Role of Religion

Princeton University Chapel.
Princeton University Chapel. Photo: Nick Barberio  
Over the last two centuries, Princeton has evolved from a stronghold of American Presbyterianism to a home for multi-denominational spiritual life.

Princeton's founders were Presbyterian pastors: Yale graduates Jonathan Dickinson, Aaron Burr and John Pierson, and Harvard graduate Ebenezer Pemberton. Not satisfied with the limited course of instruction given at the Log College (founded in Pennsylvania circa 1726 by Presbyterian William Tennent), the four ministers planned a new school. They persuaded three New York Presbyterians to join them: William Smith, a lawyer; Peter Van Brugh Livingston, a merchant; and William Peartree Smith, a young man of independent means.

The new institution was to be a college of liberal arts and sciences. "Though our great Intention was to erect a seminary for educating Ministers of the Gospel," one of the founders wrote, "yet we hope it will be useful in other learned professions — Ornaments of the State as Well as the Church." The College, furthermore, was not to be solely for Presbyterians. "Persons of all persuasions are to have free access to the Honours & Privileges of the College, while they behave themselves with Sobriety and Virtue."

This was demonstrated in a second charter issued on September 14, 1748, by Governor Jonathan Belcher, which made the governor of New Jersey an ex-officio trustee and included members of the Provincial Council, the Society of Friends, the Episcopal Church and the Dutch Reformed Church.

In 1811, the Presbyterian General Assembly determined that the college was becoming too secular in its curriculum and that future ministers required professional training beyond the scope of a liberal arts college. A separate institution, the Theological Seminary, was founded in 1812.

By the time the College became Princeton University in 1896, it had adopted an increasingly modern and liberal philosophy of education. In the 1920s Princeton ceased being a Presbyterian institution, as symbolized by the building of the great interdenominational Princeton University Chapel, which is open daily for prayer and meditation, for Ecumenical Christian services on Sunday mornings, and for Opening Exercises and the Baccalaureate Service.

The 20th century saw the rise of campus denominational societies. The oldest, the Episcopal Procter Foundation, began in 1876. Presbyterian, Catholic, Methodist and Evangelical societies were organized in the 1920s. After World War II, more societies followed, including the Jewish Hillel Foundation, Lutheran Student Fellowship, Baptist Student Fellowship, Unitarian/Universalist Fellowship, Christian Science Organization and Orthodox Christian St. Photius Society.

Today, Princeton's Office of Religious Life encourages the campus community to take advantage of opportunities for worship and meditation in a variety of traditions.