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Your independent source for Harvard news since 1898

John Harvard's Journal

War and Peace at Memorial Church

January-February 2003

"Educational benefactors make a vital contribution to world peace," said Eric Anderson, provost of Eton College, England, who delivered the sermon in Memorial Church on November 10. He spoke on the Sunday nearest Veterans Day, at a service of commemoration of benefactors and of the war dead—an annual event—and began by referring to Harvard poet Alan Seeger '10, who wrote "I Have a Rendezvous with Death." Seeger had his rendezvous on July 4, 1916, at Belloy-en-Santerre; he is memorialized in the church with others who kept their own rendezvous in war.

The service involved an affecting episode in which a detail of Harvard ROTC members conveyed a laurel wreath from the altar to the Memorial Room, where they laid it on the fallen soldier in the sculpture The Sacrifice.
The service involved an affecting episode in which a detail of Harvard ROTC members conveyed a laurel wreath from the altar to the Memorial Room, where they laid it on the fallen soldier in the sculpture The Sacrifice.
Photographs by Stu Rosner

The service fell this year on the seventieth anniversary of the dedication of Memorial Church, built to honor Harvardians who died in World War I and subsequently a shrine to many more. "The First World War was one of those rare historical moments when a fundamental human attitude changes," said Anderson. "In 1914 it was still possible to talk with pride, pomp, and circumstance of glorious war. By 1919, the Western world knew war for what it is....The war to end wars turned out to be just another bloody episode in the long-running saga of the struggle between human heroism and human wickedness."

"Let me explain," preacher Anderson continued about benefactors and peace. "I daren't say that at any academic institution, not even Harvard, academic people are all invariably nice to each other. However, they do not as a rule go to war with each other. If they stab each other in the back, it is only metaphorical. In our time, the fax machine and e-mail have made the academy a genuinely worldwide community. A physicist in Iraq probably has more in common with a physicist in the same field at Berkeley or Harvard than he has with members of his own government. It is those who do not communicate with each other who are likely to fight each other. By contrast, the commonwealth of learning, to which Harvard belongs in so forceful a way, is a powerful force for understanding across the boundaries which divide the world and a powerful force, therefore, for peace."

Anderson urged the congregation to be steadfast. "There are no isolationists in the war between good and evil, which still rages around the world. The dead, including the gallant young Harvard men who died in successive wars, freely giving up their lives and fondest hopes, have no hands but our hands now, no energy but our energy, no money but our money, and it is on us they rely to heed the admonition emblazoned on the walls of the Memorial Room to spend our lives making a better world for others. We must not break faith with those who died."military caps

At the conclusion of the service, the congregation exited through the Memorial Room to the side of the church facing Widener Library; many lingered there under a gentle rain of golden elm leaves. Then a bagpiper led a ragtag march to a festivity—lunch in a tent in front of the Science Center. Peter J. Gomes, Plummer professor of Christian morals and Pusey minister in the Memorial Church, welcomed the more than 500 invited guests, supporters of a just-completed $8-million capital campaign for the church.

The spiritual, intellectual, and musical place of the church in the University has never been more robust, said John deC. Blondel Jr. '78, a partner at Goldman, Sachs and chairman of the campaign, in remarks after lunch. Jeremy R. Knowles, former dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences, spoke, from the faculty, as did Sarah M. Mercer '04, from the congregation.

President Lawrence H. Summers began his remarks by saying that he had been taught the importance of the church in the University community by the service held on its steps in Tercentenary Theatre to mark the anniversary of September 11, 2001, a service attended by thousands (See "Hushed Voices," November-December 2002, page 51). He concluded with a message of hope: "There was one word that Peter used that I would dare to take issue with. In speaking about the founding of the church in 1932 and what followed, he said that it was 'inevitable' that there would be a Second World War, a Korean War, a Vietnam War. I am optimistic enough to believe that that's not true. I am optimistic enough to believe that if we understand the moral failures of the past, we grieve over their tragic consequences, we seek to learn their lessons, we can shape the future with our understanding, with our compassion, with our wisdom, with our strength, with our commitment to what is right, a future in which there will be less call for memorial churches, memorial monuments, memorial statues."