The following is a statement submitted in response to one of my previous posts in November regarding the removal of the Wren Cross from the Wren Chapel - locked in the sacristy. The following are good, well-reasoned comments from a historian and a resident of Williamsburg.
Having heard Thomas Jefferson speak today in Colonial Williamsburg regarding the separation between church and state, not the removal of God from public discourse, I know that Thomas Jefferson attended church every Sunday and, when he traveled, he took a stool with him so that his presence would not inconvenience a local family from their pews in their church.
I am publishing Mr. Pryor's comments here because I do not want them to get lost in the array of comments, as comments are wont to do. Mr. Pryor's reflections and perspective of history are worthy of review and thoughtful discourse. I believe he is incorrect in his view that the Christians wish to "exclude" others. With no discourse, Mr. Nichol's made his pronouncement. Perhaps with reasoned discourse, his actions would not be so bitterly opposed.
As Thomas Jefferson declared during his life time and during his presentation today, our greatest freedom is the freedom of speech, the freedom to converse in open discourse, and to have and share in a "diversity" of viewpoint. It is upon that diversity that our strength resides - not the superficial "diversities" of skin color or ethnic origin, nor of religion.
Mr. Jefferson also pointed out that he was against the founding of a state-religion such as the Church of England just as he would be vehemently opposed to the establishment of Islam as a national-religion. The idea of France, Russia, Spain, or America becoming Islamic republics would be abhorant to Mr. Jefferson.
Mr. Jefferson expounded today upon the principle of the freedom for religion, the separation between religion - the moral governance of the spirit and Soul - and the role of government which has as its only purpose to protect the people from invasion and from doing harm to each other.
I do not agree with all of Mr. Pryor's statements. I wish to offer him a forum here so that his comments based upon his own study can be read and his comments can be heard. As a master's graduate of The College, I thank him for his thoughtful reply.
The following are his reasoned comments:
I first came to Williamsburg in 1974 as an incoming freshman at the College of William and Mary, and though I spent a year away after graduation, I returned to Williamsburg and have lived here ever since. I have been in the history field for 26 years, working for the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. I spent ten years of that time mostly at the Wren Building, presenting the colonial history of the college.
I feel obliged to point out certain things in regard to the present controversy over the altar cross in the college chapel. The college was established by royal charter in 1693 as an organ of the Protestant Episcopal Church of England, and was maintained as such until 1776. Nearly all the faculty were clergymen, and the avowed purpose of the college was to train Christian ministers. In the colonial era, the Church of England was decidedly more Protestant than it has been more recently. The Rev. James Blair was the founder and for fifty years (1693-1743) served as the first president of the college. All the college buildings built before the 20th century were built during his administration, including the chapel wing of the “Wren” building.
The Rev. Mr. Blair would never have permitted a cross to be displayed on the chapel altar. Mr. Blair would have regarded such an ornament as an idolatrous relic of Roman Catholic superstition. Neither was an altar cross employed in any other church in Virginia during the 17th or 18th centuries.
In 1777, the Rev. James Madison became president of the college. He would soon become the first Episcopal Bishop of Virginia. He served as president for 35 years, well into the term of his cousin James Madison as President of the United States. The Rev. Mr. Madison worked hand-in-hand with William and Mary alumnus Governor Thomas Jefferson to reinvent the college in 1779. The school of divinity was dropped in favor of a law school and a medical school (the med school didn’t make it), and for the first time non-Episcopalians were admitted to the college. Thus the college became a private, essentially secular institution. Bishop Madison was a firm believer in moving with the times. Tyranny and autocracy was out; liberty was in. Bishop Madison was said to sometimes speak of the Republic of Heaven in his sermons rather than the Kingdom of Heaven.
In 1786, Virginia adopted Thomas Jefferson’s Statute for Religious Freedom that requires Virginia to be entirely neutral on religious questions, and give no persons privilege or advantage, penalty or disadvantage in regard to their religious beliefs. Virginia became a beacon of religious liberty at that moment. The strict separation of church and state had been fought for in Virginia, long and hard, by Baptists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Quakers, Mennonites, Jews, and the new denomination of Methodists.
Private institutions are under no obligation to be neutral, of course, but public institutions are.
A century ago the trustees of the college appealed to the state for support, and in 1906 the college became a public institution, and all college property was transferred to the state. This did not mean that the college was now welcoming to all Virginians. African Americans (and other non-white persons) and women were still forbidden to attend. In 1919 the first woman was admitted to the college, but the first black undergraduate was not admitted until the 1960s. Each time one of these new groups was allowed to enter the college, there were alumni and students who protested against the violation of the traditions of the college, and bemoaned the demographic change in the student body.
In 1907 the local Episcopal Church, Bruton Parish, acquired by gift a rather plain brass cross for it altar; the first altar cross in the church’s history. In 1938, they acquired a better one, and donated the old one to the college. This was put on display in the Wren chapel in 1940. The chapel had stood for 200 years and been through several remodelings and rebuildings without anyone thinking to add a cross to the altar.
In 2006 college president Gene Nichol decided to return the college chapel to its pre-1940 appearance by storing the cross when not actually in use for a program in the chapel sacristy, a small room originally provided for the storing of clerical vestments and possibly communion vessels.
Nichol’s intention was to make the college chapel more religiously neutral and equally welcoming to all college students, and not merely to 75% who avow themselves Christians. Much to his astonishment, this has raised a storm of protest among some students and alumni, and even more so among many who have no direct connection to the college.
Those campaigning to “Save the Wren Cross” have fallen into several errors. The cross has not actually been removed; it has been moved five yards or so to the sacristy where is available for anyone who would like to have it displayed for their use.
Moving the cross is not breaking an ancient tradition. People easily fall into the fallacy of thinking that if something has been around for “as long as anyone can remember” then it has always been around. There was no cross in the Wren chapel for over 200 years. As the chapel was restored in 1931 to its colonial-era appearance, the presence of the cross is an anachronism, and historically improper.
Moving the cross is not an insult to the college’s Christian origins. In fact, placing the cross on the altar is an insult to the college’s Protestant origins. Neither the founder of the college, Rev. Mr. Blair, nor the reinventor of the college, Bishop Madison, would have tolerated a cross on the altar. (Bishop Madison and his cousin the president were both great supporters of the Statute for Religious Freedom, and were opposed to religious favoritism in state institutions.) At no point in the college history has anyone thought a cross necessary there until now. There would never have been a cross in the chapel if Bruton Church had not thought this one no longer good enough for the church, and replaced it with a better one. The college received this one almost by accident as a hand-me-down.
Moving the cross does not make the chapel less of a Christian space, unless religion is to be regarded chiefly as a matter of brass ornaments. If the essence of Christianity is the displaying of altar crosses in houses of worship, then colonial America was anti-Christian, for the laws of that era were strongly against the Roman Catholic church, the only sect in colonial America that approved of displaying crosses on altars, or using them as an object of veneration.
Moving the cross does not put Christians at a disadvantage at the college. There are several large churches adjoining campus; there are a dozen more within easy reach. There is also a small synagogue, but there is no mosque, no Buddhist or Hindu shrine, and no other place on campus suitable for religious observances or meditations. Christians constitute a clear (but not overwhelming) majority of the student body.
Moving the cross was not bowing to pressure from the “politically correct”or the perpetually offended. It was an act of simple hospitality, conveying the message that the college chapel is equally a place for all the college students and community, not merely for most. The chapel and the cross are both as much available for Christian purposes as they ever were. The chapel of the college should be a space that all can share on an equal basis.
Kept to its ancient and traditional form, it is a space to which people can bring their own spiritual furniture, internal or external. The perpetual display of the altar cross thus has only one purpose: to assert Christian ownership of the chapel, and thus of the college.
The message of the “Save the Wren Cross” organization to the larger college community is simple: “This place belongs to us, not to you. We will graciously allow you to use our space, and we will even allow you to temporarily remove our cross when you are too sensitive to tolerate its presence, thus demonstrating our generosity and moral superiority. You must always remember, however, that you are a guest in our institution, not an equal member or partner.”
To reinstate the cross now to permanent display would be to abandon hospitality, equality, and tradition in favor of consciously conferring privileged status on some because they have yelled loud and long enough to compell it. To reinstate the cross now would be, in fact, to abandon principle to placate the perpetually offended. It is true, the college was once a Christian institution; it was in fact a white, male, Protestant Christian institution. It is no longer. It is high time the policies of the college reflect reality.
This debate is not about tradition, or history, or spirituality, or religion. It is about whether the chapel and the college exist equally for the benefit for all members of the college community, or only for some.
As a William and Mary alumnus, a 30-year member of the Williamsburg community, and a historian, I applaud the action President Nichol has taken to restore the chapel to its 17th century appearance and simutaneously open its doors wider than ever before to let in the 21st century.
--- B. J. Pryor
Mr. Pryor errs in one point I'd like to mention here. The citizens of Save the Wren Cross
simply are asking for a return to the policy that existed before Mr. Nichol arbitrarily or unilaterally removed the cross and placed it under lock and key - that policy was that the cross would be removed upon request. Later, I will post here comments made to me through e-mails that explain why many non-Christian students, Muslims to be exact, would not use the Wren Chapel for religous purposes. In a nutshell, cross or no cross, the chapel does not face Mecca. No one is suggesting the "relocation" of the chapel.
I am not certain that Mr. Pryor knows what Mr. Nichol's purpose was but I will predict that, if the policy is not reversed, the Wren Chapel will, over time, become a place seldom used and itself will become merely a place for guided tours. The perpetually "offended" are not and have not been Christians. Personally, I would like to see every Christian family in the United States decorate their lawns with a nativity scene during the Christmas Season - every lawn to become a private place of worship, everyone to display a cross. We would then have a chance to see how far afield we have rowed our boat of tolerance and love. We would then see the intolerance and hatred directed toward Christians in our nation today. You think I am wrong?
I was brought up in the Baptist Church and, therefore, I can appreciate the idea of "idolatry". That is one reason there is no likeness of Jesus the Christ nailed upon the cross in a Baptist Church. The cross - without the body of the crucified Lord - represents resurrection and life.
In the United States of America - as of yet, political correctness aside [note political correctness not spiritual or moral correctness] - we have freedom of expression; we have the right to disagree and still know that we have love for our nation and for the freedoms graciously bestowed upon us by our Creator; freedoms which our Founding Fathers set upon parchment. See the Declaration of Independence for further uplifting ideals that place this nation as a land of freedom and liberty for all.