In the early days of the University, students and faculty were up betimes. The first requirement of the day was attendance at chapel — in the fall and the spring at five-thirty in the morning, and during the winter at six-thirty. Because the services were held in North College (Mason Hall), which was used also as a dormitory, the students had not far to go. Members of the faculty who lived in the residences on the campus were also near at hand. A recitation followed immediately, before the students were free to go to breakfast at private homes in town. There was a second chapel session at four-thirty or five in the afternoon.
Religious influence was strong in the University. It could scarcely have been otherwise, for the first two professors were ministers. The Reverend George Palmer Williams, who taught natural philosophy, physics, and mathematics, was an Episcopalian, and the Reverend Joseph Whiting, who taught Latin and Greek, was a Presbyterian. Both were capable teachers, but they were selected, at least in part, to counteract the feeling in some circles that a state university would be a godless institution.
For the same reason, probably, attendance at chapel was made compulsory, and students were required to be at church on Sunday in the denomination of their choice. A proctor at each took roll. So determined were the Regents to avoid hostile criticism from religious organizations that for a number of years each of the leading Protestant sects was given representation on the faculty.
The religious practices at the University of Michigan, like the curriculum, were patterned after those of the colleges and universities in the East. Lyman D. Norris, who entered with the first class in 1841, left after three years and was admitted to Yale. In letters to his parents he explained that the programs, both academic and religious, were the same in New Haven as in Ann Arbor.
In 1856 President Henry Philip Tappan abolished the dormitory system because the buildings were needed for classrooms. Students had to find living quarters in town. Perhaps in recognition of the fact that they lived at some distance from the building, the President set the hour for chapel at seven forty-five.
After the Medical School was established in 1850, the announcement in the Catalogue read: "The undergraduate students are required to attend prayers daily in the College chapel." Because a candidate for admission to the Medical School had only to present "satisfactory evidence of good moral character, … [evidence] of a good English education, the knowledge of Natural Philosophy, the elementary Mathematical Sciences, and such an acquaintance with the Latin and Greek Languages as will enable … [him] to appreciate the technical language of medicine and read and write prescriptions," he could scarcely be called a graduate. The real reason for discrimination was that the room used for chapel was large enough for only the Literary students. In 1862 the Regents discussed the possibility of raising funds by subscription to build a chapel, but nothing was done.
Although the program in chapel was probably changed from time to time, the usual order consisted of a prayer and a brief address by the President, a hymn, and announcements. In 1870 Acting-President Henry Simmons Frieze introduced choral music. On Saturdays students Page 1772gave speeches. Saturday services were discontinued in 1871, and a few years later, attendance was made voluntary.
Professor Charles K. Wead explained in a letter written in 1877 that chapel was held at nine-fifteen "for those who choose to attend: from a third to a half of the academic students are usually present — that is, a majority of those who come out of recitation at 9:15 or are to go in at 9:30." He reported that President Angell always conducted the service. Morning prayers continued on this basis until 1895, when they were replaced by semiweekly vesper services.
During the period when attendance was required, some of the students, as might be expected, deliberately cut chapel. Proctors may have had some difficulty in taking roll, for in 1856, according to Daniel Satterthwaite's diary, the seats were numbered to facilitate checking. Because they had little interest in the proceedings, many of the students engaged in horseplay. Hostilities between sophomores and freshmen were carried into chapel, and ribald chants, shouts, and the throwing of hymnbooks, apple cores, and other missiles continued during the service.
This unchecked disorder apparently discouraged members of the faculty from being present. Their absence was resented by the students. One of them, Vincent S. Lovell, on February 7, 1870, wrote in his diary the following observation on the subject: "Quite an array of Professors at prayers this morning. It has always seemed to me as if the Faculty could require the attendance of the students with a good deal better grace, if there were more of them at morning prayers themselves."
A short while after Dr. James B. Angell became President, he wrote a letter in which he described his initial experiences in chapel. At the first session which he attended there was boisterous singing and throwing of missiles before the service began, and there was some commotion while it was in progress. According to Dr. Angell, this condition had prevailed for twenty years, and no president could stop it.
Dr. Angell reported that he did not preside at this first session but that he spoke briefly after the prayer, making no reference to the disorder. The boys went out noisily. The next morning, the President was in the room before the students entered. When he saw some sophomores preparing to throw nuts at the freshmen, he asked them to refrain. They obeyed. As the boys went out, there was some shouting. On the third morning the students were quiet. Dr. Angell made some remarks about the previous disturbances. The boys listened quietly, and there had been no further outbreaks up to the time of writing. Some students, however, found other means of amusement. Later, a horse was brought into chapel, and on another occasion freshmen put varnish on the sophomores' benches. President Angell had the respect of the students, and, in spite of such occasional lapses, during his administration the service was conducted in a dignified manner.