By KENNETH I. CLARKE, SR.
In light of Cornell’s recent Sesquicentennial kickoff, the 85th anniversary of Cornell United Religious Work in 2014 and the 140th anniversary of Sage Chapel in 2015, the above question has particular relevance.
Nonsectarianism, so central to the Cornell identity it is included in the University’s charter, is oft-misunderstood or unappreciated. Ezra Cornell’s remarks on Oct. 7, 1868 — the University’s Inauguration Day — clarify that nonsectarian did not mean nonreligious: “It shall be our aim, and our constant effort to make true Christian men, without dwarfing or pairing them down to fit the narrow gauge of any sect.”
Ezra’s remarks must be understood in their 19th century context. Mainline protestant Christianity was the pervasive expression of American religious life; its influence permeated American culture, including higher education. Additionally, men constituted Cornell’s student populace at its inception even as Cornell and President Andrew Dickson White planned for the inclusion of women.
Ezra Cornell intentionally established the University’s Christian character to blunt an ascending chorus of criticism. The “bold nonsectarianism,” wrote Morris Bishop, of the bill introduced on Feb. 7, 1865 by then-New York State Senator A. D. White, signed into law on April 27 of that year — Charter Day, which we will celebrate this coming April — to establish Cornell as the state’s land-grant university became “a signal for war.” East Hill was assailed as atheistic, “the godless institution,” “Infidel Cornell” and worse. Its refusal to submit students or faculty to sectarian dogma or proofs of Christian loyalty; and that its first president was a scholar and not a preacher (vocations that are not necessarily mutually exclusive!) placed Cornell in the crosshairs of caustic critics.
Nonsectarianism, however, served several secular purposes: to attract the best students; ensure the academic freedom of professors in the search for truth, unrestrained by religious doctrine or political ideology and to ensure, as Carol Kammen asserts, that no trustee, professor or student would be accepted or rejected based on religious or political convictions.
Nonsectarianism created a prospective openness to other faith communities. This was, as Kammen noted, a university “established by a government that recognized no distinction in religious belief, and by citizens who held many different views.” Further, New York State’s public schools included students “without prejudice or preference to any denominational affiliation.” White used the public school example in defense of Cornell’s nonsectarianism in a State Senate hearing about University finances in 1874, which included inquiries about Henry Sage’s gift to build a chapel.
It was in Sage Chapel where receptivity to other religious communities first manifested, in the weekly nonsectarian worship service held from 1875 to 2008. White began a 143-year tradition of inviting “the most eminent divines obtainable, of all faiths” to preach at the Chapel. “All faiths” to White included “Catholic or Jewish,” which is not quite “all faiths.” Yet this was a rare ecumenical and interfaith public statement for the 1870s.
Cornell’s nascent nonsectarianism was, in the words of Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, a sign pointing to something beyond itself: a forthcoming religious inclusivity. In 1896, Rabbi Emil Hirsch, a historic figure in Reform Judaism, was the first of his faith to preach in Sage Chapel. In 1929 Cornell United Religious Work became the first intentionally interfaith organization on a major U.S. campus. CURW evolved from the former Cornell University Christian Association, founded in 1868, and is now an umbrella for 28 diverse religious communities.
Nonsectarian also denoted the University’s refusal to affiliate with a Protestant denomination. “Sect” currently refers to dissident offshoots of an established religion or denomination. Ezra Cornell and A.D. White, however, interpreted sectarianism as Protestant denominational identity. Cornell wanted to avoid a sectarianism that would undermine the aspirational vision of “any person, any study.”
Sectarianism was what Ezra Cornell considered the greatest threat to his University. A year before his death he composed a letter, recovered from the cornerstone of Sage Hall in 1997. Dated May 15, 1873, Cornell penned: “… the principle [sic] danger … I see in the future … is that which may arise from sectarian strife. From these halls, sectarianism must be forever excluded, all students must be left free to worship God, as their concience [sic] shall dictate, and all persons of any creed or all creeds must find free and easy access, and a hearty and equal welcome, to the educational facilities possessed by the Cornell University.”
Cornell’s identity distinguished it from many institutions but was not an unprecedented nonsectarianism. Bishop writes that older institutions shunned “religious tests,” or adherence to the doctrine of a denomination or church body. Cornell may have been inspired, Bishop believes, by Union College’s 1795 charter, prohibiting majority representation of its trustees from one religious sect. Yet Cornell’s explicit nonsectarianism and White’s provocative defense of it in his inaugural address was singled out in the animated animosity of its sectarian enemies.
Yet, as Victor Hugo wrote, “All the forces in the world are not so powerful as an idea whose time has come.” The idea of a nonsectarian Cornell was of longer lasting, more inclusive effect than its censure. The idea projected a future when the American religious landscape would be transformed by the landmark 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, opening the nation’s borders for increased immigration and a more visible and vigorous religious diversity.
Cornell’s nonsectarianism is an idea that at times during its history has been in tension with the realities of religious practice. Yet, as Barack Obama reminded us in his landmark speech on race during his 2008 presidential candidacy, that the creation of a “more perfect union” is a work in progress, so too is Cornell’s nonsectarian idea. Nonsectarianism is a foundation on which a superstructure of pluralism can be built.
Eboo Patel, founder of Interfaith Youth Core — which promotes interfaith cooperation on college campuses — cites Harvard comparative religions scholar Diana Eck’s distinction between diversity and pluralism: “Where diversity is a fact,” Patel avers, “pluralism is an achievement.” Pluralism is “deliberative and positive engagement of diversity; … building strong bonds between people from different backgrounds.”
Therefore, the pluralism implicated by nonsectarian identity does not dilute one’s religion or seek to hybridize religions. Instead, as a former CURW colleague once said, pluralism means “to strengthen the self through engagement with the other.” This is a vision CURW seeks to fulfill as a contemporary response to the question, “What did Ezra mean by nonsectarian?”
Kenneth I. Clarke, Sr. is Director of Cornell United Religious Work. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.