Despite the rarity with which Williams students enter the edifice, aerial photos and viewbooks of this campus still prominently feature one building: the immense and possibly oversized tower of Thompson Chapel. Built in 1903 to replace Goodrich Hall as the campus chapel (you can see where Goodrich’s steeple used to be, above the main entrance), Thompson was to be a “a majestic and enduring symbol of the democratic, catholic [not Catholic] faith of Williams College,” showing Henry Hopkins’s “unalterable conviction that the highest education must always be carried on in the light and warmth of those great truths which make our holy religion immortal.”But Williams ended mandatory chapel service several decades ago, and before that many students seemingly “converted” to Judaism so that they could catch an earlier religious service and get out of town quicker on the weekend. We had moved, in the words of Professor of History Emeritus Fred Rudolph, from a humble college of Christian philosophy to a “Gentlemen’s College,” where students from public schools or modest means served their classmates within coveted fraternities and where the strict morality of Mark Hopkins gave way to all types of raucous celebration. The “goat room” of Perry House, for example, was a private sanctum, first accessed by pledges by way of ropes and a trapdoor under the small stage.
We see in these rooms and in the immense wealth donated to build the chapel ($300,000 in 1902 dollars from Mary Thompson of the family that founded Chase Manhattan Bank) a White-Anglo-Saxon-Protestant (WASP) history of Williams that can be familiar to many of us, especially if our own ancestors attended institutions like Williams or in my case, Harvard. I met many of the alums from this era (informally known as the “Old Guard”) and their wives last year while working as a reunion ranger. They are friendly, full of memory, kind and cheery, and many are in remarkable physical shape, such as the Class of ’35 grad who walked the entire parade route, but they are also entirely male, as the first class of women at Williams didn’t graduate until 1970. The Office of Admission notes legacy applicants with alumni grandfathers, but there is no notation for alumni grandmothers – that tag doesn’t exist, and will not for another 10 years or so.
Rarely does such history meet us face to face – the vast majority of the Chapel’s visitors have probably never read the inscription in the room under the tower, off of the narthex, but it is visible in the names of the buildings that surround us: Chapin, Paresky, Thompson, Schow and, most recently, Hollander. It’s also found in the many alums who surround our campus, returning to live out their final summers in the Purple Valley, though few of us have the chance to meet these alumni.
Thompson straddles this divide, reminding us each day of a Christian past even as it is home to the Meditation Society and Muslim Student Union alongside Williams Catholic in the Newman Room. I certainly enjoy playing Christmas carols for the two weeks after Thanksgiving, especially in the prelude for “Lessons and Carols,” a traditional Christmas service held at Williams since the 1950s.
The word “privilege” has different definitions for different people, but here’s my take: When my faith on campus is represented by a giant structure of stone, and when other religions are relegated to rooms or smaller buildings, I am privileged. It’s not anything I need feel specific responsibility for: No one asked me if the Chapel should have been built or if the fraternities of old could discriminate.
But I do have something subtler to be aware of. Though a complete stranger to Williams and Williamstown before my single visit in 2006, I could instantly feel at home in Thompson’s sanctuary, but there is no similar space for those of other faiths. This campus and its structures are easy to identity with. It doesn’t mean finals are any easier, but it does mean that when I sing in choir, I get to sing about my religion while the atheist next to me must read and speak words he does not subscribe to. The “mission” in Mission Park refers to my religion’s foreign movement. This campus has an inescapable Christian history alongside modern acceptance of all faiths.
The Chaplain and his office navigate this awkwardness as well as anyone else I’ve met, simultaneously honoring old while welcoming new. The current proposal for a Muslim Chaplain is overdue, especially as American knowledge and comfort with Islam is and will be hugely important in these years and those to come. Furthermore, these matters will never be solved or concluded, at least within the next 20 years. All I ask is that we remember those who aren’t so visible in Williams history – those who suffered rejection from fraternities on the basis of wealth, race or creed – and place them in our minds alongside the enduring image of Thompson Chapel and its stature in our beloved Purple Valley, and that we celebrate “Lessons and Carols” while honoring the traditions of those who worship elsewhere. Merry Christmas.