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The Seymour Society:

Intellectual Inquiry and Christian Principles

By Stephanie D. James

Its stated purpose to promote an intellectual context for examining social, political and moral issues from a scriptual perspective, the William J.Seymour Society is a curious new arrival on Harvard's campus. Curious because the group of theologically conservative Black Christians is the only religious organization at the University designed to address the needs of students who are trying to reconcile their political ideologies and intellectual inquiries with Christian doctrine. In addition, the society aims to serve the public with its series of forums and weekly Bible study sessions. Maintaining that all issues should be treated in an intellectually and ecumenically open spirit, group members say they don't want to impose their ideals on others in Harvard's community.

A group of about a dozen students initiated the society last spring because, as some members say, there was no Christian group on campus that addressed their concerns. "The emergence of the Seymour Society last March was necessitated by two somewhat related factors," Eugene F.Rivers '83, says. "The first is the moral and intellectual parochialism of most evangelical student fellowships. The second, and perhaps more important factor, is the absence of an authentic Black community at Harvard which transcends the rhetorical."

Though members say the fact that all but one of their 21 members are Black remains secondary to their stated purpose, that fact figures in the topics they choose for their forums. Upcoming lectures in the series include Francis Fox Piven on Blacks in electoral politics, Noam Chomsky on human rights and U.S. foreign policy, Jonathan King on the politics of biotechnology, and the Rev. Steven short and Alvin Poussaint on the imposition of American cultural on Black male-female relationships.

The society involves two specific sorts of ministry: the education of its members and interested people in the Harvard and greater Boston communities. Thomas L. Matthew '81 says the society's forums provide an opportunity for the group to share Christ with people who might be reached in a forum setting. Saturdays the society holds Bible study sessions during which members and other participants explore further the topics addressed by the forums. Dayna V. Bowen '81, a member, says the small study sessions give interested attendants of the forums an opportunity to discuss more personal and immediate applications of these topics.

"We begin with a teaching section, providing more Biblical text. We try to establish a scriptural basis before we toss opinions around," she says, adding three to 12 participate in each session.

For the past semester, the lecture series has been well-attended and generally well-received, yet its ministry as an organization probably has more impact on its core of members than on the general student body. Members applaud the fact that the group helps them-on an individual basis-grow spiritually. "Most people believe they should assume one posture for their intellectual lives and another at church," Ray A. Hammond '71, a tutor at Currier House, says. "Personally, I came to the point where I wasn't satisfied in leading that dual life." He adds that the integration of the two postures emerged from his close study of the Bible with the society.

Criticizing the inward orientation of the group, Minister A.G. Miller of the House of the Lord Pentecostal Church in Brooklyn, who spoke at Harvard Epworth Chapel at the society's first forum, warns the Black Christian intellectual not to get caught up in personal betterment alone. "Personal growth through the sort of activities the society sponsors precedes one's being able to help someone else. I don't, however, take the perspective that study is something that is done only for personal growth. This kind of dialogue would be totally meaningless if it isn't expressed in some kind of real blood, sweat and tears struggle." Miller's hope is that the society become the catalyst for young Blacks at Harvard to make the commitment of making the gospel real by dedicating a life of work in the church.

Members of the society agree that the Christian intellectual should work in the church, especially since its concerns ultimately lie with its community. But Hammond says he is "not sure if education, politics and other social concerns are the major goals of the church." For the last decade the Church has lost its original focus, concentrating, instead, on the welfare of the community, he says, adding, "We must return to the simple power of truth and simplicity in the Gospel." Stressing his support for the Seymour Society's current, more personal, orientation, he argues that the bulk of the church's work should be providing people with spiritual tools to allow them to prevent self-destructive habits. "Only then should it extend its energies to politics," he says.

Instead, some members of the society embrace the credo of the Reverend Herbert Daughtry, the pastor of Miller's Church in New York City. Daughtry represents an unsystematic synthesis of conservative Christian theology, Black culture and radical economics. Viewing the practice of theology as emancipatory politics, the Pentecostal minister calls for Blacks to unite progressive forces to challenge the present profit-motive emphasis of the country. He likens present-day Black unrest and struggles to that of major Biblical characters who fought against injustice; according to Daughtry such a challenge is, in fact, the will of God. "In the West, religion has always sanctioned oppression. We divest the Bible of its European character. We worship the God of oppressed peoples," he says.

Bowen agrees, saying that she and other members "recognize that what we've been handed, to a large extent, is the Europeanized version of Christianity," and nothing that the Judeo-Christian tradition is not of European origin. "The name of the society is to call attention to the fact that the man who began the evangelical movement in America was Black. The name represents a historical fact that touches Black folk everywhere, Christianity everywhere," Bowen says.

For this reason members of the society believe the most authentic path the Black American church can follow is pentecostal: the pentecostal movement in America was founded by a Black man who was interpreting the scriptures in the context of Black American society. The Harvard group is named after that founder. Around 1912 William J. Seymour was an associate minister of his church but lost the approval of his pastor because he belived in the working of the Holy Spirit and the charismatic Spirit were completely consistent with Biblical doctrine as he preached miracle working and healing. Soon after Seymour was locked out of his church he founded the large and well-known Azusa Street Church in Los Angeles, an establishment after which other evangelicals modeled their houses of worship.

Today, Harvard's Seymour Society is decidedly pentecostal in orientation. To group members, "pentecostal" does not refer to a specific denomination but, rather, to those Christians who believe the Holy Spirit is still alive as presented in the New Testament. They believe in the power of baptism in the Holy gifts: among them, healing, prophecy, and speaking in tongues.

Miller believes the study and interpretation of the scriptures is just one of the many aspects of the church and that no aspect is superior to another. "Certain people will be called to various aspects of the ministry as servants: some have the training to keep the church alive spiritually, some are organizers. The church should employ the intellectual as a technician. Professional Black theologians are now transmitting bourgeois values to perpetuate class divisions in the church," he says, adding hierarchies are not appropriate in a Christian church. Bowen concurs, "The church in not an institutional structure. It is a body of believers in Christ." In the final analysis, both Miller and group members agree that the role of the Black intellectual in the church is to interpret and safeguard its Black history and tradition from academics who diminish the Black heritage of Christianity.

"Will the society allow itself to fall into the trap of intellectual structures?" Miller asks. "These intellectuals are supposedly representing the masses of Black people, and of Black Christians specifically. Particularly, the Gospel must be translated and actualized." To Miller, the actualization of the Gospel means a radical transformation of society. The Seymour Society as a whole is not as radical as Miller, though some members find their scriptural studies leading them toward the conclusion that the realization of Christian principles will necessitate a revolution. While the society encompasses many social and economic viewpoints, the members hold in common ideals and philosophies stemming from conservative Christian theology.

Clearly the idea of revolution does not dominate the discussions of the Seymour Society members. Instead, it continues, in its first year, to focus on the inward processes of Christianity. People may try to handle problems solely on the basis of a mental and emotional self-examination, but Bowen says, "it always seems to come back down to personal transformation, accepting Christ as one's personal Savior. Unless there is a mechanism for doing that which the Bible clearly offers, unless there is an underlying principle to which you can be committed, you're getting nowhere."

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