“…of every religious denomination…”

From its founding, Cornell University was explicitly non-sectarian. In setting up the Board of Trustees, the Charter specified: “But at no time shall a majority of the board be of one religious sect, or of no religious sect,” and Section 4 ends with the statement: “And persons of every religious denomination, or of no religious denomination, shall be equally eligible to all offices and appointments.” These sentiments reflected the ideals and experiences of the founders. Religion for both White and Cornell was a private decision, and religion would be a private decision for Cornell students, faculty, and staff.

The Class of 1872, the first class to graduate after four years at Cornell, reminisced in their class history on Cornell’s early reputation as a godless institution:

It was a “Godless college,” though, forsooth, the majority of all persons connected with it in any capacity were much farther from deserving the reproach of irreligion than were the fanatics who uttered it. It was “opposing religion,” because it did not employ the Bible as a textbook in the manner of the theological seminaries. It was “encouraging atheism” – by teaching the lessons drawn from nature’s scriptures, written with fossils in the earth’s crust. It was “accursed” and “immoral” – because it was unsectarian and under that thumb of no denomination, its President was not an ordained minister or a superannuated preacher, and its Faculty included men who stayed at home when it rained on Sunday, and never went to church when the sun shone.

History of the Class of 1872 Cornell University: “The First Through Class.” The Class Committee, 1925.

Cornell’s commitment to non-sectarianism was controversial from the start. When the new university opened in 1868, the governor of New York State, who was scheduled to speak at the Inauguration exercises, withdrew at the last moment in order to avoid criticism. White annotated his program:

But Gov. Fenton was afraid of Methodists & Baptists & other sectarian enemies of the University & levanted the night before leaving the duty to Lieut. Gov. Woodford who discharged the duties admirably.


In his speech at the laying of the cornerstone of Sage Hall, Ezra Cornell described the letter that he had placed in the cornerstone, a letter “of which I have kept no copy….” Although Sage Hall was built as the first women’s dormitory at Cornell, for Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White, coeducation itself was not an experiment that might fail. Cornell wrote:

The principal danger to be encountered by the friends of education, and by all lovers of true liberty 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.

Christian Association

Students made their own decisions about religion, and many attended services in local churches. In January 1869, they founded a Cornell chapter of the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), among the earliest in the U.S. By 1872, with the admission of women to Cornell, the group became the Christian Association. The group sponsored Bible study classes, published the Barnes Hall Bulletin and the Student Handbook, maintained a library, held receptions for freshmen, conducted missions in Ithaca neighborhoods, and sponsored international missionary efforts. In 1904, Cornell women organized a separate and independent YWCA, with its own constitution.

By 1886, the Christian Association, under the direction of John R. Mott (Class of 1888, who shared the 1946 Nobel Peace Prize), began raising funds for a dedicated building. In June 1887, Alfred S. Barnes, a New York publisher and trustee, agreed to contribute $40,000 towards a building to be placed between Sage College and Sage Chapel. Designed by William Henry Miller, Barnes Hall was dedicated on June 16, 1889.

Cornell United Religious Work

In 1929, in recognition of its expanded mission, the Cornell University Christian Association changed its name to Cornell United Religious Work (CURW), and added Catholic and Jewish chaplains. CURW officially became a combined organization of men and women in 1939. CURW continued many of the existing religious programs, held discussion groups, lectures, suppers, a “marriage preparation series,” and non-credit courses in religion. It also sponsoreddiscussions of public questions, and local and national service activities. It continued to publish the Student Handbook, as well as Areopagus, a “Journal of Opinion.” Currently, CURW includes 30 affiliated communities, representing Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, and Buddhist faiths.

Sage Chapel

After providing funds for the building of Sage College, Henry W. Sage agreed with his wife that Cornell needed a dedicated building for chapel services. Sage Chapel opened in 1875. Along with the building, Sage’s son, Dean Sage, also provided an endowment for visiting preachers from any denomination. Notable Sage Preachers included Stephen Wise, Harry Emerson Fosdick, Lyman Beecher, John R. Mott ’88, Reinhold Niebuhr, Paul Tillich, Abraham Heschel, Martin Luther King, Sr., Hans Kung, and Elie Wiesel.

Sage Chapel was expanded in 1883, with the construction of a memorial mausoleum where notable Cornellians are interred, including Ezra Cornell and Andrew Dickson White. A major expansion in 1898 removed the belfry, doubled the seating, and added Byzantine-style rose windows and the memorial apse. The mosaic frieze, designed by Ella Condie Lamb, symbolizes the work of the university, balancing the Sciences on the left, with the Arts on the right, with Philosophy seated on a throne in the center. An additional expansion in 1903 extended the transept and provided the elaborate color decoration of the walls and ceiling.

Memorial windows were added over the years, most recently for three martyrs of the civil rights struggles of the 1960s: James Cheney, Andrew Goodman, and Michael Schwerner ’61. Memorial plaques also honor key figures in Cornell history.

Sage Chapel is a place for worship and university lectures; celebrations of both the living and the lives of the departed; a place of remembrance for Cornell’s founders, benefactors, alumni and faculty; where remarkable music is performed; and a distinctive space where spirit and intellect meet.

Rev. Kenneth I. Clarke, Sr., director of Cornell United Religious Work. May 20, 2014

Anabel Taylor Hall

In 1948, Myron Taylor funded the construction of a new center for the Cornell Interfaith program, a “place where all religions may repair for worship.…” Anabel Taylor Hall was dedicated on October 26, 1952, with an Interfaith Chapel, designed to be religious but nondenominational. Through the efforts of Hillel Director Morris Goldfarb and Professor Milton Konvitz, the stained-glass windows respected Jewish prohibitions against the use of graven images in a place of worship by illustrating the virtues of an educated man through symbols rather than representational art. The building also included the Founders Room for social gatherings; the One World Room, which served as a lounge, lecture hall, dining room, and social hall; an auditorium seating 400; various offices; and the Memorial Lobby, with its World War II and Korea/Vietnam/Other war memorials.

In its early years, the Interfaith Chapel was also noted for a revolving altar that included three settings for Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish religious services.

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