A Walking Audio Tour of the Spiritual Geography of the University of Wisconsin-Madison
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Thank you for listening to Spirit & Stone, an audio tour of the historical and geographical heart of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This tour highlights some of the rich religious and spiritual heritage on this historic campus. Whether you are a prospective student or a longtime resident of Madison, the following stops will introduce you to some of the fascinating people and issues that have contributed to UW-Madison’s history, and reintroduce to you the familiar names of some buildings and landmarks that you may not have known have religious and spiritual significance.
Many people both inside and outside UW-Madison see it as a secular university, a place where the role of religion is marginal. It’s a place where a few faculty and students practice religion in private. But it’s also a place where religion has not influenced the core mission or history of the university. In some sense this impression is true. Today UW maintains a separation of church and state, much more so than in previous eras. At the same time, this institutional secularism isn’t the whole story. UW’s history has more religious themes and ongoing spiritual presence than it first appears.
Since UW’s founding in 1848, religion has played a crucial role in the lives of the university’s leaders, professors, and students, and has shaped everything from student life to campus architecture. In some ways, the public land-grant ideal at UW grew directly out of 19th century Christian commitments. Because of the demographic history of Wisconsin, Christianity contributed to the University’s guiding values—including something that will be talked about more later, the Wisconsin Idea. Those contributions may seem less visible now, but they continue to be felt. The legacy of Christianity is also accompanied by diverse religious thinking and traditions throughout the last 170 years.
Even if UW is a far different place than it was at its founding, there have always been devout religious people on campus working to bring their values to bear on the world through their work at the university.
You can still see the historic impact of religion on the University of Wisconsin, if you know where to look. As you walk around campus today, you’ll see that religious life takes many forms and flourishes in many places. UW remains a place where anyone can grow spiritually as well as intellectually.
This tour has been written and produced by Upper House, a Christian study center located at 365 East Campus Mall. If you’re beginning the tour at Upper House, head north across University Avenue toward the Lake. Make a right at the church building called Pres House and walk until you’re in front of the University Bookstore for the first stop.
(Upper House: 365 East Campus Mall)
1. Library Mall
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On one end of your vision should be the Capitol, the center of state government. On the other end, up the hill , is Bascom Hall, the center of UW’s administration. Although these two buildings are one mile apart, state government and UW have always been closely related.
For thousands of years the land on which you are standing was inhabited by the Ho-Chunk Nation. A village named Wakandjaga, or Thunder Bird, occupied Picnic Point, a small peninsula jutting into Lake Mendota to the northwest, and extended east along the coast of the lake to Bascom Hill. The remains of human settlement and earthen burial mounds are still visible today.
White settlers moved in after the U.S. government forced the Ho-Chunk Nation into a series of land concessions beginning in 1829. In little more than a decade, settlers had evicted the vast majority of Native Americans, and had taken the land for themselves. The first state capitol was built in 1837 in nearby Belmont, while Wisconsin was still a territory. When Wisconsin was admitted to the Union in 1848, its constitution provided for “the establishment of a state university, at or near the seat of state government.” Seventeen students enrolled in the university’s first class, taught the following year, in 1849. The class met at the Madison Female Academy, located off the capitol square. Tuition was set at 20 dollars per year. The year after that, in 1850, the university put up its own buildings.
It took another two years for classes to begin on what is now Bascom Hill. North Hall, the first building erected on campus, opened in 1851. South Hall followed soon after. Much of the area around what is now Library Mall was a beautiful residential neighborhood that became housing for students and faculty. It’s hard to imagine today, but a trolley ran up and down State Street, along the same sidewalks that now feature benches, art installations, and food trucks.
Next, walk across the Library Mall and turn around so that you’re facing the large mural above the entrance to St. Paul’s Catholic Student Center. This is stop number two.
(East Campus Mall and State Street)
2. Calvary Lutheran Chapel, St. Paul’s Catholic Center, and Pres House
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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.
(701-731 State Street)
3. The University Club
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As you look south to the brick building of the University Club, you’ll see one of the oldest existing social spaces on campus. The building was finished in 1907 and, on the order of university president Charles Van Hise, the club was founded to promote faculty community. It has always had a dining area on the first floor, but originally the more than 80 rooms inside served as residences for visiting faculty. Today the building houses faculty offices, seminar rooms, and a handful of research centers.
Van Hise’s vision of campus community was, by our modern standards, severely limited. The University Club excluded women until 1933.
The Club also originally barred non-whites from taking up residence. The struggle for civil rights and equal access on campus had been going on for decades, and came to a head when Arthur Burke, an African American graduate student, tried to move into the club in 1944. Coming to UW on a year-long fellowship, Burke was granted a room by mail, presumably because the club staff did not know he was black. When Burke arrived, he was immediately asked to find other accommodations because some white members objected to sharing the space with him.
Burke was distraught and approached one of his professors, Merle Curti, a historian and member of the First Unitarian Church of Madison. Along with other faculty, Curti pressured the club to allow Burke a room. The faculty agitators included Helen C. White, one of the first women to earn a full professorship at UW and a lifelong devout Catholic, and the namesake of the building that now houses College Library. She had witnessed the opening of the club to women and knew that with pressure the board would bend. Faculty and students together lobbied for a policy change. The board agreed to hold a secret ballot vote of club members to admit Black members. Even though some faculty opposed the measure, it passed overwhelmingly, and Burke was granted a room.
This all took place during World War II, when the presence of such overt racism was particularly galling to faculty and students galvanized in their fight against Nazism. The struggle against racism would continue for decades more.
Facing Bascom Hill, head up the concrete stairs to your left onto the second floor of the large concrete structure. Walk toward Bascom Hill but before reaching the bridge make a left and look to your left for the internal courtyard to begin the next stop.
(803 State Street)
4. The Humanities Building
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You’re now standing in the middle of the Humanities Building. Contrary to popular myth, the building was not designed to protect against antiwar student riots. The architectural style is aptly called “Concrete Brutalism.” It looks more like a Soviet-era bunker than a place where history is taught and music recitals are held. The building was part of a burst of construction in the 1960s to accommodate a fast-growing student body. It suffered from major budget cutbacks, leaving it with an imposing, austere façade of sharp angles and concrete that became a playground for skateboarders.
In the long hallways of this building, however, there are multiple connections with religion. The building is named after beloved historian George Mosse, a Jewish émigré who lost most of his family in the Holocaust and spent thirty years at UW. Mosse’s early career was in the history of religion, and his numerous books have shaped scholars of religion and political ideology for generations. Today, the Humanities Building houses the Mosse Program in History and the Mosse/Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies. It also houses the Center for Religion and Global Citizenry, which succeeded the Lubar Institute for the Study of Abrahamic Religions.
Another sign of religious presence is the Children of Abraham art installation in the courtyard of the Humanities Building, by artist Philip Ratner. The sculpture was commissioned by the Lubar Institute at its opening in 2006. With the name of the biblical patriarch Abraham lettered in Arabic, Hebrew, Greek, and Latin, it symbolizes the braided histories of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam, and signals the university’s quest for a vibrant religious pluralism on campus.
Walk up the stairs of the Humanities Building and head west toward the walking bridge. Turn left before the bridge and look on your left into the Humanities courtyard for “Children of Abraham.” Then turn around and head to the middle of the walking bridge for the next stop.
(455 North Park Street)
5. Park Street Bridge
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Stand in the middle of the bridge, facing away from the lake, and look to your right to Chadbourne Hall. Back in 1871, this building was the Female College and women’s dorm. The Female College had been created a few years earlier to separate men and women students, who had been enrolling together since 1863. The UW president who insisted on the separation was Paul Chadbourne. After he retired and John Bascom took over, the Female College was disbanded and co-education resumed. The original name of the building was Ladies’ Hall. In 1901, in an act of ironic revenge, the University renamed it Chadbourne Hall in honor of the president in UW’s history least enthusiastic about co-education.
Chadbourne Hall included a room designated as a non-sectarian chapel, as did North and South Halls. It’s hard to believe now, but through the 1860s, daily chapel was a compulsory part of the university program. Attendance became voluntary in the 1870s. As much as chapel facilitated student religious life, it was also seen, especially by faculty and administrators, as necessary moral instruction for young adults. The architectural legacy of these chapels has been entirely erased by successive remodeling of the buildings, providing a stark reminder of how much differently the relationship between church and state was conceived at the beginning of UW’s history.
Continue across the bridge and begin your way up Bascom Hill. Stop on the first building on your left, Music Hall, for the next stop.
6. Music Hall
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Looks like a church, doesn’t it? It was built in 1878 and first named Assembly Hall because administrators were eager to have a space to accommodate the entire student body in one place. Today, many high schools wouldn’t be able to fit into its original 800-seat auditorium, but back then UW’s student body hovered around 500. UW’s student population has exceeded over 40,000 for many years now.
The president of the university would deliver a “Baccalaureate Sermon” every spring in this hall. The first to do so was John Bascom. A graduate of Williams College and Andover Theological Seminary, Bascom was a profoundly Christian academic and minister who wrote many articles and books on what he called “natural theology.” He was a proponent of the social gospel and of the temperance movement, an especially controversial stance in a state with major beer makers.
Bascom believed in both the advancement of religious teachings and in the correction of social ills, even though today we often find them separated. For Bascom, his faith informed his teaching and scholarship, and the knowledge discovered at the university informed his faith. Bascom offers an instructive example of a Christian who integrated his vocational and religious lives. He also helps us better understand how such key parts of UW’s mission, such as the Wisconsin Idea, also have roots in this integration of faith and learning.
Continue heading up Bascom Hill, past the Law School on your left, until you reach South Hall and the plaque on its nearest corner for the next stop.
(925 Bascom Mall)
7. South Hall and the John 8:32 Plaque
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South Hall, built in 1855, is the second oldest building on campus. It was the original women’s dorm before what is now Chadbourne Hall was built, and it is now home to the administration of the College of Letters and Science. Like all early buildings at the university, South Hall at one time possessed a chapel that was an active part of student life for decades.
Besides daily prayer meetings, the chapel was periodically used for student pranks. In the 1860s some students led a cow into the chapel and tied it to a center pillar. When someone untied her, she ran down the hall, jumped through a window to the ground, and broke her leg. A student collection was taken up to reimburse the owner and pay the janitor for his services in cleaning up the mess.
A century after it opened, and long after the chapel disappeared, South Hall was adorned with an overt religious artifact. The Class of 1955 gifted the university a plaque with a quote from the Gospel of John 8:32: “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Although the plaque cites the verse’s biblical source, it decontextualizes the saying. To put the statement in its fuller context, Jesus tells his followers that, if they hold to his teachings, they are truly his disciples—in which case “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Stripped of this theological context, the quote takes on a new significance as a testament to the university’s commitment to academic freedom and the pursuit of truth. Although its meaning has been secularized, the verse highlights the Bible’s continuing significance as a point of reference for the university’s educational mission.
Continue up Bascom Hill until the walkway forks. Look left toward Birge Hall for the next stop.
(1055 Bascom Mall)
8. Birge Hall
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Birge Hall, home of UW’s Department of Botany, was erected in 1910. It took its current name in 1950 in honor of Edward Birge, a prominent zoologist, educator, and two-time president of UW-Madison. Birge was one of the country’s first great experts on lakes. He contributed to Lake Mendota being nicknamed “the most studied lake in the world.”
Birge, an attendee and teacher at First Congregational Church for most of his fifty years at UW-Madison, has the distinction of being UW’s first twice-appointed president. His second stint from 1918-1925 was filled with religious drama. Birge became a lightning rod at the height of the national antievolution movement. He was a target of politician and Christian fundamentalist William Jennings Bryan. In 1921, at a rally of thousands of students at the Red Gym, Bryan charged that, under Birge’s watch, UW was leading to the downfall of Christian civilization by teaching evolution in its classrooms. A public war of newspaper op-eds between the two ensued, with Birge insisting that biological evolution and Christianity were not necessarily in tension. In one of his final op-eds, Birge articulated a view of the relationship of modern science to Christianity that generations of faculty, staff, and students have embraced since. Birge said:
I have taken part both in the religious and the scientific activities of the world in which I have lived, with no thought of conflict or even division between them. I have never found it necessary to justify religion to science or to excuse science to religion. I have accepted both as equally divine revelations, and both are equally wrought into the constitution of the world.
Continue to the top of the hill and head toward Bascom Hall. Stop to the left of the main doors at the large plaque.
(430 Lincoln Drive)
9. Bascom Hall
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You have probably heard of the idea of “academic freedom.” At UW, it has meant that anything that matters to the citizens of the state is worthy of study. Read the plaque to the left of the front door out loud. The plaque symbolizes the seriousness with which the university takes its commitment to the “continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.”
These words are originally from an 1894 report by the UW Board of Regents in response to one board member’s accusations against Professor Richard Ely. He was one of the leading economists in the country. Ely was accused of teaching socialist doctrines, leading to an extensive investigation and several hearings. The 1894 report exonerated Ely and introduced the concept of academic freedom. It stated that the university should never censor or limit its members’ quest for knowledge.
Ely was part of a cohort of Christian economists at UW in the early twentieth century. The group also included John R. Commons, Ely’s student and a founder of the American Institute for Christian Sociology. Commons was also a key shaper of the Wisconsin Idea, which we’ll talk about more at our next stop. Ely, for his part, was the founder of an organization called the Christian Social Union, which applied Christian principles to social problems. He advocated for child labor laws and for improved factory conditions.
Ely and Commons were leading academics in the Social Gospel movement, which sought to apply Christian ethics to the problems of poverty, wealth inequality, and alcoholism, among other issues. Their work at the university made UW a national center for Social Gospel thought. At the same time, Ely and Commons laid the foundation for UW’s Department of Sociology. In their view, the first part of the ten commandments was about loving God, which you should learn about in church. The second part of the ten commandments was about loving your neighbor. They wanted the Department of Sociology to be a place for the academic study of what it means to love your neighbor. At UW, Ely was a staunch advocate of the model of student-run churches introduced by Bascom and encouraged denominational partnerships to influence student life.
Turn right and head to the edge of the walkway. Look to the wooded area across the street for the next stop.
(500 Lincoln Drive)
10. Muir Woods and North Hall
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Across Observatory Drive there is a small nature preserve named Muir Woods. It stretches down the hill to the shore of Lake Mendota. Muir Woods is named after John Muir, sometimes called the “Father of the National Parks” for his career as a preservationist and co-founder of the Sierra Club. Muir was born in Scotland in 1838 and when 11 years old immigrated to a farm near Portage, Wisconsin. He enrolled at UW in 1860 and lived in North Hall, the large building immediately to your right. Muir left UW in 1863 without graduating, but he remains one of the University’s most famous and storied alumni.
Muir’s childhood was shaped by a deep Protestant piety, and he had memorized the bulk of the Bible by the time he was sixteen. Muir was the president of the major UW campus ministry at that time. He moved away from organized religion as an adult but remained a deeply spiritual Christian who saw his care for creation flow from his understanding of God the Creator. As he wrote in his journal in 1873, “God’s love covers all the earth as the sky covers it, and also fills it in every pore. And this love has voices heard by all who have ears to hear.” As one writer remarked of Muir, “Sequoias, are his cathedral.”
These woods are a memorial to Muir’s contributions to the preservation of wilderness areas in North America. Muir said later in life, “I left one UW for another UW: the University of Wisconsin for the University of the Wilderness.” The woods are also where Muir went to find firewood for his stove in his dorm room in North Hall, and they are where Muir took his first lessons in botany as a student. Today they also help to conjure an image of what the entire southern shoreline of Lake Mendota looked like before extensive human development.
Turn right and head down Bascom Hill. Stop outside the entrance to the Education Building for the next stop.
(1050 Bascom Mall)
11. Education Building
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The Education Building, built in 1900 and renovated in 2011, houses UW’s School of Education, routinely ranked as one of the top programs of its type in the country. The School of Education was founded in 1930 and was seen by the university as a direct outgrowth of the Wisconsin Idea, a term first coined in the early twentieth century by UW President Charles Van Hise. The Wisconsin Idea stated that the studies and research at UW should benefit the entire state of Wisconsin. In Van Hise’s famous words, “the boundaries of the university are the boundaries of the state.” Later generations of UW faculty and administrators extended this vision to the nation and the globe.
At its origins, the Wisconsin Idea was deeply informed by the dominant religious sentiments of the era, especially the Social Gospel movement mentioned earlier in relation to Richard Ely and John R. Commons. The Social Gospel tended to work for progressive political causes, and Wisconsin, called the “laboratory of democracy.” by Theodore Roosevelt, was a national leader in progressive reform.
The Protestant origins of the Wisconsin Idea have largely been forgotten. Yet the Wisconsin Idea itself still shapes the focus and makeup of many of UW’s colleges and departments. Especially in fields like education, the Wisconsin Idea has continued to push UW to ground its research in the problems faced by Wisconsin communities and to prioritize student enrollment and placement in the state.
Walk to the base of Bascom Hill and go left, walking north on Park Street until you are at the intersection with Langdon Street. On your left you should see the entrance to (the large red brick building known as) Science Hall. This is the next stop.
(1000 Bascom Mall)
12. Science Hall
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UW has been a leader in scientific research and teaching for more than a century. The rustic red brick walls of Science Hall are an imposing testament to this legacy. The building was erected in 1887, and has hosted more than a dozen science departments, from agriculture to zoology. As the university grew, Science Hall came to be known for its chief occupants. Notably, UW’s historic geography department.
Science Hall has housed a number of notable Christian faculty. John Alexander, a geographer and department chair, was a longtime faculty member until he left in 1964 to become president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, a national evangelical student organization that is headquartered in Madison.
Science Hall also houses the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, a unique interdisciplinary center and program. For more than forty years, until 2011, Professor Calvin DeWitt taught students at the Nelson Institute and published on issues of ecology and stewardship from a Christian perspective. He is colloquially known as the “the modern day father of Christian environmentalism” and trained multiple generations of wetland biologists who are now working across the globe to preserve, steward, and draw attention to at-risk biospheres.
Walk a few steps toward the lake to the intersection of Park Street and Observatory Road. On the opposite side of Observatory Drive stands a large, concrete building. This is your next stop.
(550 North Park Street)
13. Helen C. White Building
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The large building in your view was opened in 1971 and carries the name of Helen C. White. It houses a popular student study spot, College Library, and a handful of academic departments, including the English Department. Helen White taught English at UW for forty-eight years, from 1919 to her death in 1967. As mentioned in a previous stop, she was the first woman to become a full professor in the College of Letters and Science.
White was a lifelong devout Catholic and an expert in early modern religious literature, two passions that converged in her many books. She wrote important works on spiritual mystics like William Blake and, in another case, on the social criticism embedded in the religious literature of sixteenth century Britain. She also wrote well-received novels about early modern missionaries that combined detailed historical reconstructions and explorations of religious devotion and contemplation.
White’s career at UW also included constant public and social engagement. She agitated against racial and gender discrimination on campus and was known by her many graduate students as an advocate for their interests. She served on dozens of organizational boards and represented the United States at UNESCO conferences following World War II.
For most of her time at UW, White was a parishioner at St. Paul’s Catholic Church. Her career represents the growth of Catholic faculty at UW—there were more than 100 faculty associated with St. Paul’s by the 1950s. She also modelled scholarly and personal religious integration that was replicated by other prominent UW faculty through the rest of the century. Later examples of such integration were Robert Kingdon, a prominent historian of the Protestant Reformation, and Michael Fox, a longtime professor of Hebrew and Semitic Studies who was also an ordained rabbi. There have been, and continues to be, hundreds of other UW faculty who have integrated their religious commitments into their scholarship.
Return to Langdon Street and walk down the hill. Pass the Memorial Union on your left and then look to your left for the small Alumni Park.
(600 North Park Street)
14. Alumni Park
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Alumni Park, finished in 2018, sits on the historic site of UW’s YMCA building. Founded in 1881, the YMCA became the center of student social life for decades. It foreshadowed the Memorial Union, which would open in 1928, as a gathering place for students, a hosting site for extracurricular activities, and the social hub of campus. The YMCA itself was deeply entwined with the university. As late as 1913, the YMCA published the university’s official handbook which was distributed to every student. Handbooks included church directories and codes of conduct that reflected the dominant Protestant piety of the era.
But the university was diversifying in religious representation and growing in size. In recent decades, Hillel, the center for Jewish campus life, and the Muslim Student Association have each grown larger. More recent Christian groups have become core members of the university religious community, including InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, The Navigators and Campus Crusade for Christ (now known as Cru). There are now more than fifty religious, Registered Student Organizations on campus.
The university itself has transformed from a liberal arts college to an agricultural school to the more familiar look of a vast public research university, counting more than a dozen colleges with hundreds of fields, thousands of faculty and tens of thousands of students, representing billions of dollars of federal research money. The student population has also diversified, with close to 20% minority student body and more than 4,000 international students from more than 120 countries.
The YMCA building itself was demolished in 1956, a sign of its declining centrality to student life. The overt spiritual heritage on this small plot of land can be seen at the far end of the park, where the seal of the university is carved into the ground. The Latin phrase ” Numen Lumen” translates into English as “God is the Light.” It was adopted in 1854, when the vast majority of the university community was Christian. Small, officially-designated “reflection spaces” in the two buildings that flank the park—the Memorial Union and the Red Gym—are evidence of how the university today both acknowledges and seeks to de-stress religious identity.
Even then, however, the trajectory toward today’s pluralism was visible. The university’s first chancellor, John Lathrop, preferred the interpretation of the seal to be “The divine within the universe, however manifested, is my light”—a non-dogmatic sentiment that accommodated various monotheistic traditions in the nineteenth century, and a far wider breadth of traditions today. Now, students from more than one hundred countries, with dozens of religions and spiritual practices, make up the UW community. No matter what religion those who work live and learn at UW belong to, the university’s spiritual resources remain vast to those who seek them out.
Thank you for joining us on Spirit & Stone: A Walking Audio Tour of the Spiritual Geography of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. We hope to see you at Upper House. This has been an Upper House production: writing by Jon Dahl and Dan Hummel; narration by Jon Dahl and Rebecca Cooks; and audio engineering by Jesse Koopman.
(724 Langdon Street)