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There is a simple version of this piece, where I explain what Memorial Church looks like, and I argue that it unequivocally embodies the rhetoric of Christian nationalism. Golden cross, golden eagle, the sturdy wooden pews, the stone-engraved wall commemorating the fallen patriots — the space merges Christian and American identities. A critical eye dissects it quickly and leaves through the side doors.
A few years ago, that is the piece I would have written. Part of me still wants to write it now. It is deliciously straightforward, a puzzle piece snuggling cozily alongside the legion of headlines regarding the anti-democratic nature of the ideology that asserts the United States is, and should be, a Christian nation.
But the more I dig into Memorial Church as a space, the more conflicted I become. Campus discourse regarding the church seems to be more about the structure as a reminder of which religious spaces are not included on campus, rather than about the potentially problematic nature of honoring patriots within an explicitly religious building.
Memorial Church sits in a precarious tension with the students of the past, present, and future. It nods to history, but carries questions into today.
Memorial Church is a beautiful space. High ceilings, delicately bright light — it is clean, ornate, and serene, with subtle traces of bureaucracy. The side hall that commemorates those who gave their lives in World War I runs parallel to the broad stone wall in the sanctuary that honors those who died in World War II. A gigantic organ stands in the foreground, and the front of the sanctuary hosts a dark, wooden stage carved in a manner that reminds me of my great grandmother’s piano.
But, instead, my gaze was dragged to the two icons at the front.
A golden cross and a golden eagle.
On May 22, 1925, the meeting of the Associated Harvard Clubs in Baltimore decided that “the Memorial of the Great War should take the form of a new church or chapel.” Roughly two years later, the President and Fellows of Harvard College (commonly known as the Harvard Corporation) agreed, calling for a “beautiful new chapel in the Yard” to “be a memorial to the Harvard men who gave their lives in the World War.”
This “University Church” was erected to honor the 373 “sons of Harvard” who gave their lives in the World War. The president of Harvard at the time, Abbott Lawrence Lowell, Class of 1877, wrote in a letter on June 1, 1926, that the church would be “a fitting shrine for the spiritual life of the University.”
The war, Lowell goes on, was described by many as “a religious war—greater far than any of the old Crusades in its principles.”
The history of Harvard is deeply plaited with the history of the American nation. The ideas that incubated here, and their physical manifestation, demonstrate what the national American narrative values.
Harvard is the nation’s invisible hand.
In using a church as the memorial’s house, Harvard was adhering to a holy and righteous conception of the First World War — a conception shared by a majority of the population.
Religious sentiments regarding war are nothing new. The American Revolutionary War saw the 13 colonies called the “Holy Land” and King George III the “Pharaoh.” Both sides in the Civil War used the idea that they were chosen by God as rationale for victory.
But World War I brought a shift: Conversations regarding gender ideals led to the masculinization of Christianity, altering the collective understanding of war as something romantic and redemptive.
Jonathan H. Ebel ’93, a professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, notes the tension between religion and gender ideals during the Progressive Era in his book “Faith in the Fight.” National leaders, from politicians to clergymen, “repeatedly voiced concerns about the effeminacy and over-civilization of America’s middle- and upper-class men.”
Propelled by eugenics-esque rhetoric, there was a push towards what Ebel calls the “masculinization effort” of American culture, where “churches were both tools and targets.”
Theologians like James I. Vance rallied many towards seeing the true Christian, the masculine Christian, as a man of active faith and an active body. The “muscular Christianity” that developed presented Christ “as an active, often militant man” — the jump to the fusion of religion with the calling of the military was not a difficult association to make.
The true Christian welcomed sacrifice, danger, and the chance to act out his faith.
The Great War was viewed as a religious war, just as Lowell said, but what Ebel highlights is that American soldiers believed not only in the personal calling of war as a redemptive, faith-sharpening experience, but also in the national calling of war as a mission they could stand behind. War was thus seen as a process of spiritual fulfillment.
On January 6, 1926, former FAS Dean LeBaron R. Briggs, Class of 1875, wrote in a letter to the families of the Harvard men that “They too heard the ‘voice without reply,’ and listened, and obeyed.”
“‘Greater love hath no man than this’: whether they had or had not formulated a religious faith, they expressed such a faith,” he continued. “Religion calls for no higher sacrifice than his who died to save the world.”
In the prayer at the dedication of Memorial Church on November 11, 1932, the words were uttered: “Here are the precious memories of our young men, to whom love of country was more than love of life, and the call to sacrifice more compelling than the desire of happiness or gain.”
Muscular Christianity had taken hold of Harvard’s campus. Participation in the war was seen as sacrifice — the dual nature of Memorial Church, the cross and the eagle, represent how exactly that sacrifice was viewed by Harvard.
In the side hall of Memorial Church, a sculpture of a crusader and a mourning woman sits, sandwiched between the seal of Harvard and the seal of the United States. The golden cross and the golden eagle draw the eye of all who enter the sanctuary, as does the looming wall of the dead.
I hold Memorial Church in my mind like a snowglobe. I turn it over, watch the glitter dance, and try to settle on a sentiment.
Part of me thinks only of the damages of an ideology like muscular Christianity. Steeped in racist tropes that feared the ‘weakening’ of the American race to that of “inferior races,” I wonder if the men who gave their lives had a choice in doing so. If the ideology they swam in at the time conflated being a good Christian with laying down one’s life for the nation, what agency did they have?
Perhaps Memorial Church is a space of mourning, one where we recognize the short- and long-term damages of an ideology pushed by authoritative figures. What can you do if a war is cast as romantic, as redemptive? I grieve the cultural repercussions that stuck as a result of casting the American people (which, more often than not, meant the white man) as the ideal, cloaked in the — knowing or unknowing — mechanism of Christianity.
Yet this understanding erases those who did not resonate with religious understandings of war. Where is their story? Is it fair, is it respectful, for them to be nailed to a wall in a church where people come to pray?
Part of me finds Memorial Church beautiful. War is horrible; the devastation, the death that results, cannot be captured in words. There is something enrapturing about relinquishing the power of understanding in the face of unimaginable violence. In memorializing those who died in a church, mankind says, “This tragedy is not something that can be understood, and we choose to honor that sacrifice by falling on our knees.”
But most of all, I see Memorial Church as Harvard, yet again, revealing its hand.
What Harvard chooses to honor, to memorialize via buildings, sculptures, or clubs, reveals what it — and national discourse — value, and what they do not.
The transept of Memorial Hall, seated between Annenberg and Sanders Theatre, commemorates the Harvard students who died fighting for the Union during the Civil War. The grand space resembles a church, with stained-glass angelic figures holding a Latin inscription, which reads, in part: “Not to us, O Lord, not to us, but to thy name may there be glory.”
There is no mention of justice, slavery, freedom, or liberation.
One of the only — and perhaps the only — physical recognitions of Harvard’s involvement with slavery is a plaque the size of a sheet of printer paper, stuck on the side of Wadsworth House.
Harvard has memorialized the association between God and national service. It hides the Crimson Klan; it hides its involvement in colonization in the Philippines; it hides the racist sculptures that speckle its past; it hides its involvement in the creation of napalm. The scars of Harvard’s legacy are often forcibly unearthed by its students.
Every decision that Harvard makes — whether memorialization or obfuscation — writes a narrative. Today, students move through these embedded narratives and attempt to reconstruct them. Yet, we do not have the right to memorialize our discourse in the same physical way, though we have tried. With every protest, with every op-ed, we try. We are the virtual student body, in more ways than one, beholden to the structures that were here upon our arrival.
Memorial Church embodies these contradictions. A structure desired by many to cope with the incomprehensible trauma of total war, yet a structure that associates the fulfillment of patriotism with Christianity. A structure that honors, yet a structure that takes the oxygen that other narratives need to shout.
The conflation of American identity and Christianity that is seen in Memorial Church, and Harvard, through its memorialization, reveals that narrative as a valuable one. The space is, in some lights, beautiful — it nods to an understanding of life that relinquishes agency. But alongside the beauty is a story, an association, that Harvard must take accountability for.
In Memorial Church, the golden eagle is angry, and the cross hovers stately above. I stare back at them, aching to respond.
Ellie H. Ashby ’24, a Crimson Editorial editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Adams House. Her column, “A Leap Into Faith,” runs tri-weekly on Fridays.
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