By Professor Jonathan L. Walton
When Harvard University nominated the Reverend Frederic Dan Huntington to be the first Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Preacher to the University in April, 1855, his parishioners at the South Congregational Church were none too pleased. Members sent Rev. Huntington a twenty page letter objecting to this anomalous new appointment of hybrid preacher and professor. Few believed that true ministry could take place within the comfortable confines of Harvard College. Accepting this position, they asserted, was simply a way for their pastor to evade the demands of a real congregation.
Rev. Huntington responded to their letter with equal passion and length. He regarded ministering to young people during their formative years at Harvard as an important and noble calling. Huntington was clear that today’s students are tomorrow’s’ leaders. The Church must help shape their moral character and intellectual trajectory. To those who accused him of exchanging his ministerial responsibilities for the comforts of a campus, he added, “I am not going there to shut myself in from the living forces of society, nor from the assemblies of men. It is my conviction that the bond between a literary institution and the mass of the surrounding people, in this age, ought to be close and vital.”
I am proud to say that the Memorial Church remains committed to Rev. Huntington’s vision of a vibrant campus ministry at Harvard. Students are more than the leaders of tomorrow. We know that they are leading the way today. This is why the Memorial Church seeks to provide Harvard students with the emotional space and spiritual resources to develop a vision and a plan for faithful living in an increasingly complex world. Believe me when I say that the students of MemChurch are rising to the challenge.
Consider Eva Shang ’17. A member of the Plummer Professor Student Advisory Board, Eva is the Founder and President of the Harvard Chapter of Student Alliance for Prison Reform. She works tirelessly to raise awareness concerning inhumane practices inside of our prisons, and leads service programs at the Massachusetts Correctional Institution in Framingham for women. Eva’s activism has already been noted by prominent national media outlets such as Headline News and USA Today. She does more than talk about her moral commitments. Eva lives them out in her service.
There is also Krista Anderson ’19. In addition to serving as an usher each week, Krista is committed to making Harvard a more warm and welcoming place for students, regardless of their background. This year she was a principal organizer of 1VYG 2016, The Inter-Ivy League First Generation College Students’ Conference, hosted in Cambridge by the Harvard College First Generation Student Union. Krista is helping our community to recognize both the distinct needs and the incredible contributions that first generation college students bring to our community. Harvard is a better place because of her presence.
I could keep going. Whether it’s Douglas Maggs ’17 preparing to conduct research in Italy over the summer, or Vegas Longois ’16 joining AmeriCorps in Alabama, these young people are important role models. They show us that Harvard College is about more than finding a way to earn a living. We are here to help students discover lives that are worth living. This is a goal to which the Memorial Church is committed.
Keep our mission in mind. We seek to empower members of the Harvard community to serve the world as well-informed, compassionate moral citizens. Sedgwick Chaplain to the University and Senior Minister Reverend Dr. Lucy Forster-Smith continues to help establish an infrastructure through the Board of Religious, Spiritual, and Ethical Life to meet the needs of students across this campus. No matter one’s faith perspective, the Memorial Church wants to contribute positively to a culture that is open and affirming of all faith perspectives. Similarly, the Reverend Alanna Copenhaver, our Ministry Fellow, remains an invaluable resource for so many of our students. Her warmth and theological maturity encourages many to find greater clarity about their faith and service. And Gund University Organist and Choirmaster Edward Jones and the music ministry live out the Memorial Church’s mission in distinct and powerful ways. Whether performing for Syrian and Iraqi refugee relief, or bearing witness to the healing power of music in Charleston, South Carolina, the Harvard University Choir and Baroque Chamber Orchestra use their incredible talents to spread the good news of God’s love.
These are the reasons why I am so excited to return to the Memorial Church following a productive and regenerative sabbatical year. Though the inconveniences associated with a renovation await, I realize that the problems associated with temporary relocation are minuscule when compared to the greater impact of our noble call. The work continues. For the call we have answered is more concerned with houses not made by hands, our precious students. (2 Corinthians 5:1)
We know the impact and influence that Harvard graduates will have on our society. But as Rev. Huntington wrote as he concluded his letter to South Congregational, “What the nature of that influence shall be, so far as our foremost university is concerned, is the solemn question now put before me.”
It is my prayer that because of our humble efforts, Harvard College students will pour out into the world educating minds, expanding hearts, and enriching lives.
Jonathan L. Walton
Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister, The Memorial Church