From the start

Professor emeritus who shaped VCU in its early years continues a history of devoted support

By Kit Tindall

The study of ancient texts has informed our perceptions of history and culture for generations, enhancing our understanding of the beliefs and practices of the past and their origins. 

Andrew Crislip, Ph.D., a faculty member in the Virginia Commonwealth University College of Humanities and Sciences Department of History, works to continue that tradition. He explores Christian approaches to passions within the contexts of ancient philosophy and medicine and the interdisciplinary and cross-cultural study of emotion.

In 2012, Crislip published Thorns in the Flesh: Illness and Sanctity in Late Ancient Christianity, which sheds new light on the ways in which late ancient Christians radically reinterpreted illness and its implication of sin or failure by the ill. In 2019, Crislip co-authored his latest book Selected Discourse of Shenoute the Great: Community, Theology, and Social Conflict in Late Antique Egypt. The book presents modern translations of public sermons of an Egyptian Christian leader in fourth- and fifth-century Egypt, offering a glimpse of the moral teachings and guidance they offered. 

He says his position as William E. and Miriam S. Blake, Jr. Chair in the History of Christianity, which he has held since 2008, has been instrumental in supporting his work. “It’s enabled me to pursue international research projects, present my work and represent VCU at conferences.”

The position was established in 2006 with an anonymous gift of $1 million from a former student of VCU professor emeritus William E. “Bill” Blake Jr., Ph.D. 

Blake himself has been an integral part of VCU since its inception. Blake began teaching history at Richmond Professional Institute in 1963 and worked closely with Warren Brandt, VCU’s first president, as RPI and the Medical College of Virginia merged to create VCU in 1968. Blake became the first president of VCU’s Faculty Senate and was involved in many conversations with fellow faculty members who outlined VCU’s earliest faculty policies. In 1993, Blake donated many documents from these meetings to VCU Libraries.

Blake taught full time at VCU for 27 years and continued to teach as a professor emeritus until 2012. He started his VCU teaching career with courses in four eras: Renaissance, Reformation, early Middle Ages and high Middle Ages. These courses already covered roughly 1,000 years of Christianity’s history, and a colleague suggested that Blake condense the information into a single course. This led him to create the History of Christianity course, which he taught dozens of times over the years.

Supporting a field

To mark his retirement from full-time teaching in 1992, Blake and his late wife, Miriam S. Blake (B.S.’69, M.Ed.’76), made their first gift to the university. This gift established the William E. and Miriam S. Blake, Jr. Lecture in the History of Christianity in the College of Humanities and Sciences. For nearly three decades, the annual Blake lectures have brought renowned scholars to VCU to share their insights and broaden understanding of Christianity.

The William E. Blake, Jr. Scholarship Endowment was established in Bill’s name in 2001. This fund supports students who are interested in European history from the Roman Empire through the 18th century. 

As a professor and a preacher, Bill values connecting with his audience and making history and theology feel relevant to modern audiences.

“Christianity, even for people of other religions or people with no religion, is part of so much that goes on in ordinary conversation and in the intellectual atmosphere,” Blake says. “Art, music, architecture – you can’t walk down the street without seeing evidence of Christianity. What does it all mean? How can you make sense of it? Both the chair and the lectureship are meant to help people understand the roots of it, see how it’s operating now and maybe see where it’s headed.”

Crislip has continued Blake’s passion for the field and taught countless students in the ten different courses that are now offered in the department. Thanks to the support of the Blake Chair, he is able to further his own passion for the field and provide funding for students to work with him on research projects. 

It is extraordinary to have an endowed position of this sort at a public institution,” Crislip says. “The Blake Chair shows VCU’s excellence and ambitions as a research university and demonstrates just how important VCU has been in the intellectual and cultural life of Richmond.”

Planning victories

Blake’s late wife, Miriam Blake, belonged to one of the first graduating classes at VCU, earning her bachelor of science degree in early education a year after VCU’s founding. She taught first grade in Hanover County, Chesterfield County Public Schools and Richmond Public Schools for almost 40 years, retiring in 2005. In 2012, the Blakes endowed the Miriam S. Blake Scholarship in Early and Elementary Education in the VCU School of Education to honor her career. The scholarship supports undergraduate and graduate students who demonstrate leadership qualities, show a strong need for financial assistance and are pursuing a teaching career in early and elementary education. 

Miriam was always looking for ways to prepare her students and make sure they had opportunities to succeed. Her advice to educators: “Always plan a victory for your students.” The scholarship will continue to empower VCU students to achieve their goals to become teachers. 

Preserving a history

The couple has also supported VCU Libraries over the years. In fact, a collection of letters and cards Bill and Miriam sent each other leading up to their engagement are now in the Special Collections and Archives at the James Branch Cabell Library at VCU. These letters document the summer of 1949 when the two were separated while Bill worked at Dunn’s Bar-B-Que in Richmond and Miriam worked at a dry cleaner in Wilmington, Ohio. 

In addition to his personal and professional papers, Bill has donated significant book collections to VCU Libraries over the years. These collections include his texts on the history of Christianity, a collection of comic books that he began amassing as a child and an important collection of books and original resources related to his denomination, The Disciples of Christ. These materials are housed in Special Collections and Archives (SCA) at the James Branch Cabell Library where they are preserved and made available to all in the SCA Reading Room. 

"These have been my favorite books, and I’ve managed to hold on to them for so long," Blake says. “I wanted to make sure my collections stayed together and were maintained. I trust VCU Libraries to preserve these works and make sure they are available to more than just a handful of people.” 

Blake also established a $100,000 planned gift in 2016 to support multiple funds that support the values and causes that the couple has espoused. In 2023, Blake pledged an additional $1.4 million to this planned gift. A portion of this generous gift will provide more than $250,000 to the Special Collections and Archives Endowment and support the continued maintenance of his and other collections at VCU. 

“The library is the heart and soul of a university,” Blake says. “I want to be sure that VCU Libraries has what they need for these collections to be preserved, expanded and disseminated.”

This planned gift will also support the Miriam S. Blake Scholarship in Early and Elementary Education, the William E. Blake, Jr. Scholarship Endowment, the William E. and Miriam S. Blake Jr. Fund for the Study of the History of Christianity, and the William E. and Miriam S. Blake Jr. Chair in the History of Christianity. This gift will continue the Blakes’ legacy of dedication to VCU and the education of its students for generations to come. 

“My wife, my son, my daughter-in-law and my granddaughter have all been educated at VCU, and the university served me well professionally,” Blake says. “VCU has been our lives in many respects. What better incentive would one have to support?”

To learn more about the College of Humanities and Sciences, contact Mary Riddick, senior director of development, at To learn more about VCU Libraries, contact Kelly Gotschalk (B.F.A.’90; M.A.’97), senior director of development, at To learn more about the School of Education, contact Ed Kardos, executive director of development, alumni and student engagement at