Tracing Princeton's religious tradition

Feb. 2, 2006 5 p.m.
St Augustine Window

"Chapels of Princeton University," a new book by William Selden, traces the history of Princeton's religious buildings and traditions over the years. Today's University Chapel, completed in 1928, features 27 stained glass windows that depict the psalms of David and cycles from four great Christian epics, as well as several notable Princetonians. (Photo: John Jameson)

Below left: The College of New Jersey (now Princeton University) donated the land for the town's First Presbyterian Church, which was built in 1764. Under an agreement, the college could use the church three times a year for commencement as well as for other special occasions. This 1877-78 drawing shows college president James McCosh conferring degrees during a graduation ceremony at the church, which was later replaced with a new building and renamed Nassau Presbyterian Church. (Drawing: H. Ogden in Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly, 1877-78)

A new book by 1934 Princeton alumnus William Selden chronicles the religious heritage of the University.

"Chapels of Princeton University: Their Historical and Religious Significance" recently was published by the Office of Communications. The 95-page paperback is the most recent in Selden's series of short histories of Princeton-area buildings and institutions.

According to the book:

• The first chapel for what was then the College of New Jersey was a prayer hall on the south side of Nassau Hall, built in 1756, where the Faculty Room now stands. Students at the college, which was founded by Presbyterians, were joined for Sunday services by local families from that denomination.

• When the prayer hall became too small for the local congregation and for college activities such as graduation, the college donated land adjacent to Nassau Hall for a Presbyterian church. First Presbyterian Church (now Nassau Presbyterian Church) was erected in 1764; its services were led by College of New Jersey presidents until the early 1800s and college commencement exercises were held there until Alexander Hall was completed in 1892.

    Commencement Day


    • The college's first stand-alone chapel was completed in 1848 at a cost of $5,700 on the east end of Nassau Hall. The "Old Chapel" was used for religious services until 1882. It was then used as a lecture and recitation hall until 1896, when it was razed to make room for the construction of Pyne Library, now called East Pyne and part of the Andlinger Center for the Humanities.

    • Construction began in 1881 and was completed the following year on Marquand Chapel, located to the east of both Nassau Hall and the Old Chapel. According to the book, "The interior was handsomely decorated and enriched with frescoes and stained glass windows as well as tablets."

    • Marquand was destroyed by fire in 1920. Religious services were held in Alexander Hall until 1928, when the current University Chapel was completed. Built at a cost of more than $2 million, the University Chapel was second in size only to the chapel at King's College, Cambridge University, when it was finished. Today, the chapel is the third largest college chapel in the world, behind the chapels at Valparaiso University in Indiana and King's College.

    In addition to describing the various buildings housing religious activities, the book delves into religious influences over the years at Princeton. It includes information on the religious backgrounds of college leaders, student religious life and organizations, the office of the dean of the chapel and the dean of religious life, the growing number of denominational groups, the tradition of service and the academic study of religion.

    "Chapels of Princeton University" is available from the Princeton University Store.