“In Matters of Religion”

In honor of Columbia’s 20th University President Minouche Shafik, there is a small exhibition in the Rare Book and Manuscript Library’s Chang Octagon on the traditions related to the installation ceremony. The “Charter and Keys” exhibition highlights the two symbols in the transfer of power: incoming presidents receive a copy of the 1754 Charter of King’s College and the ceremonial keys to the University. The original charter includes a provision which was new and unique among the colonial schools: the College could not make any laws or regulations which would “exclude any person of any religious denomination whatever from equal liberty and advantage of education.”

The first skin or page of the Charter of King’s College, 1754. Scan 1693. Charter preservation treatment photographs, University Archives.

The first colonial colleges were mostly seminaries for ministers of a particular denomination. The City of New York, however, was made up of a diverse citizenry which spoke Dutch, English, French and German and which observed many different faiths. A new College in the Province of New York needed to be representative of the City. Currently on display in the Chang Octagon of the RBML, there are five large reproductions of the original, royal Charter of the Governors of the College of the Province of New York in the City of New York in America, October 31, 1754. The text is in a very clear and readable cursive script and it shows how the writers of the Charter aimed to be inclusive (up to a point).

As part of the 24 governors (now called trustees), the Charter includes ex officio appointments from the City’s churches: the Rector of Trinity Church, the Senior Minister of the Reformed Protestant Dutch Church, the Minister of the ancient Lutheran Church, the Minister of the French Church, and the Minister of the Presbyterian Congregation. Further, the Charter states that the governors of the College shall make and set down in writing “such Laws, ordinances and orders, for the Better Government of said College, and Students, and Ministers thereof …[that] do not extend to exclude any person of any Religious Denomination whatever from Equal Liberty and advantage of Education, or from any of the Degrees, Liberties, Priviledges, Benefits, or Immunities of the said College, on account of his particular Tenets in matters of Religion.While the composition of the board of governors and the student body was inclusive of all denominations, there were however some religious restrictions. The President of the College had to “be a member of, and in Communion with the Church of England” and the College had to hold “Publick morning and evening service … according to the Liturgy of the Church of England.” 

University Archivist Jocelyn Wilk (right) guided President Minouche Shafik (left) through the exhibition. IMG_7795. Photo by University Photographer Eileen Barroso.

In addition to the 1754 Charter reproduction, the “Charter and Keys” exhibition includes the ceremonial keys, photographs, tickets and programs from previous presidential inauguration ceremonies and related events. Columbia ID holders can visit RBML Monday through Friday from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. without an appointment. Members of the public who wish to see the exhibit need to register at the Library Information Office at the entrance of Butler Library with a government-issued photo ID to get a visitor’s pass. The exhibition is open through Friday, December 15, 2023.