What Gettysburg College’s Lutheran Affiliation Means Today

By Sophie Lange, Staff Writer

Christ Chapel at Gettysburg College (Photo Eric Lippe/The Gettysburgian)

Christ Chapel at Gettysburg College (Photo Eric Lippe/The Gettysburgian)

The United Lutheran Seminary is a part of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), one of the largest Lutheran denominations in the United States. Historically speaking, this seminary has been associated with Gettysburg College since the college’s founding in 1832.

Director of Religious and Spiritual Life and College Chaplain Bright clarified that “[Gettysburg] was founded by the same founders who started the [United Lutheran Seminary] up the hill. That Lutheran heritage has always been a part of the history and culture here.”

The dedication of Christ Chapel on the Gettysburg College campus occurred on Oct. 17, 1953, when the college was still deeply attached to its Lutheran history and culture.

Walter Consuelo Langsam, the president of Gettysburg College at the time of the dedication, wrote about the chapel in a foreword found within a program for the dedication ceremony. 

Langsam said, “Christ Chapel, it is to be called. Surely this specific recognition of the Son is especially appropriate on a Christian college campus, where young sons and daughters, in uncounted generations, are destined to spend four of the most important years of their lives—where American fathers and mothers of tomorrow come to be nurtured in faith, knowledge, and friendliness. May the presence of Christ Chapel…bring inspiration, spiritual strength, and blessing to all…whose eyes in looking at its spire are lifted heavenwards and whose hands are folded in prayer within the beauty encompassed by its walls.”

Previously, attending chapel as an entire student body was mandatory, and there was a specific track that students could take if they wanted to attend the United Lutheran Seminary upon graduating. However, the present-day Gettysburg College does not seem nearly as connected to its Lutheran origins. Nonetheless, the ELCA still lists the college as being associated with the denomination. 

Although Gettysburg College does not offer specific Lutheran scholarships to prospective students, some Lutheran congregations give scholarships for students to attend Lutheran-affiliated educational institutions, including Gettysburg. Despite this, the school receives no funding from the United Lutheran Seminary or the ELCA as a whole. 

Bright described the connection as “mostly symbolic now; there’s no financial connection between us and the Lutheran Church anymore…Being hired here was a very serious diversion and break with the Lutheran Church…Every chaplain that served here before me was an ordained Lutheran preacher…The school made a very serious decision in terms of its religious life to move in a different direction away from a Lutheran-[informed]…approach to ministry.”

Due to its particular history, Gettysburg had a more conservative, Christian educational experience, but the campus and educational culture have shifted beyond that.

“It used to be the case that every student would [be required to] take classes in Bible and Theology [to graduate]; that doesn’t happen anymore,” Bright explained. 

“You would be able to look around our school and tell that’s not necessarily what we do anymore, but we still value religion and spirituality as a matter of community and culture, which is why our center [the Center for Religious and Spiritual Life] still exists. It’s still a value that we have,” shared Bright. “That’s not to say that we require every student to participate in it, but we value that as a matter of your identity…so if it’s something that…adds value to your experience here and enhances the educational process in the pedagogical formation that you go through here as a student, we make that accessible.”

Additionally, Bright explained how the school’s religious history and current religious and spiritual culture fit into Gettysburg’s goal of providing a consequential education.

“Now that we are in that season where we are no longer requiring students to [take classes based on religious studies], we invite you to bring your religious perspective with you when you come to school to examine it for its own consequences,” said Bright. “If our educational goal is to provide a consequential education, that means there will be things that you learn about your religious tradition here that you may not have known before that will require you to do something differently.”

The Christian overhang of this worship space has created many barriers for those practicing non-Lutheran, particularly non-Christian, religious traditions with its distinctly Lutheran stained glass and altar space. 

In discussing the worship space on campus, Bright expressed that he believes the chapel itself needs renovations.

 “It is one of the few buildings on campus that has never had any significant attention paid to it since it was erected [in the 1950s]. It is not handicap accessible in the basement, [it lacks] air conditioning, and…it has not even been updated to really reflect the religious demographics of the community here,” said Bright. “In some ways, it’s a beautiful space. It’s wonderfully historical, the acoustics are amazing, and the architecture is beautiful. That’s one of the reasons I came here. It was just such a wonderful building.”

Beyond these issues, some depictions on the stained glass contain messages that are no longer consistent with the ELCA, who assisted in the designing and building of the chapel.

Bright said, “[The Office of Religious and Spiritual Life does] everything we can to make this an interfaith space, but there are some limitations.”

Another issue involves the mural behind the altar space within the sanctuary, now covered by a curtain. The mural depicts Jesus, who is presented as white, leading a white, male Gettysburg College student to his graduation ceremony. According to Bright, the presence of this mural was highly controversial prior to it being covered. 

Bright stated that due to its foundation by abolitionists, Gettysburg was never a segregated institution, and female students were admitted for the first time in 1883. For these reasons, many students felt that this mural did not represent the history of the college, and it perpetuated the image of a predominantly white and male school.

The mural was concealed with a curtain in 1954, the year after its unveiling, and it has not been displayed since then. 

Based on the limitations of the Chapel as an interfaith space, there have been calls to update Christ Chapel to make it more inclusive. However, none of these requests have come to fruition.

Hannah Repole ’25, a member of Hillel’s leadership board, said, “There is currently no designated space for Jewish students to worship on campus. If we want to have Shabbat services, we must request a space on 25Live. RSL is a great space, but for a Shabbat service or a Passover Seder, it simply doesn’t cut it. I agree that changes need to be [made]. What those changes are, I’m not too sure, but I’m ready to start a conversation about it.”

Newman Association President Natalie Vancura ’25 also shared concerns about the accessibility of the chapel. 

“The accessibility of the space should not be a factor that draws people away from growing or exploring their faith,” said Vancura. “We should be doing what we can to make the Chapel space accessible, as well as the lower level, where a variety of events are hosted [as there are] a great deal of faith-related activities held in [this space] where college students come together to have intellectual and meaningful conversations about faith, which I would consider [another] form of worship.”

This article originally appeared on pages 4 to 5 of the February 2023 edition of The Gettysburgian’s magazine.

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Author: Gettysburgian Staff

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  1. Thanks for the great article. I have many fond memories of the Chapel from my time as a student and sang in the “Chapel Choir.” My wife and I both spent a lot of time there (she once set off the fire alarm while cooking me a birthday dinner) and we were married there about a month after graduation. It is a very special place and I agree that it could be better utilized with some updates. Even when we were students the campus wasn’t particularly “Lutheran” and the Catholic Sunday evening Mass was generally better attended than the Sunday morning service.

    Chuck Steel, class of 1997

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    • Our you a minister and do you have a church toserve

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  2. Shameful to want all religions represented in a historic chapel.

    Must Chinese restaurants serve Italian foods? Sit down restaurants offer buffets?

    Of course not. There are 8,800 colleges and universities in America alone. Applicants decide where they will go; those 8,800 are not obligated to change for a few four-year diners.

    Gettysburg College you’re headed to milquetoast oblivion and declining relevance…people can buy milquetoast for $7,000/yr at innumerable community colleges.

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