Memorial Church seems, at first glance, to be a vestige of Harvard’s Puritan roots. The austere brick façade evokes the covenanted communities of New England from which Harvard men used to flock. Accordingly, Memorial Church is Protestant.
The student body has changed drastically over the years, but this anachronism, as Pusey Minister Peter J. Gomes called it in 1973, still remains. To reflect the diverse array of faiths on campus and act as an inclusive home for religious life at Harvard, Memorial Church should become a solely interfaith space.
Harvard College today would be unrecognizable to Charles Eliot, the university president who, in 1886, controversially made morning prayers voluntary, branding the university as “Godless Harvard” for years to come. Current undergraduates hail from 80 countries with faiths ranging from Buddhism to Zoroastrianism. There are 29 chaplaincies and 30 religious student organizations on campus. Yet there is only one church and one minister to preside over major university events: Both are Protestant.
How did Memorial Church become such a central religious institution at Harvard? While the history of Harvard has always been intertwined with Protestantism, Harvard was not founded simply as a Puritan seminary. From the beginning, Harvard had no institutional affiliation with a denomination. The installation of lawyer John Leverett as university president in 1708 was a testament to Harvard’s secular—rather than religious—roots.
That the next non-ordained president did not arrive until 1869 indicates the complicated history out of which Memorial Church emerged. Historian Bernard Bailyn discussed these conflicting views of Harvard’s foundation, concluding that “Harvard was founded as an institution from which the leadership of church, state, and trade was expected to emerge, and that leadership, like the community as a whole, was expected to remain deeply and correctly Christian.” Thus, at the very least, it seems clear that Harvard was never simply the Puritan stronghold that a Protestant church in the center of campus might suggest.
The centrality of Memorial Church stems, instead, from the early 1920s, when university president—and renowned bigot—A. Lawrence Lowell first promoted the controversial idea of a new chapel as a memorial to graduates who had died fighting in World War I. Fervent protest quickly flared up in response. A 1921 editorial in The New York Times read that “a memorial to men of different sects shouldn’t be religious” and a 1931 editorial in The Crimson eloquently concluded, “To railroad through the University a War Memorial Chapel that does not express the ideals of all Harvard men is to confine its significance to brick and steel.” Despite these objections, Lowell’s church was completed, with alumni funding, in 1932.
Since then, Harvard has tried to address this troubled past. In 1958, Memorial Church opened its doors to all religions. The first non-Christian service happened eight years later, for Rosh Hashanah—many Reform Jews still attend services there. Muslim students have used its facilities for prayer, too, although this has changed since they acquired a prayer space in a prime location, the basement of Canaday Hall.
Harvard attempted to institutionalize religious diversity in 1974, when the Stendahl Committee recommended that a troika consisting of a Protestant minister, Roman Catholic priest, and Jewish rabbi replace the single minister of Memorial Church. President Bok rejected the proposal, claiming that it limited, rather than broadened, the university’s religious functions. He also changed “Preacher to the University” to “Minister in Memorial Church” to better contextualize the Protestant chaplaincy within the broader Harvard community.
Claiming that Protestant Memorial Church is simply another outlet for religious life at Harvard—akin to the Harvard Hillel or the Catholic Student Center at St. Paul’s Church—is unrealistic. Memorial Church is favored not only because of its place in the center of Harvard Yard, but also because of Reverend Gomes’s presence at major university events. Although Gomes has done an exemplary job of negotiating this role in the past 30 years and building Memorial Church to the dynamic institution it is today, it is time for the church to lose its denominational affiliation.
In doing so, Memorial Church would follow the lead of peer universities. Yale’s Battell Chapel recently lost its affiliation with the United Church of Christ and reaffirmed its ecumenical role. University Chapel at Princeton similarly offers ecumenical services on Sundays. Dartmouth’s Rollins Chapel is an explicitly interfaith space, with a Muslim prayer room off the main transept. Earl Hall at Columbia is more a center for community service and houses the Office of the University Chaplain, which is also explicitly interfaith. Any one of these alternatives would be better than Harvard’s status quo.
As a modern university in a globalized world, Harvard has a responsibility to include all members of its community in academic, social, and religious life. Although Memorial Church has made inclusive adaptations over the past 77 years, the crucial change has not taken place. Only when Memorial Church becomes a home to all faiths on campus will it truly be “of Harvard University.”
Noah M. Silver ’10, a former Crimson associate editorial editor, is a history concentrator in Quincy House. His column appears on alternate Wednesdays.
CORRECTION: The April 8 column “Foundations of Faith” incorrectly stated that Charles Eliot made Memorial Church morning prayers voluntary in 1866, when in fact he did so in 1886. John Leverett was installed as university president in 1708, instead of 1662 as stated in the piece. Finally, the next non-ordained president following Leverett arrived in 1869, as opposed to 1886. The Crimson regrets the errors.