Sunday Feature: A Brief History of Trinity and the Episcopal Church in the 20th Century

4 min read

Kip Lynch ’22

Executive Editor

Although Trinity College would remain close to its Episcopal heritage through the 20th century, formal connections no longer existed at the turn of the century. This secularization happened during the presidency of the Rev. George Williamson Smith, H’87, who served from 1883 to 1904. Despite being a member of the clergy in the Episcopal Church, the Rev. Smith “felt that the College’s ties with the Episcopal Church impeded progress and deterred students from seeking admission,” according to Peter Knapp in Trinity College in the Twentieth Century: A History.

Thus, he slowly “lessened and deemphasized the ties, amending the charter to eliminate the Bishop of Connecticut’s involvement with Trinity as ex officio chancellor and chairman of the Board of Trustees, and thereby claiming that Trinity had become ‘secularized.’” This resulted in a significant loss of financial support from members of the Episcopal Church and Smith would later be placed on leave. While his successor, the Rev. Dr. Flavel Sweeten Luther ’70, M’73, H’04, would introduce religious activities similar to the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA), but with a distinct Episcopal bent, the changes made by Smith endured.

While the College continued to retain an Episcopalian College Chaplain (who, early in the century, also served as President), and College Presidents continued to be either lay members or clergy in the Episcopal Church, the nature of the ties between the College and the Episcopal Church were unclear. Peter J. Knapp wrote that “lingering confusion on this point had prompted President Funston to issue a memorandum in 1948 on the relationship between the College and the Church. In it, he reaffirmed that Trinity was a nondenominational college that had ‘close informal relations with the Episcopal Church.”

While formal connections were essentially nonexistent, “the relationship with the Episcopal community had remained strong.” This would be utilized by Albert Jacobs H’68 during his tenure as President of the College from 1953 to 1968 for development, where in December 1953, “the College sent letters to ‘6,000 Hartford friends, past parents, and Episcopalians…to acquaint or reacquaint certain important publics with the aims and objectives of Trinity.”

Jacobs was ardent in his support of Episcopal initiatives through the College, such as observances of Christian Higher Education Day. Other colleges observing this day at the time included Hobart, Kenyon, and the University of the South. Eventually, the presidents of each college began to work together beyond planning the observance by seeking “each other’s advice regarding athletic matters, chapel observance, fund raising and other mutual concerns.” It would eventually morph into a formal organization that received funds from the Episcopal Church. However, as other colleges joined the association, Trinity was at a disadvantage as it was passed over, with benefits such as scholarship funds going to less-affluent colleges at the time. Accordingly, the College would later vote to withdraw from the Association of Episcopal Colleges in 1968.

Nevertheless, religious life and the role of chaplain continued to carry great weight. Knapp notes that “Selecting a new chaplain proved to be almost as complicated as choosing a new president…A consensus existed on only one point: the chaplain would have to be a priest of the Episcopal Church because of the diocesan status of the Chapel.” The Rev. James Moulton Thomas would largely transform the chapel into what it is today. A graduate of Princeton, he was installed as chaplain on Nov. 1, 1956. He “soon introduced a number of innovations, the first of which was a Chapel Cabinet made up of the heads of the four student religious organizations — the Canterbury Club, the Newman Club, Hillel, and the Protestant Fellowship.”

The College Chaplain, as Dean of Spiritual and Religious Life today, now has faculty rights such as sabbatical and continues to coordinate work with other religious organizations such as the Newman Club and Hillel while conducting Episcopal services.

This is Part II of a Tripod survey into Trinity and its historic connections to the Episcopal Church. For Part I, see the Mar. 21 Sunday Feature “A Brief History of the College’s Connection to the Episcopal Church.”


Brendan W. Clark '21 is the current Editor-in-Chief of the Trinity Tripod, Trinity College's student newspaper.

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