Of monuments and memory

By Roger Ferlo

I spend a lot of time in my seminary chapel reading memorial plaques.

The fact that I do this says less about the quality of seminary worship than the quality of my attention span. But then, the plaques in this old seminary chapel are really splendid things. The building dates from the 1880s, and its architecture reflects the quaintly Gothic tastes of an otherwise staunchly evangelical set of founders. To be fair, the plaques are not the first thing you see when you walk in. They were intended to be relatively inconspicuous. The most striking feature of the place—besides the fact that the wood stain on the pulpit doesn’t match the wood stain on the choir stalls, and the wood stain on the pews seems to be of a third shade altogether, and the door to the sacristy looks like it was purchased at Home Depot—is the painted inscription that arches somewhat menacingly over the massive east window: Go Ye Into All the World and Preach the Gospel. That fiercely evangelical injunction tends to focus the attention. So much for Gothic choir stalls—no aesthetic lingering here. The mission fields await you. You feel a little ashamed to be caught thinking about Home Depot.

But still, once you’ve settled into the daily round of prayer and praise and scripture reading, morning, noon and evening, day in and day out, when your mind begins to drift a little, and you even have begun to take that inscription for granted, you notice the plaques. They are mostly memorials to nineteenth-century seminary professors. Although many of their students would go far afield as missionaries, these men (and they were all men in those days) led touchingly stable, unsung and sedentary lives. Not all of them, to be sure. There is after all Philips Brooks (a seminary entry in the Episcopal calendar of saints) to whom that shambling Richardsonian pile known as Trinity Church Copley Square in Boston is itself a massive memorial. The sheer size of that building matches the notorious girth of the man himself. Here on campus, there is an appropriately largish plaque in his honor to be seen in a shadowy corner of the narthex, just to your right as you walk in the side door opposite the seminary’s old administration building (but not so old as to predate Philips Brooks). “Philips Brooks, Bishop of Massachusetts, Harvard 1855, Virginia Theological Seminary 1859.” It is telling that Harvard takes precedence here. The plaque was erected by grateful Harvard graduates and undergraduates in 1906, bearing the inscription “He bound Harvard to Alexandria.” One wonders what the resident faculty thought about this odd gift from that Yankee citadel.

It’s the resident faculty who haunt my days as I sit in chapel, contemplating my own work as professor and priest in a school and a church that would now seem as foreign to them as that great art nouveaux church in Boston must have seemed at the time. Their plaques are less pretentious. Near where I tend to sit, there is an eloquent memorial to W.Cosby Bell, “professor of theology in this seminary”:

A Man Who Loved the

Mountain Streams, the

Hearts of Men, the

Christ of God.

A Thinker who Sensed the

Wonder of Life and

Interpreted its Fulness to a

Bewildered Age.

You seldom hear the word apologetics any more (or you mistake it for apology, which Episcopalians find themselves spending all too much time doing). But Cosby Bell must have been an eloquent apologist for the hope that was in him. Our bewildered church could use a Cosby Bell in these contentious days.

I speculate a lot about the Kinloch Nelsons, (were they father and son? the official school history makes no mention). Their plaques hang side by side to the left of Professor Bell’s. Kinloch Nelson the elder graduated in 1868, having fought in the Confederate army. Just three years before, Union troops had evacuated the administration building next door, which they had used as a military hospital. These were bitter days. There was no chapel yet; built three years later, it must have provided these embattled alumni their first taste of recovery from the devastation of the war. Bell studied here for only a term. Did he carry with him, like the men and women returning from Iraq, traumatic memories of carnage? Did those memories cut short his time here, or haunt his priesthood? He returned to the seminary in 1876, and taught until the day he died in 1894, “Christ’s faithful soldier and servant to his life’s end.”

The other Nelson, Thomas Kinloch, was born in 1879, perhaps here on campus:

Strong and simple in his faith in God,

Generous in his sympathy for men,

He brought to his chosen task of teaching

A wise and understanding heart.

By the time he died in 1940, a different kind of war was looming, and the manly white Protestant world to which these monuments attest was beginning to shake from its moorings.

It’s still shaking. It’s important not to get too sentimental about all these inscriptions. De mortuis nil nisi bonum, as Cosby Bell himself might have said—about the dead say nothing but good. But there’s a back story to every one of these plaques, some of the stories well known, and included in our official history, some of them subject to more critical speculation. For one thing, there is much too much talk of men in all these monuments. And of course, this being Virginia, the most haunting back story remains the fact of slavery. Unnamed enslaved people haunt our family histories here, as no doubt they do elsewhere, even in Boston. What we used to call integration we now call diversity. For all their charm and eloquence, there is not much diversity in these chapel memorials. Until John Walker graduated from here in the early 1950s, our black students were kept safely away on a remote campus, remembered now only in faded photographs and the name of our library building. There is no plaque in Bishop Walker’s honor, although his portrait hangs outside the seminary refectory. We don’t seem to want to make plaques any more—life is too complicated, perhaps, memories too problematic, tenures too short. After all, in these conflicted days, who is it who would decide whose plaque goes where?

The Rev. Dr. Roger A. Ferlo is Director of the Center for Lifetime Theological Education at Virginia Theological Seminary in Alexandria, where he also directs the Evening School of Theology. His books include Opening the Bible (Cowley 1997), Sensing God (Cowley 2001) and Heaven (Seabury 2007).

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