Boston University History


Boston University began as an institute training Methodist ministers and is now the third-largest independent university in the United States. Over its 157 years, the University has expanded, reconfigured, and relocated in order to meet the needs of its students and to serve the community; during those years, its community has expanded from the children of New England Methodists to the entire world.


photo of building

In the first decades of the nineteenth century, many New England Methodists realized that their denomination was at a disadvantage because of the “brush college” training of its preachers. An ardent abolitionist, LaRoy Sunderland, led his brethren of the Bromfield Street Church in Boston to raise $15,000 and in 1839, they founded the Newbury Biblical Institute on the site of Newbury Seminary, a progressive Methodist secondary school in Vermont. This Institute, now Boston University’s School of Theology, was the first seminary of the United Methodist Church.

The members of the Institute studied the classics and theology and did farm work on the side. Having grown rapidly, the Institute moved to New Hampshire in 1846 and changed its name to the Methodist General Biblical Institute of Concord. It was housed in a “two-story semi-polygon” which, as one contemporary described it, “excited at once our risibilities and our admiration” for its architectural independence. The school was open to members of all denominations.

Move to Boston

With the upheaval of the Civil War, declining enrollments, and the centennial of American Methodism in 1866, the Institute’s trustees suggested that it move to Boston. They declined Harvard University’s invitation to relocate in Cambridge, bought 30 acres in Brookline, and opened the Boston School of Theology in 1867.

The idea for a University came from William Fairfield Warren, the acting president of the Boston School of Theology. Having studied abroad and observed European universities, Warren envisioned an institution combining the best of the German and English models, which would include undergraduate colleges, graduate schools, and professional schools. Three prosperous and philanthropic Boston merchants helped to implement his plan: in 1869, Lee Claflin, Jacob Sleeper, and Isaac Rich signed the Boston School of Theology’s petition to charter Boston University. The Massachusetts legislature granted their petition.

Boston University was shaped by the philosophy of its three founders and by William Warren, who was appointed its first president in 1873. President Warren, who served until 1903, conceived of a University which, reflecting the Methodist belief in social equality, would be accessible to all members of society without regard to race, class, sex, or creed. He articulated what may have been the first need-blind admissions policy in the United States: any admitted student would be able to attend; scholarships would take care of financial need. Warren believed strongly in the education of women, and declared that “the doctrine that a university should exist for the benefit of a single class or sex will soon belong to the realm of pedagogical paleontology.” Warren also initiated the first international exchange program, enabling graduates of Boston University to study at the National University in Athens and the Royal University of Rome.

Vivat Universitas!

The University began with high ideals and a sound financial base. Much of Isaac Rich’s generous legacy, however, consisted of property which was destroyed in the Great Fire of Boston in 1872. Financial setbacks and legal complications further diminished the University’s holdings. The President and Trustees decided to sell portions of their Brookline holdings and move into the heart of Boston on Beacon Hill. By 1873, the University consisted of the School of Theology, the School of Medicine, the College of Music, the School of Law, a School of Oratory, and a new College of Liberal Arts; a Graduate School soon added yet another dimension. President Warren had realized his dream, and was justified in ending his letters with “Vivat Universitas!”

19 April 2001
Boston University