Baccalaureate Address, The

Baccalaureate Address, The (originally called a sermon), is one of Princeton's oldest traditions. The earliest recorded address was delivered by President Samuel Davies in 1760 to the eleven members of the graduating class. Entitled ``Religion and Public Spirit,'' it treated a topic that has been a frequently recurring theme. ``Serve your Generation,'' he told his students.

``Live not for yourself but the Publick. Be the Servants of the Church; the Servants of your Country; the Servants of all. . . . Esteem yourselves by so much the more happy, honourable and important, by how much the more useful you are. Let your own Ease, your own Pleasure, your own private Interests, yield to the common Good.''

Davies's address was delivered in the prayer hall of Nassau Hall. In modern times, the baccalaureate has been given in the University Chapel, and as in Davies's day, it takes place on the Sunday preceding commencement. The service begins with an academic procession and includes scripture readings and prayers, anthems by the choir, and hymns by the congregation. Since 1972 the address, originally delivered by the president, has been given each year by a different speaker chosen by the president from the alumni or the faculty.

Speaking from the text ``We are unprofitable servants: we have done [only] that which was our duty to do'' (Luke 17:10), President Woodrow Wilson in 1909 told the graduating seniors that the education they had received had made them

``in some special sense citizens of a spiritual world in which men are expected to do more than make a living; in which they are expected to enrich the day they live in with . . . something given freely, from their special store of knowledge and of instructed principle, for the service of their neighbors and their communities and for the enlightenment of mankind.''

(A half-century later, the Class of 1909 reprinted this sermon for their fiftieth reunion, and Judge Harold R. Medina read it at their memorial service.)

Although a common thread has run through many baccalaureates, sometimes they have reflected specifically the times in which they were given. Among President Harold W. Dodds's twenty addresses, for example, one, given in 1937, during the Depression, treated the concept ``preoccupation with security breeds insecurity''; another, delivered in 1941, the year the United States entered the Second World War, discussed ``The Anatomy of Courage''; and a third, given in 1949, in the early days of the cold war, considered the question, ``Which comes first, the integrity of the individual or the authority of the state?''

President Robert F. Goheen, in his last baccalaureate, in 1972, told the graduating seniors that their generation, more than most of his, had an awareness of, ``indeed a passionate concern for,'' contemporary problems. He reminded them that the solution to these problems ``requires, more often than not, the combining of humanitarian empathy with much tough-mindedness, much sophisticated knowledge, and a long view.'' He emphasized the contributions universities can make to this effort; they are, he said, ``continually trying to extend the range and precision of human understanding, and . . . to help us make contact with the deepest resources of human wisdom as a basis for action.''

In 1975, Gregory Vlastos, Stuart Professor of Philosophy, applied to Princeton the text ``Unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall be much required'' (Luke 12:48), and cited two principal obligations of the University: the pursuit of excellence in the advancement and dissemination of knowledge, and the practice of brotherhood. Regarding the second requirement, he pointed out that in recent years Princeton had moved closer than ever before to the ``ideal of a humane community which opens its doors to all and treats all within its doors with that equal respect which is the moral right of every human being and the constitutional right of every American.''

Professor Vlastos told the seniors that the ``sacred thing we call `a human life''' existed in each one of them, and that for him ``the final sanction of morality'' was ``reverence for that sacred thing in every human being,'' which was why he believed that ``at the deepest level'' the University's intellectual and moral obligations converged.


From Alexander Leitch, A Princeton Companion, copyright Princeton University Press (1978).

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