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The interior of the new chapel. Sheila Butler | Courtesy

Christ Chapel will be the newest chapter in Hillsdale College’s long affil­i­ation with Chris­tianity.

Provost David Whalen told The Col­legian earlier this semester the college has always been Christian and the purpose of the chapel is to “make explicit what is too often implicit.”

A group of Free Will Bap­tists estab­lished the college in 1844, because they wanted to create a place for the edu­cation of the clergy. The college dropped this affil­i­ation in 1918, because of tension with the denom­i­nation over the college’s accep­tance of black stu­dents. The college switched to an American Baptist affil­i­ation but even­tually dropped all sec­tarian ties in 1962, after a lack of financial support from Baptist churches. The admin­is­tration attempted to keep the dis­as­so­ci­ation covert, however, and did not allow The Col­legian to report on it at the time, according to a 2001 Col­legian article.

In 1964, the college also ended mandatory chapel atten­dance. The ear­liest available record from 1856 says stu­dents were required to attend chapel every day of the week and twice on Sunday, but over the years, that requirement lessened as student atten­dance waned, even­tually decreasing from five or six  days a week, to four, to three, to two, and then finally to twice a month.

Although a few stu­dents sug­gested pos­itive reasons for mandatory chapel atten­dance in early Col­legian issues, several stu­dents pub­lished more critical or satirical pieces, arguing the chapel was unnec­essary and had become a place only for sleep or last-minute studying.

“I heartily believe chapel should be abol­ished,” student Robert Patneau ’37 told The Col­legian in 1934. “I would rather use my time for breakfast.”

Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of History Darryl Hart said at many col­leges, such as Yale and Harvard uni­ver­sities, where the admin­is­tration changed chapel atten­dance from a mandatory to vol­untary activity, religion has often returned later as an aca­demic dis­ci­pline.

Hart said it would not be unusual for a college to reaffirm its ties to Chris­tianity through a par­ticular denom­i­nation, but Hillsdale’s case is unusual since it is non­sec­tarian.

“I think Hillsdale is going in some very uncharted waters,” Hart said. “That may be dan­gerous, or that may be an easy sail. I don’t know.”

College archivist Linda Moore said although the college did receive funding from the Free Will Baptist denom­i­nation during its affil­i­ation, stu­dents did not have to prove affil­i­ation with the denom­i­nation to attend.

Edu­cating the clergy was a common goal of many col­leges during the 19th century, Hart said, and Hillsdale’s cur­riculum included Latin and Greek, specif­i­cally to help stu­dents fulfill the require­ments for becoming min­isters. Nev­er­theless, stu­dents were not required to become min­isters, Gilbert said, and the degrees varied from business, to engi­neering, to pol­itics, to many others.

“From the beginning, the college had a lot of reli­gious goals,” Gilbert said. “As time went by, they added lots of things, but the college remains loyal to the original idea. It has a moral basis, which runs back to the original years of the college.”

Thomas Burke, dean of human­ities and the phi­losophy and religion department chairman, said to him, the chapel reaf­firms the college’s reli­gious her­itage and its founding not only as a liberal arts college but also to promote Chris­tianity.

“One of the dis­cus­sions in Western thought is the rela­tionship of faith and reason, and Chris­tianity, in part, is a pursuit of that dis­cussion,” he said. “We some­times forget how thor­oughly imbued Western ideas are with the­o­logical ideas. To me, the chapel simply rep­re­sents the fact that we take our Christian her­itage as seri­ously as we do our intel­lectual her­itage.”

 

  • Jen­nifer Melfi

    I do not see one good reason here for the college to begin saying that they are a “christian” school — no dif­ference from Harvard and Yale from the fact that they were orig­i­nally founded by reli­gionists but walked away. I think we would do best to follow the instruction of Robert Patneau from the article.