When Charles William Eliot became president of Harvard in 1869, undergraduates were required – as they had been for more than 200 years – to attend morning prayers. From the outset, Eliot had his doubts about the wisdom of this rule. After all, he would famously introduce “the elective system” into the undergraduate curriculum as the embodiment of his belief in the importance of freedom of choice in the pursuit of learning. Compulsory worship seemed fundamentally at odds with his educational philosophy. When Appleton Chapel needed significant repair in 1872-3, morning prayers were by necessity temporarily suspended. Eliot pointedly noted that there resulted “no ill effects whatever on college order or discipline.”
Many faculty and most students shared his doubts about compulsory attendance and began in the mid 1870s to become both more vocal and more organized in their protests. The Corporation and Board of Overseers remained insistent in their support, and Eliot acceded to their judgments, reassuring himself that the services were in any case too brief to do much harm. Nevertheless, he undertook a poll of student families and observed that 5/7th’s did not practice regular daily worship.
In the early 1880s, the appointment of Phillips Brooks as the new Plummer Professor of Christian Morals brought an opportunity for change. Music and congregational participation were added to the service, but, more important, the celebrants were diversified. An inter-denominational Board of Preachers assumed responsibility for the services, and individuals of a wide range of denominations and faiths now took the lead in morning prayers and in Harvard’s religious life more generally. One of the Board’s first actions was to secure an end to compulsory attendance at morning prayers. Going to church, the clergymen argued, must, like religion itself, be a matter of choice.
Charles Eliot’s careful management of the struggle over morning prayers ultimately enabled him to implement within the religious life of Harvard one of his fundamental principles of education:
“There is no more characteristic feature of Harvard University than the conduct of its religious services,” he declared. “It expresses its liberality as regards opinions, its devotion to ideals, and the preciousness in its sight of individual liberty.”
Today Charles William Eliot is honored for having during the 40 years of his presidency transformed Harvard from a college into a university. An essential part of that shift was the final abandonment of the sectarianism that had characterized the original 17th century Puritan college for the devotion to freedom of thought and expression that defines our University today.
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, and let us remember what that free choice represents. Let us embark on our new ventures mindful of both the privileges and responsibilities inherent in the University’s dedication to freedom of expression and of religious belief. There are far more of us at Harvard now than in Eliot’s day, and our religious affiliations are far more varied than he ever could have imagined. But that makes the principles of breadth and understanding he articulated all the more important. Let us continue in this new year our dedication to what Charles W. Eliot called Harvard’s “liberality as regards opinions, its devotion to ideals, and the preciousness in its sight of individual liberty.”
– Drew Gilpin Faust