In the 1950s when I attended Mary Baldwin College religious diversity was obvious in our “Day Student Club.” My friends included two Roman Catholics, three Greek Orthodox and one Jewish, as well as a Lutheran, a Methodist, an Episcopalian and a Baptist, and, of course, a Presbyterian or two. We got along well together — and we all followed the schools strict regulations concerning religious activities.
Founded in 1842 as Augusta Female Seminary under the auspices of the Presbyterian Church, Mary Baldwin College continues its goal to produce young women of outstanding character and leadership, in addition to superior academic achievement. In the 1950s when I was a student there, the strict Presbyterian influence was obvious.
Old and New Testament courses, each one semester, and a senior course in philosophy were required for graduation. Other electives such as Letters of Paul and The Prophets were available also. Miss Mary Lakenan, a diminutive elderly lady with a crown of white hair and rimless glasses instructed the Bible students. Dr. Herbert Turner, a gentle retired Presbyterian minister who was loved by the students taught the philosophy course, which culminated in a term paper outlining the student’s own philosophy.
Old Testament classes used the American Standard Bible, but the recently published (1946) Revised Standard New Testament was available for the New Testament course. (The Revised Standard Bible was published in the spring of 1953, when I graduated.) These basic texts were supplemented by numerous volumes listed on the Parallel Reading list Miss Lakenan distributed on the first day of class, listing the schedule for reading during the entire course. All these books occupied a special place on the reserve shelf in the library, ensuring many hours of study in that sanctuary.
Miss Lakenan had spent a year in the Holy Land and her personal stories of her experience there gave life to her lectures. But what a challenge when she traced the history of the Divided Kingdom on the chalkboard! A long horizontal line separated the kingdoms of Israel (on top) and the kingdom of Judah (on the bottom). Then vertical lines marked spaces, more or less at scale, to indicate the reign of each king, above and below the line. Everyone scrambled to copy the diagram and spent hours trying to remember the unfamiliar names and the fate of each king (especially those nasty Northern kings!) for the test that would inevitably follow. I kept my copy in my Bible and referred to it many times after leaving Mary Baldwin.
Miss Lakenan also was advisor for the YWCA, of which every student was a member. Service projects took us to V.S.D.B. (the Virginia School for the Deaf and Blind), the Effie Ann Johnson Nursery, (a black nursery school), the Bettie Bickle Home (nursing home). Candlelight vespers, exam week devotions, and freshman orientation and World Service Student Fund were other Y activities that helped develop spiritual growth and concern for others.
Twice a week the entire student body attended Religious Chapel, which was often led by students and the Chapel Choir. Seniors wore their caps and gowns and sat in alphabetically assigned seats. In the spring, Religious Emphasis Week brought well known pastors to speak at chapel services and also at evening services. Although students were not required to attend the First Presbyterian Church across the street from campus, attendance at the church of their choice was mandatory.
Times have changed, as they say, and I suppose all this seems antiquated in our modern society. I hope my alma mater provides some time in the busy schedule for spiritual enrichment. Perhaps the time we spent in Bible study and religious activities, service projects etc. could have been invested more wisely in academic pursuit. But I don’t think so.
When I earned the privilege of joining the Grafton Society, named for retired Dean Martha Grafton, and with only one requirement — to live long enough to celebrate 50 years after graduation — I read brief bios of the members. I was gratified to see how many had remained active in church and civic organizations, and had made substantial contributions of time, energy and money to worthwhile causes. After all – isn’t that the goal of education?