On Monday (Sept. 17), in tiny Appleton Chapel, Drew Faust made her first address at Morning Prayers as president of Harvard University.
Morning Prayers has been a tradition at Harvard since the 17th century. Until 1886, attendance was compulsory.
That one-time requirement was at the heart of Faust’s brief remarks. In less than five minutes, she used a historian’s skill to tell the story of how it was eliminated, ushering Harvard into a new era of broader freedoms.
Doing away with obligatory services began with the skepticism of Charles William Elliot. His 40-year tenure as president of Harvard started in 1869 and spanned the transformation of Harvard from a sectarian college to an intellectually diverse University.
Among other things, Eliot introduced the concept of the elective to the undergraduate curriculum, said Faust, and otherwise expressed “his belief in the importance of freedom of choice in the pursuit of learning.”
Given that, she added, “compulsory worship seemed fundamentally at odds with his educational philosophy.”
In 1872 and ’73, when repairs at Appleton Chapel suspended the Morning Prayers requirement, said Faust, “Eliot pointedly noted that there resulted ‘no ill effects whatever on college order or discipline.’”
In the 1880s, an interdenominational board of preachers assumed oversight of services, opened them to a broad range of denominations, and soon abolished compulsory chapel.
Quoting Eliot, Faust said this new order of Harvard religious services was a sign of the University’s “liberality as regards opinions, its devotion to ideals, and the preciousness in its sight of individual liberty.”
Those are still good words to live by, said Harvard’s 28th — and first female — president. “Let us go forth this morning, grateful for the opportunity to have chosen — rather than to have been compelled — to begin this new day and year together,” she said, “and let us remember what free choice represents.”
Monday was the official start of classes at Harvard, another historical signpost along the road of Faust’s new presidency, which officially began July 1.
During the 15-minute event, a capacity crowd of 80 sat under Appleton Chapel’s creamy arched ceilings in traditional high-sided, tiered wooden pews. Perhaps 20 others sat where they could, or stood listening from entryways.
First at the podium was the Rev. Professor Peter J. Gomes, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church. He read a passage from Chapter 43 of the Book of Isaiah, which seemed to offer hopeful words to the new president. “When you pass through these waters, I will be with you,” it reads, in part. “When you walk through fire, it will not consume you.”
Arrayed in two rows on either side of the gleaming pipe organ were the 16 Choral Fellows of the Harvard University Chorus. They opened with “Sing Ye Praises to Our King,” an Aaron Copland anthem. Later they sang the apt “We Gather Together,” a 16th-century Christian hymn of Dutch origin popularly associated with Thanksgiving.