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I joke that I can map out my entire childhood by way of religious experiences. I remember the first time I saw snow in Atlanta, Ga. — March 1, 2009 — because that was the day I took my first communion. An art gallery housed my childhood church, and the pastor’s daughters would entertain us all with stories when the adults were catching up after a service.
We interpret the physical and intellectual landscape of Harvard through our own experiences; for me, it’s always been through the lens of Protestantism. Memorial Church, an interdenominational Protestant church, is a predictable feature of the college landscape. The words on the side of Emerson Hall remind me of the song “The Majesty And Glory Of Your Name” I used to sing in choir.
These landmarks are immovable indicators of Harvard’s Protestant past, and by extension, our culture’s Protestant past. But perhaps my childhood predisposed me to picking up on these contours.
I’ve come to realize a strange dearth of acknowledgment regarding what I see as obvious. Most of the existing conversations regarding Harvard’s religiosity fall into a single camp: the built environment of campus. Our conversations are concerned with space — the lack of a multifaith center on the College campus, the irony of Memorial Church when Muslim and Hindu students worship and gather in a basement, the Protestant undertones of Memorial Hall. How religion concerns people is a conversation for the Divinity School.
Most people at Harvard know about the Christian origins of the institution, an origin shared by all other Ivy League schools. It becomes a throwaway statement when you pass by the Protestant structures on our campus.
The buildings and inscriptions are the least insidious part of the story.
On October 6, 1884, The Crimson republished part of a pamphlet produced when the first class of Harvard students graduated in 1642. It reiterated the original Puritan colonists’ rationale for creating the College: “dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.”
This is why Harvard College was founded. Our original motto was “All for the Glory of Christ,” which was then changed to “Truth for Christ and the Church” in 1836. “Christ” and “Church” were dropped in 1880, leaving the motto we are all familiar with: Truth.
Some of the campus’s most recognizable names were integral to the church’s ecosystem. John Winthrop, the elder of the two John Winthrops the Harvard undergraduate House is named after, was a well-known Puritan leader. Increase Mather, Class of 1656, was a Boston Congregational minister, and his son, Cotton Mather, Class of 1678, an American Congregational minister. Nathaniel Eaton was an Anglican clergyman. Benjamin Wadsworth, Class of 1690, and Edward Holyoke, Class of 1705, were American Congregational clergymen. So was Joseph Willard, Class of 1765. John Endecott was a Puritan. Hugh Peter was an English preacher.
Many of these individuals were graduates of the College. And each one of these individuals owned enslaved persons.
The irony is deplorable: Harvard noticed the importance of training ministers towards literacy — perhaps so they would not lead people astray from the truth of the Bible — and yet cultivated individuals who held the titles of slave owner and minister simultaneously.
There is a long history of religious figures taking advantage of others in the name of God — motivated by profits, power, and prejudice. The past is not as distant as we’d like it to be.
While these are far from equatable grievances, recall, just these last few years: Joel S. Osteen’s surprisingly slow start to mobilizing his church to aid those victimized by Hurricane Harvey; Mark A. Driscoll’s alleged bullying, misogyny, and homophobia in his preaching at Mars Hill Church; and Hillsong’s five-decades-old allegations of sexual abuse and bigotry amongst leadership.
For those not familiar with the history of religion in the United States, the inherent bigoted nature of Christianity is an easy conclusion to come to.
Still, Christianity, like many faith traditions, is subject to the interpretation of those using it. Is there such a thing as an inherent nature within a belief system? While many individuals in colonial America held Christian beliefs and upheld the institution of slavery, many others, such as Quakers like Benjamin Lay and John Woolman, used their Christian faith to advocate for an end to slavery even before the American Revolution.
Like many of us learned in AP English Language and Composition, you can really make a text mean whatever you want it to if you try hard enough. The Bible is no exception.
Yet a warped understanding of Protestant Christianity, one that sanctioned — even encouraged — ministry malpractice, has plagued Harvard, and continues to plague the Protestant scene today.
Thankfully, this conversation is not alien to Harvard’s current Christian vanguard.
“I think the primary and central task of European Christianity, Protestant Christianity, and its descended communities is a task of repentance, is an honest assessment of our history — of the ways in which Christianity was inextricable from colonialism, patriarchy, white supremacy, for the last, at least, six hundred years,” said Rev. Matthew I. Potts, the Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church.
He continued, “The rapid shrinking of the Protestant mainline to me makes a lot of sense because we’ve lost all kinds of moral credibility.”
The mainline’s deification of profit and power overrides the liberatory messages of the Bible, leading to ministers that behave deplorably, and a society that is utterly, and rightfully, disillusioned.
From a religious history standpoint, we should not be surprised that Harvard started as an institution to train clergymen. Not only was Protestantism pervasive in 1600s colonial society, but society at the time also recognized the pulpit of a church as an extreme station of power, one that could be easily abused.
What we must interrogate is how Harvard’s ministry alumni, rather than remain true to a liberatory understanding of the Bible, succumbed to the seduction of power, profits, and prejudice within a capitalistic, colonial society — just like so many pastors fail our society today.
These are conversations regarding religion at Harvard that are not had, but need to be. And not just in classes at the Divinity School or the Religion department — all disciplines must wrestle with religion’s influence.
For example, why did Harvard’s Legacy of Slavery report barely mention that so many of the men who owned slaves were also ministers? Why, in a class about the American empire and military occupations, is there only the slightest mention of religion on the syllabus? Why does Harvard not mention its original motto on the webpage regarding its history, and why, when you look up classes with the words “religion” and “imperial” for this fall, do only two classes come up, both at the Harvard Divinity School?
Harvard’s past as an exclusive, elite institution is oftentimes talked about in terms of race, gender, sexuality, and socioeconomic status. We must add religion as a facet of the conversation.
“Religion was colonial and imperial,” Potts agreed. “They are inextricable from each other.”
“I don’t say it because I’m trying to tell the historians how to do their job, but because I feel like it lets us off the hook — it lets religion off the hook — if you can take a class where you don’t talk about how religion was part of the problem,” he continued.
Those who founded Harvard and the nation were largely Protestant, fleeing religious persecution in Europe. They did not leave their faith tradition behind. The Harvard Divinity School is putting more of an effort into investigating the noxious effects of this tradition, but Harvard must look deeper — look into the ways that its very curriculum shaped minds that simultaneously held faith leadership and slavery sanctioning.
Religion at Harvard goes far beyond the visible spires and facades — it rests, invisible, inside, waiting for us to turn on the lights.
Ellie H. Ashby ’24, a Crimson Editorial Editor, is a Social Studies concentrator in Adams House. Her column, “A Deeper Dive Into Harvard’s Faith,” runs tri-weekly on Fridays.
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