A Presbyterian past and interfaith present: Religious life at Lafayette through the decades

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Once hosting primarily Presbyterian services, Colton Chapel is now home to the spiritual life of many different religious groups on campus. (Photo by Lauren Yoder ’25)

Lauren Yoder

Although it may go unnoticed by many students, Lafayette College’s affiliation with the Presbyterian Church has been present since 1854 and continues to the present day. While this affiliation does not play a crucial role in the atmosphere of the college today, faith remains an integral part of many students’ identities.

The college’s affiliation with the Presbyterian Church is “just a part of our history,” College Chaplain and Director of Religious and Spiritual Life Rev. Alexandra Hendrickson explained.

At its founding, Lafayette was not associated with the Presbyterian religion. But in the mid-1800s, many graduates from Lafayette would go to the nearby Princeton Seminary to become Presbyterian ministers. This eventually led to funding from and an official partnership with the Presbyterian Church, according to Hendrickson.

While 50 years ago worshipping at the chapel was mandatory at Lafayette,“the world is a different place now,” Hendrickson said. “In the same way that we have women, people of different faith backgrounds [and] people of different countries [on campus], the role that the church plays is different than it was in the 1850s.”

Now, students of different faiths may go to organizations of their choosing. With nine different religious and spiritual organizations at Lafayette, students of all backgrounds have the opportunity to get involved on campus and express their individual beliefs in representative communities. 

“I think one of the things that is really strong at Lafayette is the commitment to an interfaith community. We had a strong interfaith group when I arrived here, and I think it’s gotten even stronger,” Hendrickson said.

These different religious organizations on campus have “a very palpable presence,” according to Lisa Green ’24, who also noted that people from different faith groups often feel connected and even radiate passion.

Green, who runs Colton Corner, a podcast on campus that hosts interfaith dialogue, noted that students at Lafayette are diverse in their religious beliefs.

“I like that it’s a spectrum here. I do know people who are very devoted, who pray every day. I also know people who are more spiritual than religious. Then there are people who don’t practice anything. It’s really a total spectrum,” she said.

When it comes to the attitude towards religion on campus or having open discussions about spirituality, however, there is sometimes still an air of unease. Green described how the topic of religion is sometimes seen as off-limits at Lafayette because it doesn’t relate to academics. Others hold the view that religion is non-academic, or that “you could be spending your time on more academic things,” she said. 

Green is also a member of the Hillel Society, the Jewish Society at Lafayette.

“It can be difficult to be a religious person. There have been challenges getting Dean’s Excuses off for holidays, and things will be scheduled on Friday nights, which is our celebratory night of the week where we pray,” Green said. 

Although there are a number of challenges for students practicing their respective religions on campus, President Nicole Hurd, who has a doctorate in religious studies from the University of Virginia, is committed to supporting students in their spiritual life as she begins her career at the College.

“[Hurd] has really expressed her commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion, and she has specifically talked about how religion and spirituality is really integral,” Hendrickson said.