Interview with Dean Ernest Gordon and tour of University Chapel, 1977

Today’s post is written by Rev. Frederick Borsch ’57, former Dean of Religious Life and the Chapel 1981-1988.

“A sermon in stone” is a familiar description of the Princeton University Chapel, and it is used to introduce this 1977 film tour of the Chapel’s architecture and windows through an interview with its then Dean Ernest Gordon. Although an effort was made to give the program a semblance of informality, it comes across now as rather rehearsed. First telecast (Nov. 27, 1977) as a 10 minute segment in a Sunday morning NBC-TV series, “The First Estate: Religion in Review,” the film is also, however, not without attractive and educational features. Since the Chapel remains essentially the same, the information is not dated, and there is much to appreciate in watching it. For considerable further information about the Chapel, one can go to the University’s Office of Religious Life’s site about the History of the Chapel to find links to a self-guided tour and an extensive audio-tour. There is also Richard Stilwell’s splendid The Chapel of Princeton University (Princeton University Press, 1971). Next one could go to the Chapel.
“Bring binoculars,” was the advice I was given, as that is the only way to take in much of the detail. The film seems to have been made in anticipation of the 50th anniversary of the 1928 dedication of the Chapel. I first entered the building as a freshman in 1953 when it was 25 years old. We undergrads, of course, had other names for the building–not least because attendance at religious services was then required of freshmen and sophomores on every other weekend. One of my roommates, though not himself Jewish, usually went to their Friday evening services in order to get his chit signed and have the rest of the week-end free. Other of my friends might go to a denominational service, but often enough on Sunday mornings we went to the ecumenical (though rather Presbyterian) “God Box” or “Firestone South,” so labeled because the Chapel was neighbor to our more frequent destination–the Firestone Library just across the plaza.

Or, since lore had it that alumnus and plutocrat Harvey Firestone had donated a goodly part of the over two million dollars for building the Chapel, it was also “Firestone’s Folly.” We heard that this sobriquet had been given by earlier critics who would have preferred that the money be used for laboratories, libraries and faculty salaries. At the time, however, President Hibben had acclaimed the Chapel as Princeton’s two million dollar witness against materialism!

Yet it was hard not to stand–literally stand–in awe of the building and all it represented. I stood there. I worshipped in the Ralph Adams Cram Anglo-collegiate Gothic tribute to the unity of faith and knowledge. The visage of the philosopher-skeptic David Hume could even be glimpsed in one of the windows. I listened to the Aeolian-Skinner organ while admiring what has been called the “finest assemblage of stained glass in all the western hemisphere.” (Recently the windows were completely refurbished and restored to the tune of something like ten million dollars. The building and its fabric have over the years been very well endowed!) As an English major, I liked to sense the whole building as a paean to Christian humanism and to pick out Chaucer, Shakespeare, George Herbert, Donne, Milton, Blake, Emily Dickinson and T.S. Eliot. In the only apparent attempt at humor in the 1977 film (other than a reference of Donne’s “unholy” sonnets), Dean Gordon notes the tiger on which William Blake seems to sit. “Tiger, tiger, burning bring / In the forests of the night,” runs through one’s mind, followed by “tiger, tiger, tiger; sis, sis, sis; boom, boom, boom; ah.”

Ernest Gordon became the Chapel’s Dean in 1955. He was “earnest” all right (a little joke of ours), but what a change he brought to the worship with his Scot’s burr, his energetic faith and dramatic story of conversion to Christianity during his four years in a miserable Japanese concentration camp. A handsome man with a certain winsomeness about him (still seen in the film), he invited Billy Graham to campus for what was in affect a mission to undergraduates.

Later Gordon would twice invite (over a number of protests) Martin Luther King, Jr. to the Chapel’s pulpit and preside over the Chapel during the civil rights movement, then a memorial service for Dr. King, turmoil and protests over the Vietnam War–some of these gatherings taking place in the Chapel. As part of all that, a measure of interest in religion grew, but not necessarily in formal church-going. By 1964 all Chapel requirements had finally been dropped as the University became still more secular in outlook and at the same time more diverse in terms of religions. I had to wonder if Dean Gordon did not wince to himself when, at the end of the film, he commented on how important the Chapel was for undergraduates although far fewer were coming to his Sunday morning services than in earlier years.

Truth in blogging: in 1981 I succeeded Ernest Gordon as Dean, and one can read something more about his ministry, the Chapel and the times in my forthcoming Keeping Faith at Princeton: A Brief History of Religious Pluralism at Princeton and Other Universities (Princeton University Press, 2011).

–Frederick Borsch ‘57

This 16mm film is part of the University Archives’ Historical Audiovisual Collection (item no. 1974)

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