Religion might not seem like a top priority for the University today, that quotation from the Northwest Ordinance of 1787 carved above Angell Hall notwithstanding. During its early years in Ann Arbor, however, the University actively promoted Christianity on campus.
In those days, higher education in this country was almost exclusively the domain of private colleges tied to specific Christian denominations. The fledgling University, as a state institution, took a different approach. Its philosophy was summed up in a statement of former University President Erastus Otis Haven, himself a Methodist minister: “‘I maintain that a State University in this country should be religious. It should be Christian without being sectarian.”
Throughout its early years, the University did its best to reassure Michigan’s citizens and churchmen that it encouraged Christianity despite not being affiliated with a denomination. Its first two professors were ministers, as were its first two presidents. Daily chapel services on campus were mandatory for undergraduates, though medical and law students were exempt because of a lack of space in the chapel. Students were required to attend one of Ann Arbor’s churches, and there was even a monitor charged with checking on their attendance.
These measures weren’t wholly successful in reassuring the good Christians of Michigan. Controversies arose over the denominational affiliations of men appointed to faculty positions in the 1840s. Former University President Henry Philip Tappan found his requests for funding from the state legislature in the 1850s stymied by the notion that the University, being nonsectarian, was inherently “Godless.”
Religion was, however, wound into the life of the University during these years in some interesting ways. Until the construction of University Hall in the early 1870s, there was no auditorium suitable for large events like commencement ceremonies, which were instead held at local churches. Classical languages formed a large part of the early curriculum, and Greek professors found a convenient way to assign homework that couldn’t run afoul of the commandment to do no work on the Sabbath – having their students to translate portions of the New Testament for Monday’s lesson. The Students’ Christian Association was one of the largest student organizations. Seeking adequate space, it built and used Newberry Hall on State Street, which now houses the Kelsey Museum of Archeology.
Nonetheless, the University’s rules weren’t completely effective at enforcing Christian worship among students. The role of the monitor, who would check church attendance, was eventually neglected. Attendance dropped off. A survey of students shortly after the Civil War showed that only 40 percent of students in the Department (later renamed a College) of Literature, Science, and the Arts were members of a church. Among those souls who were studying law – and who arguably stood in greater need of salvation – the membership rate was only 16 percent.
Student behavior in chapel was less than sanctified at times, with noisy students throwing objects ranging from apple cores to hymn books during services. On one occasion, a horse was brought into the chapel. Whether to preserve their dignity or simply to get more sleep – morning chapel was held at 5:30 a.m. or 6:30 a.m., depending on the time of year – professors tended to avoid the services. The rule making chapel attendance mandatory was repealed after 1871, although daily chapel services continued on a voluntary basis until 1895.
By the later years of the 19th century, state universities were more numerous, and they generally no longer faced the same level of criticism they had for their lack of sectarian ties. (Even private colleges like Harvard and Yale were de-emphasizing their religious backgrounds by this time, after all.) Still, Christianity retained a firm hold on our campus.
At Sunday morning services with the Students’ Christian Association on May 15, 1892, former University President James B. Angell gave a sermon titled “Christianity and Other Religions Judged by their Fruits.” He defended a thesis that seemed perfectly obvious in its time and perfectly archaic today.
“I do not see how an impartial man,” Angell said, “can observe the fruits borne by non-Christian systems and those borne by Christianity without recognizing the immense superiority of Christianity as an actual working force among men.”