Looking back at Tufts’ religious history

Would you believe that the idea of Tufts students as Ivy rejects has its roots in the University’s founding?

A group of Universalists – very liberal Christians – founded Tufts College in 1852 after they were rejected from Harvard University due to their religious affiliation. Their actions countered the then-premise that college acceptance depended on religious background.

The Universalists received an original donation of 20 acres from Charles Tufts, a local farmer. Tufts stipulated that the land be used for a college. His total land donations amounted to more than 100 acres.

Since Tufts was founded on the premise that religion should not determine eligibility for a college education, the Universalist fathers resisted the establishment of a divinity school. But when Sylvanus Packard, a trustee, died, he willed $300,000 to Tufts for the creation of a Christian theology professor position. The trustees decided the funds would be better used to establish a divinity school.

The Tufts College Divinity School opened in 1869 with four students and two professors. From there, an average of 20 students enrolled annually, with a high of 60 students for the 1937-38 year and a low of nine students in 1906.

In a year of low enrollment, Albert Crane donated $100,000 in memory of his father and trustee, Thomas Crane. The divinity school was then renamed the Crane Theological School.

The program offered a bachelor of divinity degree after three years of study. An ongoing debate ensued regarding whether or not the school should be an undergraduate or graduate level option. For most of its existence, a Bachelor of Arts degree, though recommended, was not required. Tufts also offered a combined B.A./S.T.B. (Bachelor of Sacred Theology) degree. In 1954 the school extended acceptance only to those at the graduate level.

The school also wrestled to retain full-time faculty. Part-time faculty shared with the liberal arts college faculty filled a majority of positions.

Early attempts to encourage enrollment included expanding the divinity school’s facilities. Built in 1872, West Hall offered a small chapel and classrooms on the first floor and housed the divinity school students on the second floor. The completion of Miner and Paige Halls in 1891 effectively separated accommodations from academic and administrative space.

Despite the new facilities and attempts to encourage applications, the divinity school suffered. The school’s reputation was marred by the inconsistent performance of the students; those entering without a B.A. education as compared to those with the degree. Insufficient endowment and low enrollment also contributed to the closing of the divinity school only a year before its centennial. In its 99-year history, the school granted 485 degrees.

From its inception, Tufts mandated morning and evening services for all undergraduates. Through the 19th century, the University’s president was also an ordained clergyman, who presided at all services. The services were held in the present-day Coolridge Room of Ballou Hall, but as the student body grew, the room could no longer accommodate the number of students and faculty in one sitting.

Answering the need for a larger facility, Mary Goddard donated $25,000 for the construction of Goddard Chapel, in honor of her husband, the late Thomas Goddard, a trustee and early donor. Completed in 1883, the chapel now boasts 360 seats, stained glass windows, memorial busts and plaques, as well as a carillon of 25 chapel bells that ring daily.

By the 1920s, the student population had grown beyond the capacity of Goddard Chapel. The students began attending morning services in shifts. Instead of every day, they attended only twice a week. Punishment for absences from services included a deduction of hours completed for graduation.

Now, almost 150 years since Tufts’ groundbreaking, the University offers four full-time chaplains, a University chaplain, Roman Catholic chaplain, Protestant chaplain, and Hillel rabbi.

According to Tufts Viewbook of the Class of 2003, of those who reported their religious affiliation, 24 percent identified themselves as Catholic, 22 percent Jewish, 19 percent Protestants, and 12 percent other religions.

Father Dave O’Leary, who has been the Roman Catholic chaplain for the last three years, is one of two full-time Boston priests; the other being the chaplain at Harvard. “I was thrilled to be asked… Tufts is held very well-regarded,” he said about his position on campus.

At the chaplains’ monthly meetings, O’Leary said they have all noted the rise in attendance at services. He attributed this partly to the stability of the chaplain positions. Rabbi Jeffrey Summit has been at Tufts for 23 years. Before his departure in January, then-University chaplain Scotty McLennan served Tufts for 16 years.

– Information compiled from Tufts History: A Concise Encyclopedia of Tufts History


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