The purpose of the Seminary, according to its official
1811 Plan, was the cultivation of both sound learning and vital
piety in its students. Space was therefore provided in the original Seminary
building, now Alexander Hall, for an oratory or chapel as well as for a
library and lectures halls. This original chapel, located on the second floor of Alexander
Hall, was opened in 1818. It survives to this day little changed in appearance after 181
years and continues as a center of student life with prayer meetings, Bible study, and
other devotional exercises held there in the late evening.
With the rapid growth of the Seminarys student body, however, the oratory quickly
became too small. So in 1829, only eleven years after the completion of Alexander Hall,
the Seminary launched its first fund-raising campaign for the construction of a
The appeal from the Seminary faculty Archibald Alexander, Samuel Miller, and
Charles Hodge to the American Presbyterian churches complained that the want
of an adequate chapel is severely felt not only for the holding of meetings of the
students on the Sabbath but more particularly for meetings for prayer and speaking during
the course of the week
. There is no present deficiency in the whole institution more
deeply to be regretted than the want of a suitable chapel.
The response was generous. More than $6,000 was donated by the spring of 1833. With the
money in hand, the trustees selected local carpenter/architect Charles Steadman to design
the building, and construction began immediately. The chapel was completed on September
23, 1834, and has been in continuous use for meetings for prayer and speaking
every weekday since then during the academic year. It is the oldest house of worship in
Princeton. One hundred and sixty-five years of prayer and praise without interruption!
|Steadman is responsible for many of the lovely
old homes of Princeton. Between 1825 and 1845, he built about seventy homes, of which some
forty survive and are considered the crown jewels of local architecture. Three of his
public buildings Miller Chapel, the First Presbyterian Church (now Nassau
Presbyterian Church), and the Witherspoon Street Presbyterian Church are still in
Originally, the chapel was built facing Mercer Street, between (and slightly
behind) Alexander Hall and the home of Professor Archibald Alexander. Both the chapel and
the First Presbyterian Church were built in the Greek temple style so much in vogue at
that time for public buildings. An historian of Princeton architecture, Constance Greiff,
describes the chapel as small but monumental in feeling, a quality it derives from
its formal Doric portico, its severe simplicity of outline, and its restrained use of
This photograph shows the front
of Alexander Hall Oratory, completed in 1817. It is similar to what is believed to be the
original face of Miller Chapel (18341874), of which no photographs exist.
While no photographs of the chapels original interior exist, it must have been
quite plain, in keeping with Presbyterian tradition of the day. The interiors of both the
Alexander Hall Oratory and Nassau Presbyterian Church lend solid clues about the original
appearance of the front of the sanctuary. There was probably a central pulpit built in the
style of a long, low wall on a raised platform, with seats for the faculty behind it.
Neither a communion table nor a musical instrument would have been present.
Some interior features of the 1834 chapel survive intact today. The balcony with its
lovely wainscoting, its pews which are typical of what those on the main floor were
like its stairs, and its stair rails are original.
The exterior of the chapel appears today very much as it did in 1834. The interior,
however, has evolved through four distinct looks. Popular fashion has a way of
infiltrating even as solid a bastion of Presbyterian tradition as the Princeton Seminary