Biography and History

The first student religious societies appeared at the College of New Jersey before 1770; later groups included the Nassau Hall Bible Society (1813) and the Nassau Hall Tract Society (1817). On Christmas Eve, 1824, a small group of students founded a secret fraternity called Chi Phi, dedicated to its members' spiritual life and personal holiness. In February 1825, they changed the group's name to the Philadelphian Society. The Society had exclusive membership requirements and very strict codes of behavior; students had to testify to a personal experience of conversion and be unanimously elected. Exclusive and student-directed, it became popular as a student-directed alternative to the college's all-inclusive and compulsory chapel services and Bible classes.

In 1877, three members of the Society helped to found the Intercollegiate YMCA Movement; one, Luther Wishard, became the Movement's first secretary. The Society became known as the “Mother Society” of the Movement, the dominant national student organization through World War I. The Philadelphian Society built the movement's first building, Murray Hall (1879), later joined by Dodge Hall (1900). Philadelphians went on to become prominent in the Student Volunteer Movement (which focused on missions) and the World's Student Christian Federation.

The 1890s saw an increasing role for the Society. College faculty members, less interested in organizing campus religious life, by default turned it over to the Society, making it the college's quasi-official religious agency. The Society organized Bible study and other courses, as well as coordinating student volunteer activities in the community. By 1897 the Society employed a full-time general secretary to run its expanding programs; to help pay the secretary's salary, the college's trustees created a board of directors for the Society, made up of alumni and faculty members. The Society became the university's all-inclusive religious organization, incorporating all elements of campus religious life; in 1914 it included as members all students who belonged to evangelical (broadly defined) churches. The Society ran a campus-wide campaign to raise funds for its work and for other charities. In 1905, at the request of the International YMCA, the Society founded a settlement house in China, called Princeton-in-Peking; this mission became Princeton-in-Asia. In 1906 the Society founded the Princeton Summer Camp for inner-city boys.

World War I marked the peak of the Society's work. In 1919 followers of Frank Buchman, an itinerant evangelist, joined the Society's staff and used Buchman's often-controversial evangelical methods on campus. In 1926 the resulting conflict led President Hibben to appoint a special committee to investigate the Society's work; while the Society was cleared of scandal, it never regained its standing on campus. Its explicitly religious work was largely taken over by the Dean of the Chapel, appointed in 1928. The Student-Faculty Association, created by the Dean in 1930, coordinated student volunteer activity, the campus fund-raising drive, and other campus good works (such as an emergency loan fund for students and faculty-student social events) under the direction of the Assistant Dean of the Chapel. A skeletal Society board raised money for and held title to the camp in Blairstown, New Jersey.

After the dislocations of World War II, the university reorganized its religious life by replacing the Society and the SFA with the Student Christian Association, a more explicitly religious organization that coordinated student community service and religious societies. It also connected students to national and international student religious movements. In 1967 the SCA was replaced by the Student Volunteers Council, which concentrated on community service without an explicitly religious component.

Source: From the finding aid for AC135

  • Princeton University Student Christian Association Records. 1855-1967 (inclusive).

    Call Number: AC135

    The Student Christian Association and its predecessors were the dominant religious organizations at Princeton University for almost a hundred and fifty years. The Philadelphian Society, founded by a small group of students in 1825, was the quasi-official campus religious agency by the beginning of the twentieth century. In 1930 the Student-Faculty Association (SFA), organized by the Dean of the Chapel, took over the Society's programs, focusing on community service. In 1946 the Student Christian Association (SCA) replaced both the Society and the SFA, coordinating both religious and community service activities in campus. The Student Volunteers Council succeeded the SCA in 1967.