Harvard Divinity School at the Turn of the 20th Century

"In June, 1872, I had completed the prescribed course of theological study in the Harvard Divinity School and had received its degree. It had been a disheartening experience of uninspiring study and retarded thought. The fresh breeze of modern thought rarely penetrated the lecture-rooms, and a student found the intellectual atmosphere unexhilarating to breathe. One half of the first year was devoted to the rudiments of the Hebrew language, at the end of which linguistic discipline one could, with the English text well in mind, stumblingly translate the first chapter of Genesis and the twenty-third Psalm; an achievement soon recognized as not contributing materially to the equipment of a modern minister, and therefore promptly forgotten. The Old and New Testaments were presented as material for textual analysis rather than for spiritual inspiration; and theology and ethics were subjects of ecclesiastical erudition and doctrinal desiccation. Now and then the windows were opened to let in the fresh air of teaching by visiting professors; but the only instruction I can recall with positive gratitude was a brief series of familiar talks on the practical duties of the pastor's life, given by a newly appointed professor, who had so lately transferred himself from the pastorate to academic life that he had not lost the human touch or the poetic mood. In a word, education for a profession was in its method and aims not essentially different from the pedagogical plan of an elementary school."

So Francis Greenwood Peabody remembered his days at the Divinity School in his Reminiscences of Present-day Saints (Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1927. Pp. 65-66). How remarkably different was the School when he became Dean in 1901! The Divinity School was an exciting place to be; it was alive, active, and interesting.

What accounted for this change?

1. A Harvard President with a vision:

During his years as President of Harvard (1869-1909), Charles W. Eliot took an active interest in the Divinity School. He helped to raise its standards of admission and graduation as well as getting it on sound financial footing. He oversaw its development, as he later wrote, "from a local School, undenominational in principle but in fact supported and used only by Unitarians, into a broad School of Scientific Theology and independent research." He saw an important role for the Divinity School within the University: "A university without a Faculty of Theology seems to me to have abandoned one of the most fruitful fields of human inquiry, to have rejected the company of some of the noblest minds which the race has brought forth, and to be deprived of means of influence which are as legitimate as they are potent."

2. A great Dean:

Eliot's appointment of Charles Carroll Everett as Dean in 1879 was a wise choice. Throughout his over 21 years as Dean, he worked hard to transform the School and championed its cause in the University and beyond. 

3. New and more Faculty:

When Everett began teaching in 1869, there were only three other Faculty members. When he died in 1900, there were nine, including a Baptist and two orthodox Congregationalists.

4. A revised curriculum:

In 1883 the elective system was formally introduced. The number of courses rapidly increased, and new areas of study were begun such as comparative religion, psychology of religion, and social service. In 1897, Divinity School students were allowed to take courses in the College to broaden their educational experience.

5. A more diverse student body:

In 1904, the Alumni Association reported: "One very interesting phase of the school is the increasing resort of it of men from the South, and from the Southern and Central West, particularly from the Methodists and Christian Disciples." The geographical and denominational diversity was not the only one affecting the classes. A large number of students in the College took courses in the Divinity School, and beginning in 1895, Radcliffe students were allowed to take classes (this arrangement caused the Alumni Association to withdraw its request that women be admitted to the School; they were not allowed as degree candidates until 1955).


This exhibit takes a look at the Divinity School in the last decade of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th. Building projects, the Faculty, special events, and the students in the School in 1895 are featured.

The "live" version (Nov.-Dec. 1999) of this exhibit was prepared by Clifford Wunderlich, with the help of Caleb Elfenbein, with thanks to Tim Driscoll and others who made it possible to finally present it. The online version, with additional texts and illustrations, was also prepared by Clifford Wunderlich; please send comments, corrections, etc., to him.

In addition to works cited, information for this exhibit came from the following sources:

Foundations for a Learned Ministry: Catalogue of an Exhibition on the Occasion of the One Hundred Seventy-fifth Anniversary of the Divinity School, Harvard University. Cambridge, Mass., 1992.

Harvard Divinity School Dean's Reports in Harvard University Archives and Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study Archives. Harvard/Radcliffe Online Historical Reference Shelf. Cambridge, Mass: President and Fellows of Harvard College, 2001. http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:hul.eresource:hronhirf 

The Harvard Divinity School: Its Place in Harvard University and in American Culture. Edited by George H. Williams. Boston: Beacon Press, 1954. 

The Development of Harvard University since the Inauguration of President Eliot, 1869-1929 (The Tercentennial History of Harvard College and University, 1636-1936). Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1930.