Berea College has always nurtured the spiritual life of its community in a variety of ways. While categorized non-denominational, the school creates an inclusive Christian spirituality that has always promoted social justice in its many forms. During its earliest history, the College provided many opportunities for Christian education and spiritual development, requiring the participation of all students and faculty. Beginning with the founders of the College, several members of the faculty and administration, including five of the school’s nine presidents to date, also have been ordained ministers from several different Christian traditions and denominations. Through much of the College’s history, many of the ministerial members of the College’s faculty and administration led the community in worship and study of scriptures. For many decades, the president of the College even appointed a “College Preacher.” This person helped the school to fulfill its Christian commitment. Despite the important role of Christian faith in the founding, history and present mission of the College, the College does not regard itself as a church. It considers participation in any religious community or tradition completely voluntary for its students, staff and faculty.
The College constructed its first chapel under the leadership of Edward Henry Fairchild (1869-89). Fairchild was also the first president of Berea College. The first chapel stood near where Phelps Stokes Chapel now stands. The College shared this chapel with the Church of Christ, Union. Fire destroyed the first chapel in 1878. The College constructed its second chapel also during the administration of President Fairchild. The second chapel stood where the Frost Building now stands. This chapel was a wooden structure built in a neo-Gothic style. These chapels functioned as the tangible symbols of and focal points for exercising the College’s Christian commitment.
In 1937, during the presidency of William J. Hutchins, the College constructed Danforth Chapel. William H. Danforth was founder of the Ralston Purina Mills company and a trustee of Berea College. He donated the funds to construct Danforth Chapel. The College constructed this neo-Gothic chapel as an integral part of the Draper Building. This was the central academic structure on campus at the time. By placing it there, the College aimed to display its vision of the essential relationship between spirituality or religious experience and education. In its earliest years, the Danforth Chapel offices housed visiting ministers and religious scholars. Later, the Chapel housed ministers or chaplains to the College.
In 1971, the College established the Campus Christian Center (CCC). This was during during the presidency of Willis D. Weatherford, Jr. President Weatherford secured a grant in 1970 from Mr. and Mrs. Eli Lilly. The grant became the endowment to support the work of this new department in the College. Weatherford gave this title to his proposal: “The Campus Christian Center – At the Heart of Great Commitments.” His proposal articulated the original vision that has guided the staff and work of the Center since its start. In Weatherford’s letter to Mr. and Mrs. Lilly, he requested a grant to establish the Campus Christian Center as a way to support the “new elements in spiritual emphasis.” The College had identified and affirmed these in its then recently-formulated Great Commitments. Weatherford’s proposal requested funding that would support:
- two ministers to the College,
- one secretary and
- annual visiting distinguished professors of religion.
As an overview of this proposal, Weatherford described the Campus Christian Center as “an idea,” “not a place.” He elaborated on this in the following statement:
The thought of the Campus Christian Center is to put several distinguished persons of inspiring and challenging Christian ideals at the heart of the intellectual life of the College. These leaders would excite the best thought and concern among both faculty and students in a way to combine Christian conviction with intellectual rigor. The influence of these ministers and professors would help set the tone of the whole community by having the most stimulating thought on campus center about a religious perspective.
As President Weatherford concluded, he emphasized the fundamental character of the vision that had inspired his proposal: “… as we envision the strengthening of the spiritual life of the College through the Campus Christian Center, we are not thinking in terms of brick and mortar, but in terms of human thought and activity which will penetrate the classroom, the labor assignment, the daily residence, the recreation and all other aspects of life in the Berea College Community.”
With the establishment of the Campus Christian Center, President Weatherford appointed Rev. J. Randolph Osborne as director. At the time, Rev. Osborne was Coordinator of Religious Life. The College then hired a second minister, Fr. Henry Parker, the first African-American minister to Berea College. He also hired a secretary, Ms. Glennis Walker, thus bringing the vision for the CCC to life. Weatherford placed the Campus Christian Center in the Danforth Chapel complex of the Draper Building. These offices remain there today.
Over the years several individuals filled the role of the Campus Christian Center Director. In 2017 the Director position was elevated to Dean of the Chapel. Rev. Dr. Loretta Reynolds served as the Dean of the Chapel March 2018 – June 2022. Rev. Dr. LeSette Wright was appointed Dean of the Chapel beginning July 2022.
Note: Much more historical information on the Danforth Chapel can be found in the book The Distinctive Danforth Chapel at Berea College by Rev. Lee Morris (CCC Director & Assistant Professor of Religion, 1979-2000). Additionally, Rev. Morris recently visited the Chapel and gave a short talk about the surroundings. Watch Rev. Morris’ chat on Danforth Chapel.