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The History of Harvard's Commencement, Explained

COLLEGE PRAYERS.

NO WRITER ATTRIBUTED

IN President Dunster's day, the 'Rules and Precepts that are observed in the Colledge' required that 'Every Schollar shall be present in his Tutors chamber at the 7th, houre in the morning, immediately after the sound of the Bell, at his opening the Scripture and prayer, so also at the 5th. houre at night, and then give account of his owne private reading. Every one shall so exercise himselfe in reading the Scriptures twice a day, that he shall be ready to give such an account of his proficiency therein, both in Theoretticall observations of the Language, and Logick, and in Practicall and spirituall truths, as his Tutor shall require, according to his ability; seeing the entrance of the word giveth light, it giveth understanding to the simple, Psalm. 119. 130.' By the 'Laws, Liberties and Orders of Harvard College,' which in the years 1642 - 1646 were 'published to the scholars for the perpetual preservation of their welfare and government,' and which remained in force during the seventeenth century, it is prescribed that if any scholar, being in health, shall be absent from prayers or lectures, except in case of urgent necessity or by leave of his Tutor, he shall be liable to admonition (or such punishment as the President shall think meet), if he offend above once a week. The daily services in the Hall were conducted by the President. In the morning, the undergraduates were required to read in the Old Testament from the Hebrew into Greek, excepting the Freshmen, who were allowed to use their English Bibles; and in the evening to read in the New Testament from the English or Latin into Greek. In this connection it may be mentioned that in 1688 President Increase Mather ordered from Utrecht, fifty Hebrew Psalters for the use of the students in Harvard College. The reading by the students was followed by an exposition of the passages, which was given by the President, who concluded with prayer. On one occasion, when President Rogers officiated, his prayer was not so long by half as usual; and Cotton Mather remarks: 'Heaven knew the Reason! The scholars, returning to their Chambers, found one of them on fire, and the Fire had proceeded so far, that if the Devotions had held three Minutes longer, the Colledge had been irrecoverably laid in Ashes, which now was happily preserved,' In 1708 this 'ancient and laudable practice,' which seems not to have been very edifying, however, of requiring translations from the Scriptures, was revived; but in 1723 a report made to the Overseers stated, that the tutors and graduates do generally give their attendance on the prayers in the Hall, though not on the readings; and that the undergraduates attend both prayers and readings; but they attend in greater numbers at prayers when there are no readings. Some years afterwards it was ordered that when the President could not attend prayers, one of the Tutors or the Librarian should pray and also read some portion of Scripture, they taking their turns by course weekly; and that whenever they should do so for any considerable time, they should be suitably rewarded for their services.

"In 1795 it was voted by the Faculty that all the students in future, while the Divine blessing is asked upon the Scripture, and during the prayer after the reading of the Scriptures, should stand facing the desk, as this was the most decent and proper position; but that, during the reading of the Scriptures, they should be all sitting in their seats.

"A peculiar feature of morning prayers at this period was, that, after the exercises, the President was accustomed to hear public confessions from the students in presence of all the classes and officers, and to administer discipline, which consisted of degradation, admonition, or expulsion, according to the nature of the offence. Many instances of this humiliating acknowledgment of error and sin are recorded. In the diary of President Leverett we find that 'Nov. 4, 1712, S.t Barnes was publickly admonish'd in the College Hall, and there confessed his Sinfull Excess, and his enormous pfanation of the Holy Name of Almighty God. And he demeaned himself so that the Presid.t and Fellows conceived great hopes that he will not be lost.'

''The janitor, Kiernan, after the ringing of the first bell, was wont to go to the house of the clergyman who was to officiate and make sure of his attendance, and on his way back, he passed in the rear of Holworthy, clapping his hands to wake up the Seniors. It was generally understood in those days that when it was too dark for the minister to read, the monitors did not mark. In the latter part of the life of old Dr. Ware, when he had become almost blind, the undergraduates sometimes took advantage of this established custom, and lay in bed when it seemed to be scarcely possible for any one to read. But the venerable man, utterly unconscious how dark it was, would repeat the Scripture from memory, and then the monitors would be compelled to mark, and the absences were recorded. In April, 1831, Francis C. Gray, then a member of the Corporation, addressed a public letter to Levi Lincoln, Governor of Massachusetts, vindicating the College against the charge of sectarianism, which had been brought on the ground that the daily religious services were performed by professors in the Theological School. 'It is alleged,' he says, 'that the prayers are made by the professors in Theology, and may pervert the minds of the pupils. Surely no one in New England can contend that so large a family should not have any morning and evening prayers. It is true that the Theological Professors pray; but who else should pray? And, after all, what is the objection to their prayers? It is expressly admitted that the prayers will contain no matter of controversy, nothing to startle the most timid conscience. But then they will omit some peculiar doctrines. The objection is, not that they contain Sectarianism, but that they omit Sectarianism. That is the charge, that is the sin, and that is the truth.'"

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