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LaRoy Sunderland, Essay on Theological Education, 1834

The idea for a School of Theology begins in to the mid-1830s when the Junior Preachers’ Society of the New England Conference asked LaRoy Sunderland to write an “Essay on Theological Education,” published by the Methodist Episcopal Church office in New York during the second half of 1834.

The introduction reports the essay was originally presented to the Christian Advocate and Journal, but the editor “thought it unadvisable to insert it.” Soon after, an editorial article called “An Educated Ministry Among Us” was written, but never published. Thus, the topic was relegated to the pamphlet produced in 1834.

The debate continued for nearly five years on the issue of whether clergy can be created by education, or if the call was God-given and could only be improved by education.

Conference at Bromfield Street Church, 1839

A notice was published in Zion’s Herald on March 27, 1839, announcing a meeting on Wednesday, April 24, at the Bromfield Street Church in Boston to discuss the issue of clergy education and the possible establishment of a Theological Institution.

That meeting turned into a two-day discussion that approved the basic purpose “that in the judgment of this Convention, it is expedient to establish in New England, a Methodist Theological Seminary, to be denominated THE WESLEY INSTITUTE, based on the principles of Christianity, as exhibited in Wesleyan Methodism, and affording the young men called of God to preach the gospel, ample facilites for a systematic and critical investigation of the Sacred Scriptures, and by a thorough course of religious, mental and physical discipline, preparing them to enter upon the duties of the sacred office, whether in the regular ministry at home, or in Foreign Missions.” (Zion’s Herald, May 1, 1839)

The Convention appointed committees to oversee the presentation of this proposal to the New England, New Hampshire and Maine conferences, to find a leader for the project, and to raise funds.

Newbury Seminary

Newbury Seminary

The Newbury Seminary had been established in 1834 in Vermont, not for educating pastors, but as a “literary institution,” and operated as a high school.

Osmon Baker, Newbury Biblical Institute

Baker, Osmon C.Following the meeting in Boston, Osmon C. Baker, director of the seminary, started a biblical studies program at the seminary, consisting of himself and W. M. Willett, who published The Newbury Biblical Magazine (1843-45).

Though other schools, like Wesleyan University in Connecticut, also began talk of some programs, Newbury was in the strongest position to be the school being established by the Boston group. Books and funds collected were sent to Newbury in support of the program. However, the established governing structure of the school made proper ministerial oversight of the program difficult, so though the Newbury Biblical Institute received support during the 1840s, another solution to the seminary issue was sought.

Dempster, JohnJohn Dempster

The Rev. John Dempster, in New York on leave from missionary work in South America during the summer of 1840, was contacted by Charles K. True, head of the staffing committee of the seminary project. He asked Dempster to head the project, though at first Dempster rejected the idea out of hand (“I feel I am totally unqualified for this kind of work”). He asked for more details and finally accepted the offer, provided he be allowed to finish the construction of a school for his South American Mission. That was agreed, and he returned to the mission field, beginning his seminary work in 1844, when he began to raise money and collect books. He never taught at Newbury although he was chief financial officer for the project, but when the new program at Concord NH was established in 1847, he became president and primary teacher.

Methodist General Biblical InstituteMethodist General Biblical Institute

Methodist General Biblical Institute Concord, NH, offered the recently vacated Congregational Church as home for the seminary in 1847. Under a new charter with trustees chosen from the minsterial rolls of all the area conferences, the school was incorporated as the Methodist General Biblical Institute. The students, finances, and library from Newbury were relocated to Concord, where the school had a twenty-year lease. Osmon Baker, who was a native of Concord, also moved with the program, and taught with Dempster and Charles Adams. The school graduated its first class of three in 1850. The students of 1855 paid for a printing plate to be engraved so they would get a real diploma instead of a hand-written note, prompting the school to create an official, if very similar, diploma shortly thereafter.

The Methodist General Biblical Institute flourished despite Osmon Baker’s leaving when he was elected Bishop in 1852, and John Dempster’s leaving in 1854 to establish a seminary supported by Mrs. Eliza Garrett of Evanston, IL. Daniel Drew, an early supporter of the Institute, soon opened his own school in New Jersey in 1867, while New Englanders Lee Claflin (longtime treasurer of for the project), Jacob Sleeper, and Isaac Rich, focused their attention on the establishment of a Methodist university in Boston, to be centered around the seminary.

Warren, William FairfieldWilliam Fairfield Warren

The hiring of William Fairfield Warren in 1866 changed the path of school dramatically. With his study and teaching in Germany, he had a wider view of education, and raised the teaching to a higher academic standard. At the end of the twenty-year lease in Concord, the school was moved to Boston as the Boston Theological Seminary, situated first on Pinckney Street on Beacon Hill, and later at the new Wesleyan Building on Bromfield Street.

The Wesleyan Building, on Bromfield Street (1871-1886)

The Wesleyan Building, on Bromfield Street (1871-1886)

Pinckney Street (1867-1871)

Pinckney Street (1867-1871)

Boston University

Warren became President of the new Boston University, which began classes in 1869, and the seminary officially became the first professional graduate school in 1871. For nearly half a century, Warren was President of the University and sometimes Dean of the school.

Lee Claflin, Jacob Sleeper and Isaac Rich became the original incorporators of Boston University in 1869. By act of the Massachusetts Legislature, signed by Governor William Claflin (Lee Claflin’s son), the seminary was formally merged with the University in 1871 and became Boston University School of Theology, the first professional school of the University. Dr. Warren hired James Latimer, a respected educator from New Hampshire, to be Dean of the School of Theology in 1873.

72 Mount Vernon Street, Beacon Hill (1886-1949)

72 Mount Vernon St, Beacon HillSoon outgrowing the space on Bromfield Street, the school acquired a double townhouse at 72 Mt. Vernon Street on Beacon Hill.

Dean Latimer died suddenly in 1885 just before the move, and President Warren became Dean again. Though the plain Methodists were criticized for having a school in a “palace”, 72 remained the home of the school for over sixty years.

As befitting a university, a respected and published faculty was assembled, including prominent scholars such as Borden Parker Bowne (philosophy, founder of Personalism, 1880-1910), Henry Clay Sheldon (church history, 1875-1895, and systematic theology 1895-1922), Luther Townsend (practical theology, 1871-1894), Marcus Buell (New Testament,1884-1905) and Hinckley Mitchell (Old Testament, 1885-1905). Warren himself frequently taught a theology course, sometimes in German.

Over the years, the school became known for Personalism, and strong programs in missions and evangelism, and in the fields of Practical Theology. The education division even became a separate School of Religious Education.

During the 1930’s, University President Daniel L. Marsh began to consolidate the various schools that were scattered over the city onto one campus on Commonwealth Avenue. Dean Knudson resigned rather than lead the Century of Service campaign that was to begin in 1939. He was succeeded by Earl Marlatt (1937-1945), but the building project was halted during the World War; only the Stone Science Building, College of Business Administration, and College of Liberal Arts were constructed.

Dean Walter G. Muelder

In 1945, Walter Muelder was appointed Dean and immediately resurrected the building program that lead to the construction of the present school at 745 Commonwealth Avenue, which was occuppied in 1949. Muelder was a personalist philosopher, socialist and pacifist, but also a social activist and ecumenist. He hired S. Paul Schilling (his classmate and scholar of contemporary European theologies, 1953-1969), and Peter Bertocci (successor to Bowne-Brightman, 1952-1975), to joing L. Harold DeWolf (systematics and ethics, 1943-1965). The school took a more academic stance, leading to the four-volume study “Methodism and Society” (1960-1962).


Muelder had connections with the World Council of Churches and strengthened the ecumenical program with Nils Ehrenstrom (1955-1969), Eddy Asirvatham (1946-1953), Amiya Chakravarty (1953-1966) and J. Robert Nelson (1965-1984). Nelson was chair of the World Council’s Commission on Faith and Order.


Sociology and Ethics were taught by Paul K. Deats (1953-1986) and Herbert Stotts (1955-1975), Religious Education by Donald Maynard (1948-1965), Walter Holcomb (1948-1979) and Clifton Moore (1952-1976). Prof. Houghton’s successor in church music was Max Miler (1964-1996), while E. Kent Brown succeeded Dr. Booth in Church History (1964-1986). Harry Oliver (1965-1996) was hired in New Testament but graduated into philosophical theology. Carter Lindberg (1972-2002) was the last faculty hire of Dean Muelder, in church history with a concentration in Reformation history, in which area he is an acknowledged leader. Biblical studies were taught by Donald Rowlingson (New Testament,1961-1972), Harrell F. Beck (Old Testament, 1954-1987), and H. Neil Richardson (Old Testament, 1958-1988).

Pastoral Counseling

Muelder encouraged Paul Johnson (1942-1963), a philosopher/minister who started the program in Pastoral Counseling after his experience as a hospital chaplain during the Cocoanut Grove fire disaster of 1942. Securing funding from Albert V. Danielsen in 1952, he established the Danielsen Pastoral Counseling Center and was the first Danielsen Professor of Pastoral Counseling. The department grew to include Homer Jernigan (1957-1991), William G. T. Douglas (1957-196-), Judson D. Howard (1962-1976), and Orlo Strunk (1968-1985). The Center became an independent Institute in 1982 under the leadership of John Maes. Homer Jernigan followed Dr. Johnson as Danielsen Professor, and was in turn followed by Merle Jordan (1970-1996).

The Library

For all the years on Beacon Hill, students had use of the General Theological Library across the street, Congregational Library two blocks away on Beacon Street, and the Boston Public Library in Copley Square, on the same block as the College of Liberal Arts. But the move to Commonwealth Avenue made those facilities more distant, so the Library was enhanced. Muelder hired its first professionally-trained librarian, Jannette Newhall, from Harvard Divinity School where she was libarian of the Andover-Harvard Theological Library. She was a graduate of Boston University, having earned a Ph.D. under Dr. Brightman. She was an early member and President of the American Theological Library Association, and secured a Sealantic Grant in the 1950’s to enhance the collection following Raymond Morris’s bibliography prepared at Yale Divinity School. The library became self-sufficient in meeting the needs of the students and faculty.


For several years after Muelder’s retirement in 1972, the deanship was filled briefly by J. Robert Nelson and by Merle Jordan, serving in an interim capacity. These years marked both the arrival of Dr. John Silber as President of the University and by a United Methodist Church study of east coast seminaries. Dr. Silber, who was faced with an enormous operating deficit but who wished to raise the level of the university, immediately set about cutting budgets and asking for self-studies in order to both streamline and strengthen various schools. The United Methodist Church, created in 1968 by a merger of the Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren, was faced with several seminaries in close proximity, and initiated a study aimed at consolidation. The Boston University study initiated by President Silber proved to be a thorough study that defined a necessary role for the school, leading President Silber to declare the School of Theology would remain open as a centerpiece of the University, regardless of any action by the church. None of the east coast seminaries were closed as a result of the study. Dr. John Cartwright (1976-1998 ) was appointed as the Martin Luther King Professor of Social Ethics

Dean Richard D. Nesmith

Dr. Nesmith came to us in 1977 from Trinity UMC in Lincoln, Nebraska, by way of the ecumenical Institute at Bossy and the United Methodist Church Board of Global Ministries. He embarken on major renovations of the facility and re-building of the faculty. During Nesmith’s tenure, women faculty became commonplace, with Linda Clark (1979, currently James R. Houghton Scholar of Sacred Music)), Carole Bohn (1980), Kathe Darr (1983), Dana Robert (1984, currently Truman Collins Professor of World Mission), all of whom are still on the faculty, as well as others: Elizabeth Bettenhausen, Clarissa Atkinson, Jennifer Rike, Susan Thistlethwaite, Theresa Scherf and Joanne Brown.

Beside women faculty, Dean Nesmith hired Horace T. Allen (1978- ), who together with Linda Clark established a major program in worship, liturgy and music. Simon Parker (1981-2006) joined the administration in 1981, teaching in Old Testament, and now is Harrel Beck Scholar of Hebrew Bible, Howard Clark Kee (1977-1988) taught New Testament.and J. Paul Sampley (1980-2001) taught New Testament with an emphais on Pauline studies. Dr. Paul K. Deats (1953-1986) was appointed the first Muelder Professor of Social Ethics in 1979.

Anna Howard Shaw Center

Underway when he arrived was the establishment of the Anna Howard Shaw Center. Women students were celebrating not only the awakening of a feminist viewpoint, but also the one hundredth anniversary of the graduation of Anna Howard Shaw, the first woman graduate to be ordained (1880, by the Methodist Protestant Church). Although Anna spent few years in church ministry, she was a leader in the Woman’s Suffrage Movement, but died just before she would have had the right to vote. After a difficult period of defining the role and objective of the Center, the hiring of Margaret Wiborg as director in 1984 served to focus the program, now well-known for oral history training, the annual Women and the Word conference, and a study of clergywomen and why they don’t always remain in ministry for a long time.

Dean Nesmith was followed in 1988 by Dean Robert C. Neville.