Berea College has historically and intentionally nurtured the spiritual life of its community in a variety of ways. While explicitly non-denominational, the school has emphasized an inclusive Christian spirituality that has consistently promoted social justice in its many forms. During its earliest history, the College provided numerous opportunities for Christian education and spiritual development, requiring the participation of all students and faculty. Beginning with the founders of the College, various 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 a number of decades, the president of the College even appointed a “College Preacher,” who 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 and considers participation in any religious community or tradition entirely voluntary for its students, staff and faculty.
Under the leadership of Edward Henry Fairchild (1869-89), the first president of Berea College, the College constructed its first chapel. The first chapel, which the school shared with Church of Christ, Union, stood near where Phelps Stokes Chapel now stands. Fire destroyed the first chapel in 1878. The College constructed its second chapel also during the administration of President Fairchild. The second chapel, a wooden structure in a neo-Gothic style, stood where the Frost Building now stands. 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, founder of the Ralston Purina Mills company and a trustee of Berea College, donated the funds to construct Danforth Chapel. The College constructed this neo-Gothic chapel as an integral part of the Draper Building, the central academic structure on campus at the time, thus demonstrating the College’s vision of the essential relationship between spirituality or religious experience and education. In its earliest years, the offices of Danforth Chapel housed visiting ministers and religious scholars. Later, the Chapel housed ministers or chaplains to the College.
In 1971, during the presidency of Willis D. Weatherford, Jr. the College established the Campus Christian Center (CCC). President Weatherford secured a grant in 1970 from Mr. and Mrs. Eli Lilly, which became the endowment to support the work of this new department in the College. Weatherford gave the following title to his proposal: “The Campus Christian Center – At the Heart of Great Commitments.” His proposal articulated the originating vision that has consistently guided the staff and work of the Center since its inception. 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” that the College had identified and affirmed 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,” on which he elaborated 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.
Moreover, as President Weatherford concluded his proposal, he emphasized again 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 in 1971, President Weatherford appointed then Coordinator of Religious Life, Rev. J. Randolph Osborne, to direct the new department. The College then hired a second minister, Fr. Henry Parker, the first African-American minister to Berea College and a secretary, Ms. Glennis Walker, thus bringing the vision for the CCC to life. Weatherford located the offices of the Campus Christian Center in the Danforth Chapel complex of the Draper Building, where they remain today.
Over the years several individuals filled the role of the Campus Christian Center Director. In 2011-2012 the College conducted a national search for a new Director. Rev. Gail E. Bowman, J.D. was employed in June 2012 as the newest CCC Director and College Chaplain. Rounding out the CCC staff are Rev. Dr. Loretta Reynolds, D. Theol., College Chaplain and Assistant Professor of General Studies; Katherine Basham, Coordinator of Interfaith Programs; and Marsha Elliott, Administrative Assistant to the Center.
Note: Much more historical information on the Danforth Chapel can be found in the book The Distinctive Danforth Chapel at Berea College by Lee Morris. There are complimentary copies available at the Chapel.