By Charles Milhauser
Editor’s note: This column is reprinted, with a few updates, from spring 1996.
Over 50 years ago Cornell abolished required chapel, a daily weekday assembly as old as the college and seemingly as eternal or, depending on one’s point of view, as infernal as homework and final exams. Daily attendance was a graduation requirement and roll was taken by faculty or student monitors. There was no chapel on weekends, but students were expected to attend Sunday services at a local church.
In 1853 the school day began with chapel at 5:30 a.m. and ended with another chapel at 4:30 p.m. The afternoon religious service was soon dropped because of student protests, but 9:45 to 10:05 morning chapel continued until the end of the 1956–57 academic year when it was replaced by the Assembly Merit Program (AMP) and held from 11 to noon, Tuesday and Thursday. Tuesday-Thursday chapels thus became two of many options under AMP, which required attendance at a prescribed number of events every semester, chosen from day, evening, and weekend offerings. From 1964 to 1970 “chapel” was used for lectures relative to the Sophomore-Junior Humanities Program. Both programs ended in 1970. Chapel was then reinvented as Thursday Convocation and attendance became voluntary. The faculty preempted the Tuesday hour for its meetings.
In the 19th century chapels were religious services that included daily announcements and inspirational addresses by the president, faculty, clergy, missionaries, and lay persons billed as “educators.” After 1914 students heard public figures, journalists, explorers, and people in literature and the arts. There were also theatrical and musical performances, puppet shows, pep rallies, student government elections, Mortar Board tappings, and talent shows.
Bored or mischievous students occasionally tossed hymn books out the windows and once disrupted the service by firing a cannon in the basement of King Chapel. Cornellians slid down ropes from the ceiling, put sneezing powder on the pews (chapel had to be dismissed), set alarm clocks to ring while a vulnerable visitor was speaking, rolled croquet balls down the balcony steps, and let loose chickens and piglets. Once a year the first-years, who sat in the balcony, exchanged places with the seniors on the main floor. One time an almost invisible wire was strung across the seats by upperclass physics majors, who waited until the frosh were in their glory and then “electrified” them.
Because the entire student body and faculty assembled once a day, they developed a sense of community unknown today. Everyone heard the announcements, witnessed the goings on, understood the gossip, could explore with classmates and teachers the ideas presented, and shared emotional or aesthetic moments.