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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 Seminary’s 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 chapel.

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 use.

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 decorative detail.”

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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 (1834–1874), of which no photographs exist.

While no photographs of the chapel’s 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 chapel.

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