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Harvard United Ministry chaplain Jeffrey K. Barneson says Harvard has a reputation for being irreligious. “I get these calls from people saying, ‘Oh I’ve heard that Harvard is a godless place,’” he says.
This reputation may soon be no more. According to University President Lawrence H. Summers, the evangelical Christian community here at Harvard has grown significantly.
Speaking to prospective freshmen during prefrosh weekend, Summers said that the number of students at Harvard who identify themselves as evangelical Christians has doubled in the last decade.
Members of the University’s Christian community agree that there has been considerable growth in the evangelical community, both in terms of student participation in Christian groups and in the number of evangelical chaplains working at the United Ministry at Harvard, the umbrella organization encompassing all religious groups on campus.
While Christian organizations at Harvard mostly identify as being interdenominational and not specifically evangelical, there exist a handful of groups that consist predominantly of evangelical members and have informal ties to national organizations with evangelical missions.
The membership of Christian Impact (CI) and Athletes in Action—which are largely evangelical in membership—has nearly doubled over the last six years from 75 to 140, says Pat McLeod, the Harvard United Ministry chaplain for the national Christian organization Campus Crusade for Christ.
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church Peter J. Gomes says that when he first came to the University in 1970, there were no evangelical chaplains officially connected with the United Ministry.
Of the 38 different chaplains currently affiliated with the United Ministry, Ministry President William S. Campbell says that there are probably a half dozen who would identify as evangelicals, several of whom joined the ministry in the past decade, Gomes says.
According to Gomes, changes in the University’s admissions policies may explain the growth of the evangelical community.
“It’s more than likely that we also are going to have a larger pool of religious people” as Harvard becomes a more diversified place, Gomes says.
Jordan L. Hylden ’06, former co-president of CI, specifically cites the student body’s increasing racial diversity as a factor.
“Of all ethnic groups in this country, African-Americans are among the most churchgoing,” Hylden writes in an e-mail, noting that more and more African-Americans are attending the University.
“I don’t think it’s the result of some religious revival at Harvard,” Gomes says.
Some campus Christian groups, including HRCF, CI and Harvard-Radcliffe Asian-American Christian Fellowship (AACF), have historically been connected with the evangelical wing of American Protestantism, according to Gomes.
These groups have informal relationships with national associations with evangelical missions, because the University’s policy prohibits student groups from creating formal ties with national organizations.
HRCF and AACF are both loosely tied to InterVaristy Christian Fellowship, which organizes conferences and provides them with resources—including books, bible studies, and leadership training materials. InterVarsity also pays the salary of the staff of HRCF and AACF.
‘NOT THE BIG BAD SECULAR WORLD’
The vibrancy of the evangelical community makes Harvard a more attractive option for some prospective students and their parents, McLeod says.
“Harvard has a reputation of being a very godless and secular place and so one can imagine the pious parents of a young Christian wondering, ‘Is it the right place to send my daughter or my son?’” Gomes says.
McLeod says that he has seen an increase in the number of concerned parents inquiring about the Christian community at Harvard. He receives calls almost every week from parents, he says, who are often surprised to discover that there is a “flourishing evangelical community at Harvard.”
Christopher D. Hampson ’09, a CI member who identifies as an evangelical Christian, says he mostly considered Christian schools because he wanted to attend a school with a strong Christian community.
Hampson, faced with a choice between Harvard and Wheaton College in Illinois, a Christian college, says he met members of CI and was pleased to discover the strength of the Christian community on campus.
According to Gomes, many students discover upon arriving that “Harvard is not the big bad secular world—or if it is, it’s a place with which it’s worth engaging.”
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