The Congregation at Duke University Chapel

Legacy of the Great Towering Church

Legacy of the Great Towering Church

presentation at Adult Forum by
Rev. Dr. Jennifer Copeland
Methodist Chaplain for the Duke Wesley Fellowship
October 21, 2012
"I want the central building to be a great towering church which will dominate all of the surrounding buildings, because such an edifice would be bound to have a profound influence on the spiritual life of the young men and women who come here."

Why a church? Why not a basketball stadium, a hospital, a research forest - all things bright and beautiful where many wise and wonderful people spend untold hours live and move and have their being.

He picked a church because he was a Methodist. The profound influence that influenced James Duke was the Methodist Church.

"If I amount to anything in this world, I owe it to my daddy and the Methodist Church."

Ties between Duke and Methodism stretch back to Normal College in Trinity, NC. When Trinity moved to Durham, the Dukes, Carrs, Angiers, and other well named building benefactors on the campus - particularly East Campus - starting giving money to the school. But none rivaled Washington Duke who required with his second major gift to the college a two-page letter to President John C. Kilgo dated December 5, 1896. In this oft quoted letter Duke pledges $100,000 to Trinity College for endowment provided the college "will open its doors to women placing them on an equal footing with men." Even though there were already women enrolled.

Part of the money was used to build the Mary Duke dormitory and because there were not enough women enrolled to fill it up, the school moved in some of its responsible senior men and single male faculty members.

Methodist way: start a church then start a school. John Wesley did not believe in ignorant Christians. School motto: eruditio et religio from Charles Wesley's hymn on knowledge and vital piety; or right knowledge joined with right action. Many of the colleges started by Methodists have become renowned research university and athletic powerhouses.

  • University of Southern California
  • Syracuse University
  • Boston University
  • Drew University
  • American University
  • Emory University
  • Vanderbilt University
  • Duke University

Some of these have disassociated with the United Methodist or they have been deemed not Methodist enough by our United Methodist Senate or accrediting agency. Duke just re-upped for another 10 years about 3 years ago.

Others have remained intentionally small and focused on specific missions:

  • Women's colleges
  • Freedman's aid society, now Black College Fund

There are about 113 United Methodist related institutions of higher education in this country and one medical school. We are quickly spreading into the developing world, following JW’s same advice by starting a church and starting a school.

What does it mean for education and faith to co-exist on a college campus? Not much if the ethos of the college is apathetic to religion. Then the faith traditions are fighting to be relevant in the lives of students who are distracted by a thousand sirens. On the other hand, choosing to practice faith may be a better representation of authentic faith than merely going along with the dominant culture. The challenge is how to market the message. Jesus had the same issues…

The position of Director of Religious Activities began in 1936, first held by Merrimon Cuninggim, who reported the following groups when he founded the Student Religious Council:

  • Baptist
  • Catholic
  • Christian Scientists
  • Episcopal
  • Jewish
  • Lutheran
  • Methodist
  • Presbyterian
  • Open Forum Bible Class
  • School of Religion Student Body
  • Undergraduate Ministerial Fellowship
  • YMCA
  • YWCA

All were said to be active except the Baptists and Catholics

He reported: There is still no student say-so in chapel worship and so poor attendance. In response to that the student religious council proposed establishing the Duke University Church and set up an official board with students, faculty, DRL, and the 2 university preachers.

"The entire college community, students and faculty alike, have organized themselves into a campus church. It symbolizes the spiritual unity and serves as the spiritual center of the campus as the Chapel building is the architectural center. Every religious interest in the University is represented on the governing body of the Church, and in this way the program of each of these interests is integrated into the general religious program of the College, through the Church as the coordinating agency. The emphasis of the Church is upon interdenominationalism, as the name indicates, and a real effort is made to work members of every religious faith and denomination into the program. We try to bring out the many bases for cooperation and fundamental similarity of purpose of each group, at the same time striving to build a sincere appreciation in each one for the differences in opinion and tradition of those with another religious heritage. Some such student religious board or inter-faith council is, I believe, a very valuable adjunct for any college religious program, particularly in its function as a coordinating agency. - Fred Cleaveland, Director of Religious Activities, 1939

By 1939 Religious Life staff included:

Frank Hickman, Dean of the Chapel

Fred Cleaveland, Director of Religious Activities

Florence Moss, Director of Religious Activities for Woman's College

Denny Williams, Secretary of Religious Activities

Today there are currently 25 religious life groups, including Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist communities as well as Roman Catholics and a wide variety of Protestant denominations and para-church affiliations.

So what is their influence? Let me tell you a story.

Not an old, familiar story, but just something that happened to me a few years ago. By definition, the William J. Griffith University Service Awards of Duke University are presented to a "select number of graduating students (34 this year) whose contributions to the Duke and larger communities have made a significant impact on University Life. Those students whose efforts demonstrate an understanding of the responsibilities of effective University and civic citizenship are eligible for this award."

The short-hand description for this award is “service and leadership.” Naturally, groups like the one I pastor with a proclivity toward social justice issues, regular involvement in the practice of service, and at least four separate mission trips—student lead and often student initiated—each year, a group like this is chock-full of candidates for this award. And without fail, we had several who received it every year. Their leadership is demonstrated by propelling our group; their service is played out in the arenas attended by our group, a faith based organization, specifically Christian, more specifically protestant. And when I came back to Duke in 1999, I have been invited to offer the invocation at the Griffith Award Breakfast because we had 6 students receiving it out of about 40. Every year thereafter, I would give the invocation. It got to the point where I felt taken for granted—one year I showed up and there was my name on the program in spite of the fact that no one had called and asked me to give the invocation—since I was taken for granted, I began to take it for granted that I would give the invocation every year. Then one year after being asked to offer the invocation, the invitation was rescinded a few days before the event.

Luckily, or unluckily for her, the person in charge of this event is an old friend of mine, so I called her up and I bluntly inquired, "What gives with the invocation?" She was quite diplomatic about it, but the bottom line was that our new Vice President of Student Affairs, a practicing and observant member of the Jewish faith, didn't want the invocation. My contact had even assured him that my prayers were quite benign and in no way offensive even to her, a person of no faith. While the new VP never explicated stated, "Don’t do it," she got enough signals to believe he'd rather not do an invocation. Being on friendly terms with the invocator, she figured I wouldn’t be offended by being scratched three days ahead of time.

I wasn’t offended, personally. But I was offended on behalf of a principle. I was offended on behalf of the idea of faith and on behalf of students who are active practitioners of faith, and I guess I was offended on behalf of a University that makes an explicit acknowledgement of faith in the first article of its bylaws.

The aims of Duke University ("University") are to assert a faith in the eternal union of knowledge and religion set forth in the teachings and character of Jesus Christ, the Son of God; to advance learning in all lines of truth; to defend scholarship against all false notions and ideals; to develop a Christian love of freedom and truth; to promote a sincere spirit of tolerance; to discourage all partisan and sectarian strife; and to render the largest permanent service to the individual, the state, the nation, and the church. Unto these ends shall the affairs of this university always be administered.

So at this University—founded on principles of faith, specifically the Christian faith—for an award given to people who are incited to service and leadership primarily, though not exclusively, because of their faith, we have no prayer. No prayer on behalf of the students receiving the award or the University that has nurtured them, no thanksgiving to a deity who graced them and this University with able gifts of service and leadership, no acknowledgement that this is about anything more than personal accomplishments.

Within a few years, even though nothing had changed about how students in our organization lead or how I nominated for the award, not one of our students has won the award. We went from a high of 6 in one year to 6 years with not one.

My point is that the University can be unfriendly to faith practices, sometimes unintentionally. And oftentimes those for whom religion is important must assume an apologetic stance any time they wish to engage in the practice of faith. It's sort of like those days when people still smoked indoors, but would pay you the polite acknowledgement of asking, "You don’t mind if I smoke, do you?" There are times when I feel like I should ask the people around me, "You don’t mind if I pray, do you?"


This environment sends a certain kind of message to people of faith, yet even at our secular Duke there are a lot of students who take religious beliefs seriously. The academy can provide validation of those beliefs by simply including them in certain appropriate settings, or it can treat those beliefs as arbitrary and unimportant in ways tangible and intangible. I happen to think the validity of faith practices erodes more permanently in the slow process of harmless removal than it does by a sudden gully-washer. If we tried to wipe out religion on a college campus in one fell swoop, all the alumni would come calling, the parents would show up, and students would think they at last had a cause worth fighting for. And you couldn’t do it.

On the other hand, we tend not to notice the benign and gradual removal of events until it’s too late and someone says, “Whatever happened to prayer around here?” By then the very foundation has washed away and we have to bring in dump trucks to rebuild what used to be a normal and acceptable practice.

Let’s go back to my story: Of the recipients of the Griffith Award at Duke University along with the assembled nominators last May, how many people do you suppose noticed the absence of an invocation? How many cared? Probably about the same number of people who would have been offended if I had offered a prayer. So on one end of the spectrum we have a small group of people who really, really want that prayer and on the other end a group who might walk out in protest if a prayer is offered. In between is a large group of people who didn’t even notice its absence. This middle ground is the place where most of our students reside. If the prayer were offered, some of them might say, “How odd.” But others might say, “I’ve heard words like those somewhere before”; maybe it would pique their curiosity enough to remember that they have had faith, that they know some faithful things, and perhaps religion is not just an adult conspiracy designed to make them behave while they’re away from home.