At its founding in 1746, Princeton University, then named the College of New Jersey, was located in the parsonage of the Presbyterian Church of Elizabeth, and soon afterwards moved to a sister church in Newark. When the College relocated to Princeton in 1756, a chapel was located in what would become the Faculty Room in Nassau Hall. This arrangement lasted until 1847, when a separate building was constructed on the site of East Pyne. However, by the end of the Civil War, a new chapel was needed because the number of undergraduates had doubled. In response, the Marquand Chapel was built in 1881, named after the principal donor Henry Gurdon Marquand. This chapel stood until 1920, when it was destroyed by fire during a house party weekend. For several years afterwards, worship services were held in Alexander Hall.
The Marquand Chapel fire forced the Trustees and President of the University to give immediate attention to the issue of constructing a new chapel which would permit the University to maintain its religious heritage, but in a manner that recognized its public mission in an increasingly multicultural society. The University President at the time, John Grier Hibben, issued an appeal for funds to construct a chapel in an architectural style based on fourteenth century English Gothic, to be constructed on the site of the Marquand Chapel.
The present Chapel
The present University Chapel was designed by the supervising architect of the University at the time, Ralph Adams Cram, a leading architect of Gothic revival who also designed the Graduate College. Built between 1925 and 1928 at a cost of $2,500,000, the Chapel is capable of seating two thousand and is second in size only to King’s College Chapel at Cambridge University. Underneath its arches lies an organ, renovated in 1991 by N. P. Mander Ltd. of England, a magnificent instrument in the English cathedral style that is especially well-suited to the grandeur of the Chapel, featuring 109 stops and 8,000 pipes. Full organ specifications →
The interior of the Chapel has a varied history of its own. The oak pews in the nave are made from wood originally intended for Civil War gun carriages. The magnificent pulpit, brought from France, probably dates back to the mid-16th century and was painted bright red prior to its installation. The wood for the pews in the chancel, where the Choir and clergy are seated for services, comes from Sherwood Forest in England, and took 100 people over a year to carve. The statues adorning these pews represent scholars, teachers of the church, and figures in the history of music. The Chapel is also decorated with 25-foot silk paintings by Juanita Y. Kauffman. The Threshold paintings were commissioned for the University's 250th anniversary, and the Ascent: Blue River paintings were commissioned for and unveiled during the Pentecost of 1999. More of Juanita's work →
Many Princetonians are remembered in the Chapel's stained-glass windows, in engravings on the pews, on memorial stones on the walls, on the silver communion chalices, in memorial hymnals, and on the furnishings. John Witherspoon, sixth president of the College, and the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence, is pictured in the Great South Window (Christ the Teacher). The figure of James Madison, Witherspoon's student, is in the Window of the Law, high up in the south clerestory near the entrance of the Chapel. In the center of the chancel is the Great East Window (The Love of Christ). The chancel is flanked by six bays of windows, the first two representing two psalms of David, and the remaining windows depicting cycles from four great Christian epics: Dante's Comedia, Malory's Le Morte d'Arthur, Milton's Paradise Lost, and Bunyan's Pilgrim's Progress.
Organ and choral music are an important part of the Chapel program. They have both come a long way since the days when Yale's President Ezra Stiles declared the organ in Nassau Hall 'an innovation of ill consequence' after a visit in 1770, and when John Adams, later president of the United States, reported after his visit to Princeton in 1774, 'the Schollars sing as badly as the Presbyterians at New York'. For more than a hundred years after the University was founded, students were required to attend morning and evening prayers daily, and morning and afternoon services on Sunday. By 1915, all required attendance at weekday services was abolished, and in 1964, attendance at the Chapel service on Sundays was no longer required.
Chapel Choir has been an integral part of worship, especially in the present Chapel, and over the years, the Choir has evolved from a male chorus that sang sacred music of the Renaissance and Baroque eras to a mixed choir whose repertoire extends from Gregorian chant to jazz. The Choir is unique in being the only singing group on campus that is paid for its services; this factor was especially popular when Chapel attendance was required. Currently, the Choir sings for the ecumenical Christian service on Sunday mornings, and performs for special occasions including Opening Exercises, Baccalaureate, and the Service of Remembrance.