Recalling Westminster’s Spiritual Traditions
BY ISAAC CORONEL
Westminster College had the opportunity earlier this month to host the Harrod-C.S. Lewis Legacy Lecture, an annual event in which the college invites a renowned theologian to discuss significant religious issues. The lecture is an astounding representation of Westminster’s Interfaith Board and Religious Studies professors’ hard work, but the college also has an interesting history of student spirituality.
Westminster started out in 1851 as a Presbyterian institution, but most of the religious activities were not organized among students. In 1868, the Beta Theta Pi Fraternity was established on campus and quickly began promoting fraternity and social mobility. Therefore, many students took it upon themselves to create an organization that would support the studies of God, the Young Men’s Christian Association.
George Williams founded the Y.M.C.A. in 1844, and H.C. Evans brought it to Westminster in 1877. Evans’ mission was to convert students to Christianity, develop students of Christ and send them out to work for Christ. For much of the preparation, the students attended Sunday afternoon meetings, where they learned how to lead prayers.
Many events were set up for hosting guest speakers, including secretaries from the Springfield, Missouri, Y.M.C.A. and individuals from the Geneva Conferences. Y.M.C.A. officers set up these events for the college in order to promote spirituality among its students.
The Y.M.C.A. held many of its meetings in a large library on the campus, but a new church was formed for students in Westminster Hall. However, the infamous fire of 1909 destroyed Westminster Hall and the chapel. The new Westminster Hall, which opened in 1911, served as the campus chapel for the time, but it would soon be replaced. In 1917, construction began on that replacement, a place of worship named William Chrisman Swope Chapel, located on the Hill. The chapel opened in 1919 and remained open for nearly half a century.
In Swope Chapel, many of the religious activities of the Y.M.C.A. continued, and other more official services were performed by the college Reverends. The chapel held a library of research and a large room of traditional worship for the campus.
As it is known that the Skulls of Seven are symbolic guardians for first-year students, they were heavily involved with campus religious activities. The Skulls reprimanded students who did not go to church and would be present in the chapel to enforce order. The Skulls also helped make documents and preserved artifacts dealing with Westminster’s religious history.
By the 1960s, Swope Chapel began to sink down the Hill and had to be removed. In 1964, crews began work on the latest and current chapel, the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury. Swope Chapel was demolished in 1965, after having stood for 46 years, and St. Mary’s opened in 1969.
By the late 20th century, the Y.M.C.A. disbanded from the campus.
While there have been many speakers and students taking different initiatives in spirituality, Westminster has traditionally made efforts to be a safe place for students to express their beliefs without any forms of discrimination.