Religious Societies flourished at Brown throughout the nineteenth century, the first known being the Praying Society formed by a few pious students in 1802 for the purpose of “their own sanctification and for the conversion of their fellow students,” which held prayer meetings and corresponded with similar societies in other colleges. By 1820 the membership of the Society had grown to about thirty. In April 1820 there was a powerful religious revival in Providence, which spread to the students and brought about a prayer meeting attended by the whole student body, the conversion of many, and in February 1821 the formation of the Religious Society of Brown University as a successor to the Praying Society. In the minutes of the Religious Society is an account of the Praying Society and the revival which happened “in answer to the prayers of its pious founders, and succeeding members.” Members were accepted into the Religious Society by letters from the churches of which they were members or through relation of their Christian experiences. Weekly meetings were held in the chapel, with occasional public meetings at the First Baptist Church, and beginning in 1834, regular Sunday afternoon sermons by President Francis Wayland. In May 1827 the Society chose to change its name to the Society for Missionary Inquiry, reflecting the desire of its members to learn more about the religious condition of the world. John Larkin Lincoln 1836 wrote in his diary on May 15, 1833, “Joined the Society of Inquiry to-night by a relation of my experience ... The thoughts of joining have troubled me somewhat ever since I entered college. I dreaded to get up in the chapel and relate to the students of the upper classes the exercises of my mind.” The Society resumed its earlier name when another Society for Missionary Inquiry began in 1834. Following the revival of 1820 and similar revivals in other institutions, the custom of the “Concert of Prayer” or “College Fast” in the colleges began in 1823, and became an annual event celebrated in January or February. There were eight subsequent religious revivals at Brown between 1834 and 1858. The Religious Society disbanded in 1863 with the intention, according to the Brown Paper, “that the work for which it existed might go on without its cumbrous interruptions.” The weekly prayer meetings continued for another twenty years, unencumbered by the business meetings. The Society for Missionary Inquiry formed in 1834 at first consisted only of those who contemplated missionary labors, but was later opened to other interested persons. Members presented reports on missionary activity, and an annual sermon was preached before the society on an evening during Commencement week.
The Bishop Seabury Association was founded in May 1865. The organization of Episcopal students engaged in missionary work adopted the name of the first American bishop, Samuel Seabury. The members planned to hold religious services, serve as lay-readers, teach Sunday School in Providence, and have an annual sermon preached in Saint Stephen’s Church. The association succeeded beyond its greatest expectations. In the fall of 1866 a mission was opened in South Providence, its teachers chiefly from the association, and the next summer a chapel was built and a parish organized as Christ Church. In September 1868 the society took up work in East Providence, and a year later that mission was placed under the care of one of the first members of the association and became St. Mary’s Church. In the fall of 1869 the society proceeded to more missionary work in Elmwood. The society became inactive in the later 1870s. Notice of its existence and restated purpose are found in the Students’ Hand-Book in 1893: “The Bishop Seabury Association has been established and is maintained to meet the needs of those students who are accustomed to the ritual of the Protestant Episcopal Church. Meetings are held every Friday at 5 P. M. in Sayles Hall.” After 1903 the society was no longer listed in the Students’ Hand-Book.
The Brown Christian Association was organized as the Young Men’s Christian Association of Brown University on November 16, 1881. Its stated purpose was “To promote growth in grace and Christian fellowship among its members, and aggressive Christian work especially by and for students.” Under the auspices of the association, weekly prayer and conference meetings were held, as well as weekly prayer meetings for the individual classes.
In 1886 the Society for Missionary Inquiry which had existed since 1834 was merged with the association as the Department for Missionary Inquiry. On May 2, 1888, on a motion by Charles G. Hartsock 1889, a committee was formed to consider maintaining a missionary. At a mass meeting in the Chapel on May 19, Dr. Phillips, a returned missionary, addressed the students, and pledges to support a missionary were sought. A woman member of the First Baptist Church pledged $100, after which $535 was pledged within two hours. In a few days the $700 which had been settled as the required amount had been raised. Charles G. Hartsock was chosen as the missionary to be sent to the Congo. He took his departure at a moving ceremony in Number 5 University Hall, at which, Reuben Guild recalled, “He was kindly remembered by the students in the presentation of a pair of field glasses.” In 1888 the association began publication of the Students’ Hand-Book, which became Bear Facts.
Students at the Women’s College organized the Young Women’s Christian Association in 1896-97. They ran prayer meetings and Bible classes, and later added other activities as student employment, the publication of a student handbook, and raising money to send delegates to the Silver Bay and Northfield Conferences. The association, which was at first limited to students of evangelical Protestant denominations, opened its membership to other Christian students in 1911, at which time it had to withdraw from the national organization and changed its name to the Christian Association. It was later known as the Pembroke Christian Association.
Senior Roy E. Clark ’01 was appointed general secretary of the Christian Association in 1900. By 1902 there were 344 faculty and student members. In 1909 the Association opened a “Brown Settlement” at 470 North Main Street for the purpose of offering classes in civics and English, mainly to boys and young men, intended to reach “3 nationalities, the Jews, the Irish, and the Italians.” By 1910 there were eighteen active Bible study classes with 185 members, a mission study group of 75 students, and a social service committee which secured volunteers for work in Providence. Later the policy on Bible study classes was changed so that they were held in local churches and no longer led by students. The membership policy was changed in 1916, abolishing the membership fee and requiring only “belief in the purposes of the Association.” During the World War the Association raised $3,400 for a Brown ambulance which was sent to France, and $3,517 for Red Triangle work. The wide range of services provided by the Association may be seen in its report for 1924-25. In that year the B.C.A. found rooms for 252 men, secured employment for 233, and distributed 1,300 copies of the student handbook and over 1,500 copies of moral and religious pamphlets. The Association also sponsored mixers for freshmen, a freshman-sophomore supper-group of about 35 students who met to hear speakers, Tuesday evening religious meetings, and informal devotional meetings in the dormitories. Lists of students who had indicated their denominational preference were provided to local churches, and some of the churches held Brown Nights. Twenty-three teams of students took charge of religious services in local churches. Members worked with the Boys’ Club, the Y.M.C.A., the Boy Scouts, and Federal Hill House. There were three retreats that year, at the beginning of the first and second semesters. Delegations of students were sent to the Northfield Conference and the Silver Bay Conference. Additional services of the B.C.A. included the reporting of out-of-town football games, an employment bureau for undergraduates, an interfraternity bridge party, and open house on election day.
In 1928 K. Brooke Anderson came to Brown as executive secretary of the Brown Christian Association, and remained in that position until his retirement in 1957. The Interfaith Commission was organized in 1936 to bring about better understanding among Catholics, Jews, and Protestants. The Peace Commission became active in 1937, holding weekly meetings, sending out student speakers, and sponsoring demonstrations on Armistice Day and National Peace Day.
Through the years the Christian Association sponsored a wide variety of programs. The Community Commission counseled boys at the Rhode Island Training School and provided recreation for children at the John Hope Center. The World Commission brought political leaders to the campus and sponsored the Peace Week program. The Personal Life Commission presented vocational and marriage lectures. The Christian Faith and Heritage Commission arranged Bible study and vesper services. The annual Religious Embassy sponsored campus-wide discussions led by clergymen of all faiths. The Brown and Pembroke Christian Associations came under the Chaplain’s office in the early 1950s with funding from the University, and the Newman Club and Hillel Club and other sectarian organizations were recognized and allowed to meet on campus for worship or study, but discouraged from holding social gatherings. In 1956 the Religious Embassy was replaced by Religious Symposium Week with meetings arranged by three groups, the University Christian Council, the Newman Club, and the Hillel Foundation. Reverend Sam H. Newcomer served as executive secretary of the Brown Christian Association from 1957 to 1963.
In 1958 the University Christian Association was formed by the merger of the Brown Christian Association, the Pembroke Christian Association, and various student groups of the neighboring churches. Georgiana McLean was associate executive secretary of the University Christian Association from 1958 to 1960, and was succeeded by Nancy Simons, who was director of religious activities at Pembroke and became assistant chaplain in 1965. The groups affiliated with the U.C.A. were Canterbury (founded for Episcopalian students in 1947), Central Student Fellowship (Congregational), the Lutheran Student Association, Presbyterian Student Fellowship, Roger Williams Fellowship (Baptist), and Wesley Foundation (Methodist). Groups not affiliated were the Christian Science Organization (founded in 1936) the Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship, and the Newman Club for Catholic students. The Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship started in 1947, when a few students began to meet informally for prayer, and soon joined an international network of that name. In 1989 the group became Brown Christian Fellowship. The Interfellowship Council was formed to promote unity among the Christian organizations at Brown, with representatives of the Brown Christian Fellowship, the Campus Crusade for Christ, the Catholic Community at Manning Chapel, University Church Morning and Evening Service, Voices of Inspiration, and With One Voice. The Campus Crusade for Christ is an international, interdenominational Christian movement with a branch called Athletes in Action. The Voices of Inspiration, a musical ministry, sponsors Bible study and gospel song. University Church is an ecumenical Protestant congregation. University Evening Service incorporated non-denominational, evangelical, and black worship traditions. The University Christian Movement was formed in 1967, bringing together Protestant and Catholic groups in a single organization.