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Feature Story
reed magazine logoSpring 2008

Vagabond Opera, a Portland band, performed at Chaverimís Purim party this year.

By 1938, students appear to have gotten their wish. That year, Bishop William Remington of Pendleton, Oregon, wrote in a letter to Reed President Dexter Keezer that “Reed seemed to me to be lacking in traditions, customs, and may I add, manners, which are to be found in most of the other institutions of higher learning.” The bishop urged Keezer to have a “better baseball team” and to hire a “well equipped clergyman.” He went on to explain: “As I talked with many of the students in Reed, I had the feeling that many of them were revolting against an idea of God which had become outmoded in contemporary religious thinking.”

Perhaps the bishop got his way, albeit briefly; in 1940, four chapel services were held before a local clergyman quit, clearly disgusted by the lack of support he got from the college. “I could not by myself do all of the work necessary to carry on meetings of this kind,” he reported in a letter to Keezer. “I also found it very difficult to find a different suitable speaker for each Sunday.” A year later, President William Hall Jr. of the College of Idaho spoke to an assembly of Reed students and encouraged them to develop “an intelligent and sympathetic understanding of the traditional values of religion and of the development and aspirations of the Church.” President Keezer immediately noted that, with war and upheaval looming, “I think it would not be valuable to give intelligent thought to Dr. Hall’s subject” (emphasis added).

After World War II, Reed President E.B. MacNaughton faced a similar situation. In 1949, he received a letter from the reverend at All Saints’ Episcopal Church on Woodstock Boulevard, a few blocks from campus, who reported being “besieged” by students who were troubled by “a recent sneering and belittling lecture on the Sermon on the Mount by a highly respected member of the college community.” In 1951, MacNaughton turned down an offer from the religious Student Volunteer Movement, based in New York, writing: “The Deans for both men and women question whether we could effect any arrangements, due to the fact that we have no student religious organizations operative at Reed.”

Two years later, though, there was at least one campus religious organization: the 1953 Griffin shows a photo of Reed’s InterVarsity Christian Fellowship chapter. Membership appears to total six, all men.

Why did Reed develop such a paucity of religious devotion? President Diver speculates that it had to do with Reed’s unique demographics. Since universities in the East routinely limited the number of Jews they admitted, those who didn’t make it in under the quotas could come to Reed, where there were no such limits. “I have to think that helped influence the expectation that Reed would have no religion,” Diver muses. “Also, the classic Reedie was the child of a professor or artist or member of the creative class, and those families tended not to be as religious.”

Religion TODAY
The level of religious activity on campus these days is hard to measure. Reed students are inclined to question everything, including whatever religious identity they may have brought with them to college. In interviews, fortunately, students are remarkably eager to share their individual backgrounds and practices. Still, many say they are too preoccupied to lead or participate in organized religion. As a result, student religious groups have a tendency to founder after a few years, and the number of regular participants varies from a handful to one.

A spur to student religious observance comes from outside religious representa­tives, who visit campus regularly to support—and potentially proselytize among—Christian and Jewish students. With Reed’s open campus, the administration raises no objections as long as they come at the invitation of individual students or official student organizations.

reed magazine logoSpring 2008