Of Religious Education and Rotten Cabbage

Pop quiz: Who should be credited with the founding of Harvard College? No, not John Harvard. Try Anne Hutchinson, who was banished to Rhode Island in the 1630s for her role in the antinomian controversy in Massachusetts Bay Colony.

Who was the first head of Harvard College? No, not President Henry Dunster. Try Master Nathaniel Eaton, who was fired in 1639 for embezzlement and beating students.

Who was the only Harvard president described as "Beloved," and which president was merely "Great"? If you answered John Thornton Kirkland and John Leverett—and could also have identified MATEP, the Gold Coast, and George Whitefield—you are on your way to passing Religion 1513, "Harvard: Five Centuries and Eight Presidents," offered for the first time in the College this past spring.

The class's self-referential topic may strike some as a bit strange (although Columbia also offers a class on its history), but as Plummer professor of Christian morals Peter J. Gomes stated in his first lecture, "This is an odd class for odd people—myself included." In all, a handful of Divinity School students and 33 "odd" undergraduates signed up for the course, the latter group, unsurprisingly, consisting primarily of Crimson editors and members of the Undergraduate Council.

Sacred text: Harvard's Charter of 1650
Photograph courtesy of the Harvard University Archives

Gomes treated those lucky enough to find the class to an experience that would rank, as he said, as "one of Harvard's finest hors d'oeuvres." His trademark booming speaking style filled the room during the twice-a-week lectures, and his wry wit and creative blackboard drawings kept attendees laughing their way through a whirlwind tour of 366 years of Harvard history. "Professor Gomes is a legendary lecturer, and while I've been a Harvard buff all through college, I had never heard a perspective as fresh, humorous, and fascinating as his," said Vasugi V. Ganeshananthan '02, former managing editor of the Crimson. "Professor Gomes had terrific teaching aids," recounted Paul A. Gusmorino '02. "Forget the blackboard—he brought a bust of President Quincy to class one day to perform a phrenological analysis of his forehead." At every step, Gomes, whose own title dates to an 1855 bequest by Caroline Plummer, carefully explained the religious underpinnings that shaped so much of the University's development. "Everything through the nineteenth century—until we get to the 1870s, when Eliot had his way with the curriculum—everything reflects a religious institution, not only in its orientation, but in its identity," explained teaching fellow Stephen P. Shoemaker, Th.M. '95.


The course opened with the College's founding in 1636, after the antinomian controversy convinced colonial leaders they needed a school to ensure that young men were being taught religion the "right" way. From there the lectures wound their way through the Charter of 1650, which still underlies the University's governance, and the administrations of the religious Increase Mather and the secular Leverett. To explain the problems the College faced during the Great Awakening, Gomes updated the famous 1741 sermon by Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, by raining verbal fire and brimstone upon a sophomore in the sixth row. "You are lazy. You don't do your reading. You don't come to lecture. If there was any justice in this world, you would fail my class!" he yelled, a smile creeping across his face. "Now that you have seen the error of your ways, what will you do?"

The entire class replied, "We'll repent!"

For the lecture on President Kirkland, the class met in the elaborate Faculty Room in University Hall, which was built during his administration. Gomes explained how its Bulfinch-designed white Chelmsford granite stood as a contrast to Harvard's other, red-brick buildings, while its location, in what was then the College's backyard swamp, created the physical Yard as we know it today and reoriented the north-south institution on an east-west axis. Shoemaker, who is writing a dissertation about the history of religious education at Harvard, presented a lecture on the end of religious instruction under President Charles W. Eliot, A.B. 1853. "Our larger agenda [in teaching the class]," Shoemaker said, "was to explain to the students the forces that shaped the education they receive today."

As the class progressed to the present day—after passing through the curricular reforms of A. Lawrence Lowell, A.B. 1877, and the physical-plant expansion under James Bryant Conant '14—former dean of Harvard College Fred L. Glimp '50 delivered a guest lecture on the 1969 Bust and subsequent strike, discussing in moving detail the decisions administrators faced that strife-torn April and May. The class sat captivated as he explained the complicated machinations, lamenting, "That time needed much more candor, and it was impossible to get it."

The lectures, though, were only the beginning of the experience for those enrolled in Religion 1513. Dividing a small class into thirds for the weekly section meetings allowed Gomes and Shoemaker to get to know their students; Gomes led one section, Shoemaker led the other two, and both men kept up a steady stream of outside activities. Gomes invited each section to a formal dinner at Sparks House, his University residence, where students dined on dishes like scallop bisque and braised duck breasts while discussing Harvard with guests who included Back Bay author William K. Martin '72, who is working on a new novel about John Harvard; Morton Keller, Ph.D. '56, and Phyllis (Daytz) Keller, RI '71, coauthors of Making Harvard Modern, the main class text; and former president Derek C. Bok, J.D. '54, who chatted candidly about the successes and regrets of his two-decade administration. The rest of the class were invited to show up for after-dinner coffee in Gomes's living room, where students and the guest of honor talked informally well into the night. And this spring, the class experienced some Harvard history of its own when many students attended the memorial service for former president Nathan M. Pusey '28.

The Faculty Room as it appeared at the end of the nineteenth century
The Faculty Room as it appeared at the end of the nineteenth century
Harvard University Archives

Shoemaker, a novice Harvard memorabilia collector, treated students to a screening of a rare 1926 silent movie, Brown of Harvard, about a fictional Crimson football player, and each week began his sections with a true-false question gleaned from his many hours in the Harvard Archives. The section meetings focused on texts that included works by preeminent Harvard historian Samuel Eliot Morison '08 and dozens of primary sources that provided a glimpse into the thinking of Harvard's past presidents, ranging from essays by Charles Chauncy and Josiah Quincy to recent writings by Bok and Neil L. Rudenstine, Ph.D. '64.

Each student presented in section an individual research project that examined some aspect of Harvard history. Shoemaker explained that he and Gomes wanted the projects to be a "treasure hunt" through the University's past. Former Harvard Republican Club president Robert R. Porter '02 presented a history of the Grand Old Party at Harvard, and Gusmorino, former president of the Undergraduate Council, traced the evolution of student government at the College, beginning with the first student council in 1908. Other students researched the Society of Fellows, the Schlesinger Library's world-renowned cookbook collection, and the history of student uprisings at the College, beginning with the Great Butter Rebellion in 1766 and the Rotten Cabbage Rebellion of 1807.

"We were very surprised by how serious the students were about [the class]," Shoemaker remarked. Following the final exam in May, he and Gomes headed to the Square's lowbrow Chinese restaurant, the Hong Kong, for a celebratory luncheon with the class. The official CUE Guide rating on the course will not be out until September, but the course was popular enough that some of its students are talking about auditing it again next spring. "Gomes himself noted that we were somewhat odd for taking the class, and that he was somewhat odd for giving it—but we all love Harvard history," Ganeshananthan said.

Read more articles by: Garrett M. Graff

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