Colleges like Harvard and Yale were founded to train clergy. They grew to become research universities, but they maintained their schools of divinity as part of their original commitments. When UW and other public universities were founded much later, the question of religious instruction was front and center. Would the new state-funded schools have seminaries? While the population in Wisconsin was overwhelmingly Christian, there was no consensus on what institutional presence religion would have on campus. To those who wanted official religious instruction, the lack of a seminary gave the erroneous impression that there was no religious presence at the school. This opened the university to the critique that it was a “godless and atheistic institution,” a charge levelled with regularity from the 1840s to today.
The critics were only half right. Even though the university didn’t create a seminary, its early leaders were deeply invested in religious instruction for students. John Bascom, who was trained as a minister and was a faithful attendee at First Congregational Church near campus, was one of the many early university presidents who regularly taught a course on theology and maintained regular student chapel times.
Bascom became president of the school in 1874 and proposed an alternative to a seminary that shaped all future relations with religious institutions. He suggested that denominations purchase properties close to campus and begin “student churches,” with many of the key functions performed by volunteer students themselves. The denominations could give students from around the state a church home and provide moral instruction. It was an innovative solution to an unexpected problem prompted by the new public universities.
Bascom’s idea took hold among the next generation of university leaders–people like Edward Birge and Charles Van Hise. It was under their administrations, over the next few decades, that properties were purchased, and student churches set up. Today, if you look toward the Capitol while standing on Library Mall, you will see on your right Calvary Lutheran Chapel at the corner of State and Lake. Next door is St. Paul’s Catholic Center, an important predecessor to the national Newman Center movement. The seeds of St. Paul’s began in the 1880s, with students meeting in homes, with the first official chapel in 1909. The current center replaced a fifty-year old building in 2017.
Next door to St. Paul’s is Pres House, one of the historic student churches, founded in 1907. This iconic building in the Gothic Revival Style was finished in 1935. Behind the large Memorial Library, on Langdon Street, is the UW Hillel, a Jewish student center founded in 1924 and the second oldest Hillel Foundation in the country.
A few blocks southeast of here are Luther Memorial Church, the Episcopal St. Francis House, the Christian Science Student Center, Geneva Campus Church, and a multi-denominational student ministry called The Crossing. These buildings have been part of campus for so long we forget the radical thinking behind their founding. Bascom’s idea has borne fruit for more than 100 years.
Head to your right toward the brick building on the left called the University Club for the next stop.