Rutgers University. Office of the University Chaplain (Bradford S. Abernethy)

Alternative names

Biographical notes:

The position of Rutgers University Chaplain was created by the Board of Trustees in October 1926. Prior to the creation of this position, duties such as arranging for chapel preachers rested with the college President. The first Rutgers Chaplain was Dr. Stanley White, a Presbyterian minister who held the position between 1926 and 1928. As chaplain, his main duty was "oversight of the religious and spiritual interests of the university." (1) He was also expected to serve as an adviser to students and the Y.M.C.A.

White's successor was Colonel John Thomas Axton, former Chief of Chaplains of the U.S. Army, who had officiated at the burial of the Unknown Soldier in 1921. (2) Axton left Rutgers in 1931 after suffering a stroke. Fraser Metzger, Dean of Men was Acting Chaplain between Axton's departure and 1944, when he officially became Chaplain. (3) He held this position for a short term, retiring from Rutgers June 30, 1945.

Bradford S. Abernethy, a Baptist minister, came to Rutgers in August 1945 in the capacity of Student Counselor and University Chaplain. In 1946 he was also given the teaching position of Hill Professor of Bible and Ethics. As the new chaplain, Abernethy worked under the office of the Dean of Men (Earl Reed Silvers) and was given "particular responsibility for the guidance and development of the spiritual life of the campus." (4) As Chaplain, Abernethy was responsible for overseeing religious services at Kirkpatrick Chapel, organizing conferences and events, and directing religious life at Rutgers. Between 1945 and his retirement in 1974 Abernethy was also involved in religious, academic, and foreign exchange. He also instituted a program of open house evenings for Rutgers and New Jersey College for Women (later Douglass) students and coauthored a booklet about entertaining students ("At Home to Students") with his wife Jean in 1949. A proponent of international relief and foreign exchange organizations, Abernethy traveled extensively during his time at Rutgers. In 1968, he became a Program Associate for Rutgers International Center.

After Abernethy's departure, Rutgers did not continue the position of University Chaplain. Instead, a new position that kept many of the chaplain's duties was created—The Coordinator of Religious Affairs. Reverend Robert J. Tanksley was named to this position in October 1974. According to a Rutgers press release Tanksley's duties were, "a broadening of the role of former University Chaplain Bradford S. Abernethy." (5) Tanksley remained at Rutgers in that capacity until 1981, when the position was eliminated as the result of a budget crisis. After that, religious affairs duties were taken over by the Provosts of the three Rutgers campuses. (6) After the elimination of the New Brunswick Provost position in the mid 1990s, religious affairs at Rutgers were managed by the Office of Student Affairs. Since Abernethy's departure, various religious leaders have been associated with the university and its campus ministries, but no campus religious leader has been designated as the official Chaplain.

(1) See "New Chaplain to be Adviser to Y.M.C.A." The Daily Home News . November 12, 1926. Available from Rutgers University Archives Stanley White biographical file, R-BIO Faculty: White, Stanley.

(2) "Colonel John T. Axton, Rutgers Chaplain, Lays Wreath At Tomb of Unknown Soldier in Arlington Cemetery," The Sunday Times . New Brunswick, NJ: November 18, 1928. Available from Rutgers University Archives John Axton biographical file, R-BIO Faculty: Axton, John.

(3) For a history of chapel attendence at Rutgers, see Historical Note on Chapel Attendence in Inventory to the Rutgers College Dean of Men (Fraser Metzger), Available from Special Collections and University Archives.

(4) "Name Counsellor to Rutgers Staff," The Daily Home News . May 28, 1945. Available from Rutgers University Archives Bradford S. Abernethy biographical file, R-BIO Faculty: Abernethy, Bradford S.

(5) See Rutgers News Service Press Release October 21, 1974 in the Records of the Office of the Rutgers University President (Edward J. Bloustein), Religious Affairs folder.

(6) See Valerie Hendy, "Tanksley a Victim of Budget" Home News 1981. in the Records of the Office of the Rutgers University President (Edward Bloustein), Religious Affairs folder.

Bradford Sherman Abernethy was born April 19, 1909 in Berwyn, Illinois. He was the son of Dr. William S. Abernethy, who later became pastor of the Calvary Baptist Church in Washington, DC. Bradford Abernethy received his AB degree from Haverford College in Haverford, Pennsylvania in 1930. He then attended Colgate-Rochester Divinity School, in New York, receiving his BD in 1933. After leaving Colgate he received a fellowship to study at Oxford and Edinburgh. (1)

After returning to the States, Abernethy served as Pastor of the First Baptist Church in Columbia, Missouri between 1935 and 1941. In 1941, he accepted a position on the staff of the Federal Council of Churches in New York. He began looking for a college chaplaincy position soon after, and came to Rutgers as Student Counselor and Chaplain in 1945. He was appointed Hill Professor of Bible and Ethics in 1946.

While at Colgate-Rochester, he met [Mary] Jean Beaven, daughter of the school's president Dr. A. W. Beaven and married her in 1933. They had three children: David, born in 1937; William, born in 1939; and Barbara, born in 1944. Jean held an AB in sociology from Mt. Holyoke and a master's from the University of Missouri. She lectured in home economics at Douglass, was an author and editor, and worked with Abernethy in his relief efforts and the open houses he held for students. While at Rutgers, the Abernethy family lived at 147 College Avenue, later moving to 116 College Avenue.

During his tenure at Rutgers, Abernethy became heavily involved in foreign exchange and international relief organizations, such as American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), Operation Crossroads Africa, and World University Service. He took a leave of absence in 1953 until 1955 to direct the AFSC European Student Seminar Program. His involvement in other programs took him to Europe and Africa several times as well. In 1968, the Abernethys lived in Lagos, Nigeria for three months to direct relief efforts for war victims in Nigeria and Biafra. Abernethy also was a civil rights advocate and proponent of sex education.

Abernethy retired from Rutgers in 1974 and continued preaching and teaching abroad. Jean Beaven Abernethy died in 1995 after more than sixty years of marriage. Bradford died in 1998, at the age of 89, in Menlo Park, California.

(1) Information in this section about Bradford and Jean Abernethy can be found in the Rutgers University Archives biographical file for Bradford S. Abernethy: R-BIO Faculty, Abernethy, Bradford S.

From the guide to the Inventory to the Records of the Rutgers University Chaplain (Bradford S. Abernethy), 1928-1974, (Rutgers University Libraries. Special Collections and University Archives)



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