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The Chapel

The University Chapel continues a tradition of public worship that goes back to Princeton's founding in 1746. For the first ten years of the College's existence, daily services were celebrated in the studies of the first two presidents -- the Reverend Jonathan Dickinson, in Elizabethtown, and the Reverend Aaron Burr, in Newark. After the College moved to Princeton in 1756, a prayer-hall in Nassau Hall (for a time the meeting place of the Continental Congress on state occasions, and now the Faculty Room) was used for services until 1847, when the first chapel was built. This chapel, described in a novel of that period as "a beautiful smile on a plain face," was replaced in 1882 by the larger Marquand Chapel, gift of Henry G. Marquand, and thereafter was known as the "Old Chapel" until it was razed in 1896 to make way for Pyne Library. Marquand Chapel was destroyed by fire in the spring of 1920. Services were then conducted in Alexander Hall until 1928. The cornerstone of the University Chapel was laid in 1925, and it was dedicated on Sunday, May 31, 1928.


Until 1928 the president of the University was directly responsible for supervision of the Chapel programs. That year the office of dean of the chapel was created by the trustees and the Reverend Robert Russell Wicks of Holyoke was appointed as the first incumbent. In the same year, the chair of Dean of the Chapel of the University was endowed by their families in memory of the Rev. Wilton Merle-Smith and Judge Walter Lloyd-Smith, twin brothers in the Princeton Class of 1877. The gift also provided for a deanery to house the dean and his family. Dean Wicks challenged the unexamined premises of many undergraduates and demonstrated the vitality of the Christian faith in the modern world. On his retirement in 1947, Wicks was succeeded by the Right Reverend Donald B. Aldrich, former Bishop Coadjutor of the Protestant Episcopal Diocese of Michigan and a charter trustee of the University. An experienced pastor, Dean Aldrich counseled students compassionately in the confused times following World War II. Owing to ill health, he resigned in 1955. He was succeeded by the Reverend Ernest Gordon, an ordained minister of the Church of Scotland a former minister of Paisley Abbey -- situated in the same town where the Reverend John Witherspoon served as minister of the Laigh Kirk (low church) before his call to the Princeton presidency in 1768.


The College of New Jersey was firmly rooted in the fertile soil of the Great Awakening. One of its emphases was that an individual was accountable before God for his life, his neighbors, his country, and his backyard. This resulted in a personal discipline of prayers, praise, and thanksgiving. For 136 years after the College began, students were required to attend morning prayers (originally at 5 a.m.) and evening prayers daily, and morning and afternoon services on Sunday. These requirements were a source of student complaint and frequent pranks. Stories that have come down from alumni of that period recall that once the seats of the "Old Chapel" were tarred, at another time the benches were literally buried in hay, and at still another a cow was discovered up near the pulpit just before the morning service began.

Irreverence of students was apparently most noticeable during long prayers. President Ermeritus Maclean continued to take part in the services during James McCosh's presidency. He was accustomed to praying not only for the nation and for the College but also for everyone associated with their respective administrations. On one Sunday he concluded his lengthy litany with additional prayers for the Seniors, the Juniors, and Sophomores, and then, Henry Fairfield Osborn 1877 recalled, "as the Reverend Doctor reached the Freshman, a roar of laughter proceeded from the seemingly reverently bowed heads of the entire student body. At this unexpected 'Amen' Doctor McCosh became very impatient. After the disturbance was duly quelled and the Doxology sung with unusual fervor, he was heard to remark: 'Surely Doctor Maclean is in his dotage; he ought to have more sense than to pray for the Freshmen.'"

The remark is not surprising from a divine who is alleged to have opened a prayer, soon after the publication of one of his most successful books, with these words: "O Thou who has also written a book."

By 1882, changing views of life's priorities brought the abolition of required attendance at daily vespers, and in 1902 the required Sunday afternoon service was also discontinued. By 1905 attendance at morning prayers (then held at 7 a.m.) was required only twice a week, and in 1915 this requirement was given up entirely. Protests continued about Sunday chapel. A "Chapel Strike at Princeton," as headlined by New York newspapers in 1914, turned out, in the Daily Princetonian's version, to be "a lengthy attack of bronchitis . . . [during] a lengthier prayer. . . . At the conclusion of the prayer, the pitiable cough subsided, and the service continued uninterrupted." The Prince said the incident demonstrated the conviction of students that Sunday chapel should end promptly at noon; "this is their religion."

A few years ago, the writer received a visit from one of the ringleaders of this incident, who had been expelled for his contribution. He later went on to study at a theological seminary and became a professor of theology.

Required attendance at Sunday chapel ended eventually; for upperclassmen in 1935, for sophomores in 1960, and finally, for freshmen in 1964. The trustees' decision to remove the last vestige of compulsion was made, in their official words, "in the best interests of a freer, more honest, creative expression of religion."


For more than a hundred years the student-organized Philadelphian Society (1825-1930) carried on an active program in religion and social service. This society early espoused the cause of foreign missions and in later years was responsible for the founding of Princeton-in-Asia and the Princeton Summer Camp. The various activities of this old Princeton institution, later carried on by the Student-Faculty Association (1930-1946) and the Student Christian Association (1946-1967), have been continued under the auspices of the Chapel Fellowship and its related social service organization, the Student Volunteers Council (1967- ).


In 1925 President Hibben forbade the Reverend Frank Buchman, founder of the Oxford Group and later of Moral Rearmament, to appear on campus, in consequence of a conflict about his controversial techniques, particularly as practiced by recent converts. (It was the contention thus aroused that led to the dissolution of the Philadelphian Society.) In the 1926 report of the University commission on Buchmanism, the hope was expressed that the new chapel and its minister would be a means of achieving religious harmony on the campus.

The achievement of this harmony has been one of the Chapel's functions. The denominational societies, and their chaplains, cooperate with the work of the University Chapel and contribute to its activities. There are eleven of these societies. The oldest of them, the Episcopal Procter Foundation, was begun in 1876 as St. Paul's Society. The Presbyterian Westminster Foundation, the Catholic Club (later the Aquinas Institute), the Methodist Wesley Club, and the Evangelical Fellowship were organized in the 1920s. After World War II the Jewish Hillel Foundation, Lutheran Student Fellowship, Baptist Student Fellowship, Unitarian/Universalist Fellowship, Christian Science Organization, and the Orthodox Christian St. Photius Society were founded. The University makes its facilities available to the denominational societies for services and meetings and extends various courtesies and privileges to the chaplains.

In 1957 these courtesies and privileges were withdrawn from Father Hugh Halton because he had conducted his ministry in such a way that he had alienated from himself not only Protestant members of the University but devout Catholics as well. Thereafter the air cleared; since 1966 daily services for Catholics have been conducted in the University Chapel.


The first noticeable consequence of the abolition of the last Chapel requirement in 1964 was a decline in attendance by freshmen and an increase in attendance by upperclassmen. When the Class of 1967 graduated, attendance took a rapid plunge due to the departure of 300 seniors who had been active members of the Chapel Fellowship. It was the growth of this fellowship in the years preceding the abolition of the requirement that insured the continuation of the Chapel's place on the campus. It was made up of diverse groups representing a wide range of interests, such as study, discussion, religious drama, social service, music, Chapel administration, and charitable enterprises.

Although the building was once called, by some, Princeton's two-million-dollar protest against materialism, and, by others, a great white whale (not elephant!), its architectural strength has contributed to its place as the center of spiritual life on the campus. It is seen to be the one building that exalts the whole of creation and humanity. Since 1957 it has been kept open daily from 8 a.m. to 12:30 a.m. to serve the needs of the University community; the closing service each day is an Organ Epilogue from 11 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. Sunday services are held during the twelve months of the year.

Rather than a decrease, there has been a marked increase in the number of services held in the Chapel, which has resulted in a problem of scheduling the number requested. Since 1970 attendance at services has noticeably increased, and the degree of student participation is greater than it has ever been. An undergraduate deaconate of twenty-five men and women represents the needs, concerns, and interests of the Chapel Fellowship and of the student body as a whole.

A significant portion of the Chapel's budget comes from annual gifts of the Friends of the Chapel. Religious, medical, educational, and charitable services engaged in by alumni are supported from Chapel offerings of from $12,000 to $15,000 a year.


It is in the Chapel that the University comes together as a community. This is true not only at Opening Exercises, Baccalaureate Services, annual memorial services for members of the University and again for alumni, funerals and weddings; it has also been true on occasions of national tragedy such as the assassinations of President John Kennedy, his brother Robert, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Because it provides a center for community, it attracts a large number of alumni and visitors to its services. It has also been a bridge between town and gown, and between the several academic communities of Princeton. The Thanksgiving and Christmas services are mostly for the benefit of townspeople.

Organ and choral music are an important part of the Chapel program. They have both come a long way since the days when Yale's President Ezra Stiles after a visit in 1770 declared the organ in Nassau Hall "an innovation of ill consequence," and when John Adams, later President of the United States, reported after his visit to Princeton in 1774, "The Schollars sing as badly as the Presbyterians at New York." The standard set by today's choir and musicians at the weekly services is one of excellence, and the Christmas Vespers and the Milbank Concerts are outstanding events in the University's musical calendar.

Since the retirement of the noted Bach organist Carl Weinrich in 1973, the organists have been students who have performed with a dedication and loyalty that has done much to achieve the ideal of a University community of worship. The same can be said of a chapter of student organists who sustain the Organ Epilogue seven nights a week in term. All the musical activities are supervised by Walter Nollner, Director of Music in the Chapel since 1973.


The University Chapel provides a place where people can come in reverence to face the ultimate mystery of creation and existence. This continuing purpose is well expressed in one of the prayers that were said in the Litany of Dedication when the Chapel's doors were first opened in 1928:

"That, for all who with troubled hearts and minds here seek comfort and healing, this house may be as a hiding place from the wind and a covert from the tempest, as rivers of water in a dry place, as the shadow of a great rock in a weary land."

Ernest Gordon

NOTE: For a description of the architecture, sculpture, and windows of the University Chapel, see: Richard Stillwell, The Chapel of Princeton University, Princeton University Press, 1971.

Source: Leitch p. 85 ff