On Sept. 15, Wellesley College celebrated its 144th Flower Sunday, the longest-running and -surviving tradition for students. Students gathered with their Wellesley families and spent the day taking pictures, chatting and making memories. Today, we all know it as a beginning-of-term gathering where upperclass students meet their first-year or transfer ‘littles,’ accompanied by bouquets of fresh flowers, a flurry of photos and a special brunch spread in the dining halls. But, the tradition has changed drastically from what it was originally. For example, before walking into Houghton Chapel, many students do not realize that Flower Sunday is a religious event, rooted in Wellesley’s beginning as a Christian-affiliated college.
Flower Sunday started in Wellesley’s second year, 1876. During Wellesley’s first sermon the year prior, the minister’s words, “Thou hast hedged me about so that I cannot get out,” made many students upset and homesick. The founder of the school, Henry Durant, was shocked and decided that next year, things would be different. He filled the chapel with flowers, got a much more cheerful preacher to speak about “God is Love” and made all students recite the opening lines of “Joyful, Joyful.” Thus, the association with “God is Love” and Flower Sunday came from Durant, who intended Wellesley to be a non-sectarian but Christian school. This connection to religion was important to Durant, as he cited women’s “great influence in the home and schoolroom.” Durant even picked flowers in the morning and placed them at the door of every new student.
Flower Sunday, which used to take place on the first Sunday of the school year, would begin with reintroducing the “… beginning and the ideals of the college as conceived by Mr. and Mrs. Durant.“ Students would gather in Houghton to hear a sermon from guest preachers, who were usually a Protestant priest or professor of theology and were often brought in from out of town, although some alumnae or Wellesley professors gave speeches occasionally. After the sermon, a hymn with the phrase “God is Love” would be recited. This phrase was often also echoed in the guest sermon, and when students returned to their dining halls, first-years would also find a flower with a note that said “God is Love” on it. In 1902, one of the guest preachers, Reverend Edward Noyes, described this phrase as “… so able, so sustained that it turned the mood of the day to what it ought to be, not looking backward with regret, but forward with a stimulated interest.”
There are a few instances where Flower Sunday became political. For example, in 1919, students attending Flower Sunday raised over $250 (nearly $6,500 in 2019 dollars) for Syrian and Armenian relief work. In 1943, in the midst of World War II, the guest minister, Dr. Arthur Kingsolving, used his interpretation of “God is Love” “as a command to overcome prejudice.” He emphasized the “glorious diversity of God’s creation as an incentive to honor differences, give up race and institutional bigotry and keep the best in opposing traditions.” Additionally, 30 students caused a stir in 1967 when they skipped Flower Sunday to protest the Vietnam War. This caused enough excitement that they were reported in the local news.
The idea of siblinghood that we now associate with Flower Sunday is less clear-cut. From what I can gather, there used to be a siblinghood picnic where students would be matched with their upperclass sib. In 1966, little sibs rewarded their big sibs for helping them throughout their first weeks with an invitation to watch the Vespers with them during Flower Sunday. These two ceremonies then became joined together and became the one we all know and love every year.