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Memorial Church

Brass Tacks

By Kenneth Auchincloss

The last shot of World War I had scarcely been fired when Harvard alumni began a campaign to build some suitable memorial to the University's war dead. There was near unanimity on the need for such a gesture. To Americans it had been a war mainly of ideals, and its victims were sacrifices in a noble cause. Some sort of memorial was clearly called for, but at first everyone had his own idea of what form it should take.

Some urged that the memorial be completely non-utilitarian, in spirit with the idealism of those honored; others felt that a memorial would be meaningless unless it had a practical use. Some suggested stone tablets engraved with the names of the dead, a simple statue of Leonidas, or a garden extending from the Yard to the river. The other faction pressed for a gymnasium, a new auditorium, or the establishment of a special scholarship fund. In the hope that some one project might be found which a majority of graduates would favor, the Associated Harvard Clubs appointed a 43-man War Memorial Committee in 1919.

Meanwhile, general support was growing for the idea of building a new college church as a shrine for the war dead. Many felt that this would be a happy compromise between idealism and utilitarianism. Accordingly, in June, 1924, the War Memorial Committee endorsed the plan for a memorial church, reporting that three-quarters of the alumni gave it their backing.

This announcement was greeted with a hail of criticism, from both alumni and undergraduates. These objectors attacked the whole idea of a Christian church or any other place of worship as being inappropriate for a war memorial. Those killed had made a purely secular sacrifice; they had fought out of a sense of patriotic duty. Only in a very few cases, it was argued, had they felt any religious dedication. Religion, moreover, seemed of little importance in undergraduate life, and many claimed that the relatively small Appleton Chapel was more than adequate for the University's Sunday worshippers.

Hardly anyone objected on sectarian grounds. It seemed clear that the memorial church was to be a Protestant house of worship; this could be taken for granted from the fact that it directly replaced the old Appleton Chapel which had a strongly Protestant tradition. But the church would have no affiliation with any one Protestant denomination. "The fund for the Chapel," said the Overseers, "shall be solicited upon the express condition that the chapel shall be held as an undenominational trust."

This understanding of the Christian nature of the church is further indicated from the few protests that did treat this aspect of the controversy. "Why should the Christian creed, to the exclusion of all others, be chosen for the memorial?" demanded H. U. Brandenstein '90 of President Lowell in a letter written to the President in 1928. "Harvard University, like the government under which we live, is a lay institution." Lowell replied that he respected this objection, but felt the majority of alumni should have its way.

Official pronouncements on the purpose of the church, however, sometimes tended to be highly ambiguous. President Lowell called it "a fitting shrine for the spiritual life of the University," and it must be noted that the University's undergraduate body was in the early 20's about 20 per cent Jewish. "Fortunately, Harvard is so constituted," the Alumni Bulletin editorialized in 1926, "that no question of creed or sect can complicate the position of its church in the life of the University. The memorial will stand unequivocally as an affirmation of the reality of spiritual things in the midst of a civilization however materialistic in its more obvious aspects."

On one occasion the sectarian question was brought up explicitly and officially. In May, 1925, at a meeting of the Associated Harvard Clubs, the War Memorial Committee proposed a resolution favoring construction of the church. Before a vote could be taken, Edward E. Sanborn of the Southern California Club recommended a proviso that "any chapel should not be limited to any sect or creed, but should be open to any priest or preacher or rabbi." Judging from the minutes of the meeting, this proposal was met by silence. The original resolution was immediately passed without discussion.

Money for Memorial Church came in slowly, and the building could not be dedicated until Armistice Day, 1932. It was an unmistakably Christian service, with lessons from the Bible and a recitation of the Lord's Prayer. Dean Willard L. Sperry of the Divinity School was completely explicit in emphasizing the church's Christian character: "Wherefore unto the King Eternal, Immortal, Invisible, the only Wise God, we dedicate this Church, in the service of Christ...." Bishop William Lawrence '71 added in his address, "This Chapel stands in the name of Him whose birth was heralded by the words, 'Peace on earth, good will towards men.'" The church was modeled after King's Chapel in Boston, and though it contains no altar, there is a Christian cross moulded into the woodwork of the choir screen.

Sperry, as Chairman of the Board of Preachers, was the first to be faced with the question of allowing non-Christian services in the church. The final decision, however, did not lie with him; the Corporation drew up a set of rules for the operation of the church which stated that only ceremonies led by a Protestant minister could be performed there.

This has never, of course, prevented non-Christians from giving the Sunday sermon or speaking at the daily morning services in Appleton Chapel. But Sperry and his successor George A. Buttrick have had to say no to repeated requests for non-Christian marirages or funerals. These have come mostly from Jews; there have been one or two applications for Moslem services.

Jewish couples on several occasions have been married in the church by Unitarian ministers, and four times since 1932 weddings performed by a rabbi have taken place. But these last services have usually been clandestine affairs, conducted in express violation of the Corporation's edict. And the Corporation reaffirmed its decision as late at 1949, upon an appeal from Dean Sperry.

There has been no basic change in University policy towards non-Christian services in Memorial Church since the Sperry regime. Certainly neither President Pusey nor Dr. Buttrick have instituted new rules or tightened old ones. The controversy today centers not on any policy change in the recent past, but on the question of whether some change is now called for.

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