Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Christian Influence in Alfred

Mapping Christian Influence in Alfred

The town of Alfred, as well as the institutions developed therein, was originally founded on the morals of the Seventh Day Baptist church. Though this foundation has been replaced by other values, traces of Christianity have been maintained through much of Alfred University’s history. In 1807 the first settlers, Nathan Green, Clark Crandall and Edward Green, traveled from Newport, Rhode Island to establish the sixth Baptist church in America at this time (Minard). Differing from their mother church, this church recognized the Sabbath as the seventh day, or Saturday, instead of the traditional Sunday worship day. As more people settled in the area, a school was developed and which held the weekly Sabbath meeting that became part of the settler’s everyday lives. In 1836 the church founded the Select School, created to educate qualified teachers for the sparse areas surrounding the region (A Tradition of Distinction). That soon became the Alfred Academy which opened more opportunities for higher learning, while still maintaining its original foundational values: protestant Christianity.
Chapel Hall, or what is now known as Alumni Hall, the office of financial aid and admissions, is the oldest original building on the Alfred University campus and was a center point in student’s lives. Chapel Hall was built in 1851 in the Greek revival style, which was a very popular in America and Europe for businesses, wealthy residential homes, and churches. The Greek Revival was important to this time period not only because it was believed to be beautiful aesthetically, but because of the associations it had with religion and democracy, and the strong ties citizens held to these values. Though the Greeks were not Christian, their daily use of religion as well as their devotion to democracy, was idealized at this time.
As evident in a diary recovered from a past student, Vernon Marion Babbit, students would attend chapel before classes in the morning and a prayer meeting at night (Babbit). The chapel was a non-denominational Christian church that held services of Protestant origins. Attending chapel was not required by the school, nor did it have any academic advantages other than self fulfillment. Students wanted to improve themselves, and one way they believed that could be accomplished was by going to church services. Many faculty members also participated in church lectures, including then University president Jonathan Allen (Babbit). Christianity had strong influences on this community, partially because the town was founded by Seventh Day Baptist settlers, but also because most of America was still strongly religious at this period.
Those students who were local or of Seventh Day Baptist faith, most likely worshiped at the Seventh Day Baptist Church located in the town of Alfred. The original church was destroyed in 1929 by a devastating fire, but was quickly rebuilt as it is now (Clarke). This church, rebuilt in a similar fashion, also demonstrates the Greek revival style, and when compared with Alumni Hall, similarities can be seen in the tall white steeple. It is evident that Alumni Hall was modeled similarly, and perhaps in response to, the Seventh Day Baptist Church.
As the University got bigger, and Alfred State was established, more people traveled to the area, bringing various religions with them. Many other churches are located in Alfred, providing options for diverse Christian back grounds. In 1922, the Union University Church began worshiping in the same chapel, catering to non-denomination worship for those used to worshiping on Sunday. Due in part to the need of people from many different areas to learn and teach at the school, this was needed to accommodate their needs. On State campus St. Judes provides catholic worship services as well.
As time when on, findings in science and anthropology, as well as the spread of different ethnicities to the United States competed with religion as a source of knowledge. These findings started out in urban areas and eventually spread to more destitute areas of population. To think about religion in terms of most American's everyday lives, it has stark differences to that of Babbits account, especially when speaking of college age Americans. More than once a week did he write in his journal something like, "I pray god give me the strength to follow him more closely" or “God please bless help me think in your image”. As a current student, I can say that I, nor do many of my friends, have this same state of mine. I've grown up in a Christian family but I would never attend church every day before my classes, especially if it meant getting up earlier. Though my account is personal and does not reflect all those who live in America, studies have shown that this is a trend that significantly affected American culture and politics (Meacham).
As religion decreased in importance at the university the chapel was used as a lecture hall, library, gymnasium, movie theatre, and laboratory, and in 1927 it was renamed Alumni Hall (Herrick). In 1901 the Gothic Chapel opened for the study of theology. It contented classrooms and a chapel. This building is now the university chapel which caters to non-denominational Christian worship as did Alumni Hall; however, it is clearly much smaller and has less room for students to attend. In the 1970's Alumni Hall was declared a fire hazard and closed. However, it was also placed on the National and State Historic Register a few years after. In 1986 it was re-opened after being gutted and restored with a steel structure replacing the old wood frame and by adding the offices as we know them today.
There are several Christian groups available to students at Alfred University such as, Intervarsity Christian Fellowship and Brothers and Sisters in Christ, but they are not nearly as large a part of life as religion used to be. Their meetings are located in Susan Howell hall, and Powell Campus Center. They do not have their own chapel as they formerly did.
Through the structure of Alumni Hall, we can see the change in values that occurred over time at Alfred University as well as throughout America. At its opening it was a highly regarded religious building. Though the exterior structure has maintained the Greek Revival style, the building no longer resonates the cultural significance of that style. This is a commonality that occurs in a lot of antiquated architecture. Buildings with historical significance are preserved for their beauty, but as the ideals of society change, the building purposes change with them.

Babbit, Vernon Marion. Vernon Marion Babbit's Diary. New York: Alfred University. Alfred University Archives. 2009. Alfred University. 11 February 2010.

Clark, Douglas. “An Historical Perspective” The First Seventh Day Baptist Church. 15 Mar. 2010.

Herrick Memorial Library. "A Tradition of Distinction: University History" Alfred University Archives. 10 Feb. 2010.

Meacham, Jon. The End of Christian America. Newsweek. 4 April 2009.

Minard, John S. History of Alfred. New York A Centennial Memorial History of Allegany County, Fergusson & Co., Alfred, N. Y. 1896, p. 624.


  1. As an addition to your post:

    Intervarsity doesn't have a physical church, but their meetings on Sunday at 11am serve as chapel services where pastors and students of the Gospel come and preach. They also have a worship team, daily bible studies, and weekly large group meetings. Their affiliation with the national Intervarsity gives students the opportunity to travel to leadership summits, retreats,and missions. This ministry has been on campus for over 35 years, and has been lead by the same family, the McGraws.

  2. As a perspective from the Alfred As a personal map project I find this post to be intriguing epsecialy the contrast between the writer's modern day perspective of the role of Christianity in the college student's life vs the 19th century student's importance on religion. Our group is thinking about Alfred both as a historical entity and as a day to day modern living community. Perhaps investigating the contrasts between modern and historical student perspectives could give us some interesting information, not only restricted to the subject of this post, but as a general way of thinking through mapping as a practice.