The Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard was founded three decades ago by former Catholic priest Tom Ferrick. Known for his gentle wisdom and warm listening skills, Ferrick built a little-publicized but, by those who knew of it, highly respected presence at America’s highest-profile University.
Among Ferrick’s key achievements was playing a leading role in the expansion of Harvard’s “United Ministry” (now called the Harvard Chaplains) from a small body including only mainline Protestants, Catholics and Jews to today’s nearly 40-member corps including Evangelical Christianity, Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism, Zoroastrianism, and more. In Ferrick’s view, the inclusion of minority views where more established religions had come to dominate campus dialogue was not only an issue of fairness and justice. It was a step towards wider recognition that no religion has a monopoly on truth or goodness; and that when coming together on campus, each group would have to use secular reasoning, rather than faith alone, to advance understanding.
During the 1990’s Ferrick advised a group of Harvard College students in founding the Harvard Secular Society; he also met noted Harvard alumnus and philanthropist the late John L. Loeb Sr., whose gift to the chaplaincy has provided $20,000 per year since his death. This gift was intended to enable HCH to remain, while perhaps small, a permanent presence at Harvard in the years to come. (For more on Ferrick, see his profiles on our site and by Harvard Magazine. For more on the history of Humanism at Harvard, from the pre-Ferrick years through the exploits of the Harvard Secular Society and more, see our selected Harvard Crimson archives.)
In July 2005, Greg Epstein took the organization’s reins and has played a leading role in re-defining Humanism and what it can mean to a new generation. At the beginning of Epstein’s tenure, the organization boasted 4 active students and a $28,000 annual budget. In 2006, HCH launched its first website. In April 2007, HCH produced “The New Humanism,” a 30th anniversary conference described as perhaps the best attended Humanist conference in North American history. This touched off a series of feature stories in the national media about HCH’s groundbreaking vision for a Humanism that is diverse, inclusive, and inspiring. And it has been followed closely by jam-packed events featuring Humanist stars in national television, rock music, and US Congress giving public talks about their beliefs for the first time; perhaps the biggest celebration in the US of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth on Feb. 12, 2009; and the creation and dramatic expansion of Humanist student, alumni, and parenting groups; and of a student internship program at Harvard Divinity School (HDS).
In May 2010, HCH intern John Figdor graduated with a Masters of Divinity (with focus on Humanism) from HDS after studying and training under Greg Epstein for 3 years. Figdor earned academic credit for a Spring 2010 tutorial in Humanist community leadership taught by Epstein, as a pilot for what is becoming a full-fledged “Humanist track” within HDS’s MDiv program. This program would represent the US’s first academically accredited opportunity to prepare for Humanist professional leadership. (See profiles of some of our current student fellows here.) For the 2010-11 academic year, Figdor will join HCH’s growing staff as the organization enters a new era and seeks to provide a model for future chaplaincies and communities on other campuses.