.
Ruffner returned to his avocation of geology and spent five weeks in the autumn of 1887 traveling in Washington Territory, an account of which he published as A Report on Washington Territory (1889). He surveyed land in Alabama for the Sloss Iron and Steel Company in 1888 and surveyed in the vicinity of Buena Vista for six months in 1889. In 1890–1891 he spent time “geologizing” in Virginia andand late in 1891 spent another two months in Washington State. He also worked on a history of Washington College, which was published as part of the Washington and Lee University Historical Papers series between 1893 and 1904.
After his wife’s death on October 18, 1895, Ruffner began spending more time in Asheville, North Carolina, with his daughter. He remained interested in educational matters, and when the town of Manassas in 1900 dedicated an expanded school named for Ruffner, he published a letter in the Virginia School Journal calling for more secondary education in the state and urging county superintendents to be stronger public school advocates.
Ruffner died at his daughter’s home in Asheville on November 24, 1908, and was buried at Stonewall Jackson Memorial Cemetery, in Lexington. School buildings have been named for Ruffner in several localities, including Norfolk and Roanoke. In 1948 the State Board of Education named the administration building at Longwood University Ruffner Hall. The University of Virginia in 1974 named the building that housed its education department in Ruffner’s honor. In 1976 the Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University board of visitors established the William H. Ruffner Medal, awarded to individuals who have performed distinguished service for the university.
- Africa’s Redemption (1852)
- Charity and the Clergy (1853)
- Lectures on the Evidences of Christianity (1859)
- “The Co-Education of the White and Colored Race” (1874)
- A Physical Survey Extending from Atlanta, Ga., … to the Mississippi River … (with John L. Campbell, 1883)
- A Report on Washington Territory (1889)