Mount Holyoke, We Pay Thee Devotion: Ritual and the Collegiate Religion at MHC



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“Mount Holyoke College is a cult.” This phrase, undoubtedly familiar to most MHC students, refers to the intricacies of College traditions which mark events as singular as graduation and mundane as ascending the Library stairs. Some traditions, like the Pangy Day barbecue, serve as quaint moments of respite from the rigor of academic life, while others, like the century-old procession of the Laurel Parade, in which Seniors dressed in white bring offerings of laurel and roses to the grave of Mary Lyon, take on a distinctly religious flair. What is it about Mount Holyoke traditions that makes them so compelling, pervasive, and critical to the College’s self-understanding? Does Mount Holyoke have its own religion? This thesis, entitled “Mount Holyoke, We Pay Thee Devotion: Ritual and the Collegiate Religion at MHC,” argues that Mount Holyoke traditions constitute a “collegiate religion,” based on the theory of “civil religion” developed by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and expanded by Robert Bellah. The collegiate religion is the means by which the College sacralizes itself through ritual, and is defined by common practice and group identity formation rather than dogma or personal belief. Challenging the notion that colleges are purely rational spaces, or that higher education is just a “head thing,” collegiate religion is a framework for understanding the embodied, affective, and communal dimensions of institutional participation. My argument employs theoretical, archival, and ethnographic methods. Through close analysis of both civil religion and ritual theory, I differentiate collegiate religion from civil religion, contextualizing collegiate religion within a longstanding scholarly conversation on the political role of ritual, and applying detailed ritual analysis to key Mount Holyoke traditions, including Mountain Day, May Day, and the Laurel Parade. My archival analysis traces the development of these traditions through history, and ethnographic interviews demonstrate how these traditions are understood, practiced, and marketed today.



religion, ritual, Mount Holyoke, history, tradition, civil religion