Compulsory Chapel


A MILLIONof the inhabitants of these United States are college students. No one knows what this astounding fact means or is to mean to American life. Plainly, however, it becomes increasingly impossible to describe the undergraduate as a specially privileged person, to revere an arts degree as the sign of peculiar erudition, or to venerate a college campus as the scene of cloistered virtues. Colleges were once places apart, with residual traces of that mediæval monasticism from which they sprang or with which they were identified, busied with intellectual interests which were their own end, their own justification, their own reward. In coming into closer contact with that world which makes their growth possible, and which in turn they must serve more directly, colleges have lost the self-sufficing power of their traditional solitude and have become symptomatic of the whole culture, or want of culture, round about them. What now happens in colleges no longer concerns them alone, but is a matter of general interest and common concern to all the people.

‘In certain states of the soul,’ says Baudelaire, ‘the profound significance of life is revealed completely in the spectacle, however commonplace, that is before one’s eyes: it becomes the symbol of that significance.’ It is in something of this mood and manner that we find ourselves looking at one or another of the familiar aspects of American college life. They are miniature, manageable transcripts of larger issues and more general situations.

There has been latterly much curious and anxious interest in the religion of the college student. We have circularized him and interviewed him to discover whether he thinks he has any religion, what he thinks religion is, and what he intends to do about it. We have an uneasy suspicion that he will not always prove a sure buttress for the faith of the fathers which here and there shows in its fabric signs of decay. We are accustomed to take his views on all matters rather seriously, not so much for what they are as for what they portend for the thought of a nation. In this matter we take his views most seriously, since so much is at stake.

We probably overrate the importance of the undergraduate’s ideas on religion, and thus do both him and ourselves an injustice. For the moment he does not feel the force of certain of those situations from which a conscious need of religion arises. Religion has always been bound up with the home life of a people; the college student has left behind him the home from which he came, and has not founded the home which normally he intends to found. Religion has always sustained, or sought to sustain, the bread-labor of the world; the college student is as yet a stranger to the full load of the world’s breadlabor. Religion must deal with pain, death, sorrow; in the main these more sombre facts do not enter into the life of a college, and its members are not constantly compelled to try their power at transmuting the agonizing ultimate event. In these vital matters the experience of the average college student is too restricted to enable him to understand clearly why men need a religion, what religion is, and what religion does.

On the other hand, there are certain rather obvious problems in religion, particularly as they concern the relation of the individual to the institution, which the college student is peculiarly fitted to understand and to help us solve. For this reason his agitation over the question of compulsory chapel has an off-campus, extramural interest for us all. He is here playing over again one of the oldest dramas of history and trying to bring it to a clearer solution.

That is an unusually docile student body which has not staged a vigorous revolt against this practice, wherever it still exists. College faculties, to say nothing of college preachers, are familiar with the crude but none the less effective ammunition of rebel undergraduates — the subtle and rapid contagion of an acute bronchitis; the grating protest of heavy boots, preferably such as are used for stiff Alpine work; and the seductive secularity of the illustrated sections of the Sunday paper. These devices are rather like those twenty-nine distinct damnations of the great text in Galatians, invoked by the soliloquist of the Spanish Cloister—‘one sure, if another fails.’ Their concerted use makes the decorous conduct of a service of worship impossible, and the attempt to preach a sermon under such conditions is the modern genteel equivalent of fighting with the wild beasts at Ephesus. True, the humiliations of this discipline are more considerable than its actual fatalities. But many a man who has faced this situation for years, on the abstract theory that it is for the greater glory of God that he should do so, is beginning to wonder whether religion is really thereby furthered; indeed, whether religion has anything to do with the whole process.


There are probably some incurably ecclesiastical persons who still believe that good can be done in this way. They have ample precedent and warrant in the usage of the past, if they choose to invoke the dead hand. Three hundred years ago in Rome the Jews were forced to attend ‘compulsory chapel’ on Holy Cross Day, to hear a sermon from a Christian bishop. An entry in the diary of a bishop’s chaplain has the true High Church ring: ‘It was of old cared for in the merciful bowels of the Church, that, so to speak, a crumb from her conspicuous table should be cast to the famishing dogs. And a moving sight in truth, this, of so many of the restive and ready-toperish now maternally brought — nay (for He saith “Compel them to come in”) haled, as it were, by the head and hair, and against their obstinate hearts, to partake of the heavenly grace.’ Persons who deplore the passing of this fine old crusty episcopal arrogance will cherish the compulsory college chapel as one of the few remaining opportunities to display that arrogance. To their minds, that is the way to treat undergraduates. All this, however, comes from a seventeenth-century source. Meanwhile there has been the eighteenth century, and the eighteenth century means the Rights of Man, Republicanism, and Revolution.

Gibbon found, as many other historians have found, that the ‘genuine style, the middle tone,’ is achieved only when one is dealing with facts which stand somewhere halfway between ancient and modern times. It is now possible to begin to treat the French Revolution in this middle tone. It furnishes a useful objective medium with which to study certain issues that cannot be treated dispassionately in their contemporary form. Curiously enough, the protest of the American college student against compulsory chapel is apparently one of the direct consequences of the French Revolution, by way of St. John’s College, Cambridge.

Since the discussion of compulsory chapel, in its present terms, is apt to degenerate into a display of bad temper and bad manners, it is worth while studying the issue in the ‘middle tone’ of a document that is nearly a hundred and twenty-five years old. At the risk of being charged with giving aid and comfort to the protestant undergraduate, it may be opportune to inject into our heated academic discussions a passage from Wordsworth’s Prelude. Wordsworth had some glaring faults, but bad temper and bad manners were not among them. Not only so, but as an indubitably distinguished predecessor of the modern undergraduate he is a double who undoes his successor. He says so much on this matter, and what he says is on the whole so well said, that there is little or nothing more to be said.

Wordsworth finished the first draft of The Prelude in 1805. The third book of The Prelude is concerned with ‘Residence at Cambridge.’ Wordsworth went up to St. John’s College in 1787. On the whole he seems to have had the perennial undergraduate good time. Only one thing actually irked him — compulsory chapel. His reflections on this subject are characteristic and still pertinent: —

Youth should be awed, religiously possessed
With a conviction of the power that waits
On knowledge, when sincerely sought and prized
For its own sake . . .
. . . should learn to put aside
Her trappings here, should strip them off abashed
Before antiquity and steadfast truth
And strong book-mindedness. . . .
Be Folly and False-seeming free to affect
Whatever formal gait of discipline
Shall raise them highest in their own esteem —
Let them parade among the Schools at will,
But spare the House of God. Was ever known
The witless shepherd who persists to drive
A flock that thirsts not to a pool disliked?
A weight must surely hang on days begun
And ended with such mockery. Be wise,
Ye Presidents and Deans, and, till the spirit
Of ancient times revive, and youth be trained
At home in pious service, to your bells
Give seasonable rest, for ‘t is a sound
Hollow as ever vexed the tranquil air;
And your officious doings bring disgrace
On the plain steeples of our English Church,
Whose worship, ’mid remotest village trees,
Suffers for this.

William Ernest Henley once said that Wordsworth was ‘a kind of inspired clergyman.’ The phrase is hardly accurate, since the indubitably inspired periods of Wordsworth’s life were anticlerical and unecclesiastical, while the later years of the poet’s decorous Anglicanism were almost devoid of any help from the dæmon of verse. This passage from The Prelude has ominous foreshadowings of the author of the Ecclesiastical Sonnets. These lines will never be lifted out of their context to be given the preferment of an anthology, and as poetry they are a typical example of that punctilious pedestrian versifying which it has been reserved for Wordsworth alone to immortalize. Nevertheless, this labored metrical meditation has ‘the middle tone,’ and serves as a dispassionate discussion of the highly controversial subject to which it is addressed.


Whatever else Wordsworth means, he means that life is something more than discipline. Not that his poetry as a whole is wanting in a recognition of the inevitable disciplinary element in human experience. During his early years, which were the formative and truly productive periods of his life, he was no stranger to hard necessity. This history is reflected in the actual processes of his versifying, which is perhaps the most striking example in English letters of the interdependence of discipline and inspiration.

There are some writers who do not spare their readers an actual share in the ways and means of writing. So, a Parisian painter said of Charles Péguy’s prose, ‘“Il nous fera toujours manger à la cuisine,” voulant signifier par là que sa prose donnait à la fois le repas et la préparation du repas.’ Much the same might be said of Wordsworth’s poetry; its drudgery was the price of its insights, and Wordsworth compels his readers to see the drudgery, even to take a hand in it. The Prelude and The Excursion are inexplicable on any other theory.

Now the practice of poetry was for Wordsworth the substance of his spiritual life. In telling us what he thinks poetry means, he tells us by implication what he thinks religion means; and they mean ‘life and joy.’ It may have been to Wordsworth in his moments of joy, as it has been to many another man, a pleasure to remember the disciplines out of which joy issued; but for such men discipline is not an end in itself.

Wordsworth’s reflections on his undergraduate days at Cambridge persuaded him that the chapel services of St. John’s College were joyless and lifeless because they represented necessity, and nothing more. He concedes to other academic concerns their right to impose discipline — indeed, to regard themselves as ‘disciplines’ pure and simple. He was, first as a student and later as the author of The Prelude, unwilling to concede this tacit identification of the spiritual life with discipline alone. He demanded joy and the emancipation which is the state for joy. Was he right?

This simple question plunges us into a discussion of the nature of religion which involves the whole issue between the elder orthodoxies and our rebel liberalism. Paulinism, Augustinianism, Calvinism, all imply that there is an element and energy of compulsion in the universe which we cannot escape. We may describe this compulsion metaphorically, with the patriarch, as the inquisition of the whirlwind, or, with the theologian, as foreordination, election, irresistible grace. Submission to this coercive principle means discipline. We may not abandon this stern, ancient theory too gayly. Our cavalier capacity for indulging heresies is rebuked by Huxley’s measured affirmation that on the whole he thought Calvinism nearer to the truths which science discovers than are the modern liberal substitutes.

It is a debatable, even a defensible, proposition that the whole ‘elective’ interpretation and conduct of our early life, from the days of the Montessori class to the publication of the Ph.D. thesis, are inaccurate and misleading transcripts of man’s place in the universe. If there is anything at all to be said for compulsory chapel, whatever is to be said may be found in Calvin and Huxley. Required chapel, in the name of religion, may be a picturesque vindication of some such universal coercion of the individual. Perhaps life and religion are like that. Certainly the college student who thinks that he has settled his account with religion when he has succeeded in abolishing compulsory chapel has a very imperfect idea of what the life of man in this world is like. The thing has a disconcerting way of coming back and bothering one again in a new form. ‘John have I beheaded; but who is this, of whom I hear such things?’

On the other hand, Wordsworth was right when he said that life means something more than discipline, and that more is joy; a joy which cannot be attained without discipline, but a joy which at the last knows discipline only as the pleasurable memory of transmuted pain.

The issue still lies just here, where it lay in Wordsworth’s day. The apologists for compulsory chapel defend it mainly on the ground that college discipline requires occasional coercive regimentation of the entire community.

The arguments are familiar. It is a good thing to get the whole college together regularly; proctors and monitors must be given place and time to make sure that delinquents are not week-ending elsewhere; students need to be taught something about religion no matter if the means is distasteful. A compulsory chapel service, conceived and conducted on this disciplinary basis, furnishes the best occasion for the realization of these laudable ends.

Now the weakness of the argument rests upon the assumption that what the student needs and is supposed to get in this connection is discipline, not religion. If we may trust the testimony of man after man, long out of college, who endured this coercion, he got the discipline, but it left him with a rooted antipathy to religion and all its works. Those hours of compulsion were unredeemed by any joy, even prophetic, if not actual. In retrospect many a man admits that on the whole the college was right in teaching him that life means the acceptance of discipline. Meanwhile he goes on into the world laboring under the tragic delusion that religion is discipline and nothing more — a discipline to which he paid the uttermost farthing and of which he is now free.

Anyone who cares about religion must deplore this pathetically meagre and joyless account of religion, with its later and unhappy consequences for the whole religious life of the country. He would not concede that religion is pure antinomianism, void of a constant, mediatorial, disciplinary content, but he devoutly wishes that the duty and odium of discipline might be shared by the other major interests of human life. They are not void of their disciplines, and they should bear their part of the distaste of the natural unregenerate human creature for making his submission to the universe.

If the end of life is discipline, and if the core of every serious concern is its content of discipline, it is fair both to other interests and to religion to suggest that this bittersweet substance, with the antipathies which it engenders, should be divided among all the college departments. Students say that compulsory chapel makes them hate religion. Why should religion be the sole butt of their hatred? The modern Sunday is a fairly free affair; the modern Church no longer refuses to discuss books and politics. Why not divide the responsibility for the conduct of compulsory chapel, in the academic vindication of the universal validity of discipline, among the departments? Thus, on one Sunday morning the students might be required to sing the ‘StarSpangled Banner’ and to listen to considerable selections from the Constitution of the United States, with appropriate comments, that they might be helped to hate the United States. Another Sunday could be very fitly devoted to some play of Shakespeare’s, that the ‘young barbarians all at play’ — which is the traditional description of all undergraduates — might perfect themselves in their salutary hatred of English literature. Religion is quite willing to pull its weight in the boat; it objects to doing all the rowing for an eight.

The truth of the matter sometimes looks rather like this: the stoutest defenders of compulsory chapel are not, as one might at first suppose, persons who care very much for religion, but persons who care very little for it. No man who cares for religion can be happy at the travesty of worship which goes on in many if not most compulsory chapel services. A required service is a useful way of getting a necessary and distasteful academic duty done, and many of its defenders incline one to conclude that they are in favor of the system precisely because they do not think that religion matters very much, or that any real harm is done to the world by making religion take the whole odium of this proctorial transaction.

There is some bleak comfort to be had, in this situation, from the grim affirmation of a historic creed that those who thus confound the substance of religion and confuse its persons ‘without doubt shall perish everlastingly.’ But meanwhile, whatever they may be doing to maintain discipline in a college, they are costing the wider and later religion of America very dear. It is apparently just as true in modern America as in the England of a hundred and twenty-five years ago that the plain steeple of many a village church suffers for this. For that reason compulsory chapel concerns others than college authorities, since it seems to people the land with graduates who are constitutionally unable to believe that a church spire in any way points to joy.