Today Andover Hall is at the center of our Divinity School campus. Crowned with a gothic tower, flanked by the stately Theological Library and the modern Rockefeller Hall, with Jewett House and the Center for the Study of World Religions paying their homage from across Francis Street, Andover is Harvard’s sole example of college gothic architecture. It looks every bit the home of a divinity school. But it was plain, unassuming Divinity Hall that I would first discover when Stephanie Paulsell, our Susan Shallcross Swartz Professor of Christian Practice, encouraged me to explore HDS for graduate study.
“Go to Divinity Hall,” she told me, “Emerson Chapel’s on the third floor—don’t miss it!” Leaving Harvard Yard, where Stephanie was teaching Literature of Journey and Quest that summer, I set off in search of Divinity Avenue and the hall for which it’s named. Harvey Cox, our beloved emeritus Hollis Professor, delights in telling us of our “exile” from Harvard Yard in 1826. In his telling, our troublesome forbearers were hard at work afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted, and Harvard wanted a little distance from the theological rabble-rousers in their midst. On that hot summer day when I finally came upon “Div Hall” as we call it, I would find it facing resolutely away from the street, its back to the Yard, determined to engage the world.
On that hot summer day when I finally came upon “Div Hall” as we call it, I would find it facing resolutely away from the street, its back to the Yard, determined to engage the world.
Dutifully climbing the stairs to the third floor, I discovered a small, quiet chapel with chairs arranged in an open square, facing each other across the room. Bookended by a pulpit on one end and an organ on the other, the chapel is adorned with several large plaques commemorating the luminaries who helped to shape the Divinity School’s early history. On that day the two old chandeliers seemed superfluous as natural sunlight streamed through the large colonial style windows. Stephanie had described it as a secret gem, and indeed it seemed that I had stumbled into a well-preserved bit of history, still extraordinarily well-suited to quiet contemplation and reflection.
These days, it is Andover Hall’s Chapel that serves as our gathering place on Wednesday’s for Noon Service and on Tuesday mornings for our Ecumenical Eucharist. We gather there for Seasons of Light and other big occasions throughout the year. By contrast, Divinity Hall’s Emerson Chapel has come to serve as a place where members of the HDS community come to find respite from the rush of activity that can sometimes characterize the divinity school experience. Students seek out this space to read or pray or simply sit in meditation. Small classes and discussion groups convene in the cool quiet of Emerson Chapel for conversation inflected by a sense of our history and feeling of timelessness.
Divinity Hall’s Emerson Chapel has come to serve as a place where members of the HDS community come to find respite from the rush of activity that can sometimes characterize the divinity school experience.
But the chapel in Divinity Hall used to be at the center of our communal life, serving the students of HDS when Divinity Hall wasn’t our oldest building, but our only building. Preaching classes would convene there, visiting eminences would come to preach and proclaim, and a 35-year-old Ralph Waldo Emerson would scandalize the community with his Divinity School Address on another hot summer day 176 years before I would find my way to the chapel that now bears his name.
On July 15, 1838, Emerson took to the chapel’s pulpit to encourage that year’s graduating class of divinity students to “acquaint themselves at first hand with deity.” Not quite ready for such a radical message, the community waited some thirty years to invite him back! Of course, Emerson was only participating in that particular brand of theological troublemaking that has characterized the best of us here at HDS for 200 years now. As we celebrate our bicentennial, we look forward to another 200 years of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.