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A History of God at Harvard

By Jun-Youb Lee
Jun-Youb Lee is a second-year graduate student in the Divinity School and a proctor in Wigglesworth Hall.

“What do you do at divinity school?” a student I proctor asked me at Annenberg Hall. “I’m studying to be a minister,” I responded, and was met with a silence. I sometimes wish I were more helpful for my students’ worldly aspirations. While I also harbor vain ambition for fame, I came here to contemplate God.

Built in the 1870s to memorialize over a hundred Harvard men who fell during the Civil War, Annenberg “dispenses...laurels to the dead and dinners to the living” in the words of Henry James. Many of the dead whose names are engraved, as well as men and gods immortalized in the paintings, sculptures, and stained glasses that adorn Annenberg, were animated by God.

So I offer this piece as a prayer for my students, even though spirituality may not be at the forefront of first-year consciousness. Despite a gap-year pilgrimage that included India and Israel, I was not interested in the ultimate questions when I arrived at the University of Pennsylvania, founded secular by Benjamin Franklin. A decade later, my conversations with Harvard freshmen center on classes and clubs.

But Harvard was founded religious, and the Memorial Church that commemorates more than a thousand Harvard war-dead still serves as the spiritual fulcrum of the sprawling university. “Insofar as we all find some cause, calling, or community to sacrifice our time and resources to, we are all religious,” wrote a Crimson columnist who graduated last spring. By the time my freshmen graduate, some may glimpse divinity at the threshold of humanity.

John Harvard was a Cambridge-educated English minister who immigrated to New England. He caught tuberculosis within a year of his arrival in Boston, and donated 400 books and half his estate to the “colledge” in “Newetowne” before his death in 1638 at the age of 30. Like many gods, no records of his birth survive. Like many gods, Harvard’s origins were modest.

According to the 1643 book titled “New Englands First Fruits” which contains the first mention of Harvard College, Puritan colonists founded Harvard “dreading to leave an illiterate Ministery to the Churches, when our present Ministers shall lie in the Dust.” Harvard’s original motto was: “Truth for Christ and the Church.”

Harvard’s founders were fastidious in their orthodoxy. Its first president Henry Dunster was ousted for refusing to baptize his infant son in favor of adult baptism. Harvard’s 17th century presidents were Puritan clergy, and perhaps the most insidious was the sixth president Increase Mather who received Harvard’s first doctorate. His book on witchcraft fueled the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.

Against secularizing Harvard College, the divinity school was founded in 1816 as Harvard’s second professional school after the medical school. Its early iconoclast was Ralph Waldo Emerson, whose commencement address to the divinity graduates of 1838 remains a classic: “Europe has always owed to oriental genius its divine impulses,” preached the Unitarian minister, who would become a persona non grata at Harvard for rejecting the divinity of Jesus.

In the 1880s, Harvard’s longest-serving chief Charles Eliot jettisoned the compulsory morning chapel. With the construction of the Widener Library, Eliot’s successor Lawrence Lowell globalized Harvard beyond the Boston Brahmin. After World War I, Lowell also built the Memorial Church to face a widow’s titanic temple for her son.

Lowell’s successor James Conant served in World War I as a chemist developing poison gases. During World War II, Conant witnessed the first atomic experiment. A pragmatic man who quipped divinity school “the weakest of Harvard’s professional components,” Conant unsuccessfully tried to transfer the bankrupt divinity school to Oberlin College.

Religiosity waxed and waned among the Harvard honchos, and Conant’s successor, Nathan Pusey, was a devout Episcopalian who resented the secular ethos of the 1960s. His professors, however, had more capacious conceptions of God. “God is just as present in the secular as the religious realms of life," wrote theologian Harvey Cox in his 1965 bestseller “The Secular City.”

"Turn on – find a sacrament which returns you to the temple of God, your own body. Go out of your mind. Get high. Tune in – be reborn," was the motto of psychologist Timothy Leary who ran the Harvard Psilocybin Project. Although Harvard fired him in 1963 for egging his students onto psychedelics, one guinea pig, Huston Smith, became a towering scholar of religion.

Back in kaleidoscopic Annenberg built in a cruciform structure, the latest addition is the marble bust of W. E. B. Du Bois commissioned in 1993 for the first African American to receive a doctorate from Harvard in 1895. “I was in Harvard, not of it,” he wrote during the Jim Crow era of segregation. “I believe in God, who made of one blood all nations.”

If the God of Harvard, Emerson, and Du Bois seem alien to you, consider knocking on the doors of more than thirty university chaplains who represent the smorgasbord of faiths from Atheism to Zoroastrianism. If the sins of religions seem to eclipse their merits, chart your own spiritual path for truth and wisdom. And if the College gives you grapes rather than gold, come make wine at the divinity school.

Jun-Youb Lee is a second-year graduate student in the Divinity School and a proctor in Wigglesworth Hall.

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