Nearly every object in the Princeton University Chapel has been given in someone’s memory. Names of dead Princetonians are etched on the backs of pews, on plaques at the bases of statues, on the very stones that form the Chapel walls.
The Chapel does not only memorialize individuals; it seems also to eulogize a past era, a time when religion played a more central role in campus life. The grand stained glass windows feature quotations from scripture: “Greater love hath no man than this that a man lay down his life for his friends”; “A new commandment I give unto you, that ye love one another as I have loved you”; “And Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.”
Just south of the Chapel’s main entrance is engraved the Prayer for Princeton, which includes petitions that God bestow “thy truth to those who teach” and “thy laws to those who learn.”
Also, the Chapel is tremendous. It is the third-largest collegiate chapel in the world, seating 2,000. On Wednesday, only about 30 of those seats were ever filled at one time, when students bowed their heads in prayer during the noon midweek Mass. For the rest of the day, the Chapel was eerily empty, the silence occasionally punctuated by the organist practicing for Sunday or a tourist snapping a photo.
It is easy, while standing in the magnificent, empty Chapel, to become nostalgic for the Princeton that built it. There was a time when the University believed it important for students to know the Bible. There was a time when the University thought it would be useful and effective to pray for those in its care.
There also was a time when the Chapel’s 2,000 seats did not seem like such a waste of space. In the University’s first 136 years, students were required to attend twice daily prayer services, along with morning and afternoon church sessions on Sundays. Though these requirements had relaxed considerably by the time the Chapel was constructed in 1928, students still had to go to weekly Sunday services.
Today, Princeton could not be more different. The Bible is absent from reading lists except as an object of historical or literary interest. The Prayer for Princeton goes unsaid except at a Sunday church service that only a handful of students attend. And, except at Opening Exercises in the fall and Baccalaureate in the spring, the chapel’s 2,000 seats go almost entirely unused.
With today’s religiously diverse student body, of course, it would be preposterous to expect all students to know the Christian scriptures, or to pray for Princeton, or to attend church in the Chapel on Sundays.
Nevertheless, there is something to be said for a university that cares about the spiritual development of its students, along with their academic and social growth. The Princeton motto, once “Dei Sub Numine Viget” (Under the power of God she flourishes), is now “Princeton in the Nation’s Service and the Service of All Nations.” Fittingly, while today’s University encourages its students to complete outward acts of goodness—promoting community service projects and careers in civil service—it does very little to further its students’ inner spiritual lives. No surprise, then, that a recent poll found over half of Princeton students are “not really” or “not at all” religious.
It is unclear, however, what the University should do to foster religious development in its students. When the University Trustees finally put an end to mandatory Sunday Chapel services in 1964, they said they were doing so “in the best interests of a freer, more honest, creative expression of religion.” It seems they were onto something; when freshman were no longer required to go to church, upperclass attendance at Sunday services increased by 300. College students do not wish to be told what to do, especially with respect to religion. Perhaps the best way to encourage religious growth is to make it a matter of choice, not requirement.
Indeed, those who are religious at Princeton are devout. The only students who did enter the Chapel on Wednesday afternoon were those who had been at the noon Mass. Several of them slipped into the Chapel to pray for a few minutes in front of the altar of the Blessed Sacrament before hurrying off to class.