Why did Harvard start its Divinity School?

That question can be answered by the text of a document (written anonymously by William Ellery Channing) sent out under President John Kirkland's name:

Channing, William Ellery. Observations On the Proposition for Increasing the Means of Theological Education At the University In Cambridge. Cambridge: Printed by Hilliard and Metcalf, 1816.

Below is the text:

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At a meeting of the President and Fellows of Harvard College, Dec. 23, 1815.

The Corporation of Harvard College, having seen the following Observations upon the proposition for increasing the means of theological education at Harvard College, written by a friend to that design, it is voted - That these Observations, in the view of the Corporation, place the subject in a just and interesting light; and as they show the great concern which the community have in the object proposed, it was further voted, that they be printed and published under the direction of the Board.


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As a proposition is now before the publick for increasing the means of theological education at Harvard University, it is thought that a few observations on the subject may be acceptable to those who have not been able to give to it much attention, and whose aid and patronage may be solicited.

It may perhaps be asked by some, though I hope the question will be confined to a few, Why ought we to be so solicitous for the education of ministers? The answer is very obvious. The object of the ministry is peculiarly important. To the Christian minister are entrusted in a measure the dearest and most valuable interests of the human race. He is called to watch over the morals of society, and to awaken and cultivate the principles of piety and virtue in the hearts of individuals. He is set apart to dispense that religion, which, as we believe, came from God, which was given to re- [p. 4] form, exalt, and console us, and on the reception of which our immortal hopes depend. Ought we not to be solicitous for the improvement and preparation of those, by whom this religion is to be unfolded and enforced, and to whose influence our own minds and those of our children are to be so often exposed?

Our interest in a minister is very peculiar. He is to us what no other professional man can be. We want him, not to transact our business and to receive a compensation, but to be our friend, our guide, an inmate in our families; to enter our houses in affliction; and to be able to give us light, admonition, and consolation, in suffering, sickness, and the last hours of life.

Our connexion with men of other professions is transient, accidental, rare. With a minister it is habitual. Once in the week, at least, we are to meet him and sit under his instructions. We are to give up our minds in a measure to his influence, and to receive from him impressions on a subject, which, more than all others, concerns us, and with which our improvement and tranquillity through life and our future peace are intimately connected.

We want the minister of religion to address our understandings with clearness; to extend and brighten our moral and religious conceptions; to throw light over the obscurities of the [p. 5] sacred volume; to assist us in repelling those doubts which sometimes strake our convictions of Christian truth; and to establish us in a firm and rational belief.

We want him, not only to address the understanding with clearness, but still more to speak to the conscience and heart with power; to force, as it were, our thoughts from the world; to rouse us from the slumbers of an unreflecting life; to exhibit religion in an interesting form, and to engage our affections on the side of duty. Such are the offices and aids which we need from the Christian minister. Who does not see in a moment, that much preparation of the intellect and heart is required to render him successful in these high and generous labors?

These reasons for being interested in the education of ministers, grow out of the nature and importance of religion. Another important remark is, that the state of our country demands that greater care than ever should be given to this object. It will not be denied, I presume, that this country is on the whole advancing in intelligence. The means of improvement are more liberally and more generally afforded to the young than in former times. A closer connexion subsists with the cultivated minds in other countries. A variety of in- [p. 6] stitutions are awakening our powers, and communicating a degree of general knowledge, which was not formerly diffused among us. Taste is more extensively cultivated, and the finest productions of polite literature find their way into many of our families. Now in this state of things, in this increasing activity of intellect, there is peculiar need of an enlightened ministry. Religion should not be left to feeble and ignorant advocates, to men of narrow and unfurnished minds. Its ministers should be practical proofs, that it may be connected with the noblest improvements of the understanding; and they should be able to convert into weapons for its defence, the discoveries of philosophy and the speculations of genius. Religion must be adapted, in its mode of exhibition, to the state of society. The form in which we present it to the infant, will not satisfy and interest the advanced understanding. In the same manner, if in a cultivated age religious instruction does not partake the general elevation, it will be slighted by the very minds whose influence it is most desirable to engage on the side of virtue and piety.

I have observed, that an enlightened age requires an enlightened ministry. On the other hand, it may be observed, that an enlightened ministry is a powerful agent in continuing and [p. 7] accelerating the progress of light, of refinement, and of all social improvements. The limits of this essay will not admit the full development of this sentiment. I will only observe, that perhaps the most reflecting men are not aware how far a society is indebted for activity of intellect, delicacy of manners, and the strength of all its institutions, to the silent, subtle influence of the thoughts and feelings which are kept alive in the breasts of multitudes by religious instruction.

There is another most important consideration for promoting an enlightened ministry. Religious teachers there certainly will be, of one description or another; and if men of well furnished minds cannot be found for this office, we shall be overwhelmed by the ignorant and fanatical. The human heart is disposed, by its very nature, to religious impressions, and it wants guidance, wants direction, wants the light and fervour of other minds, in this most interesting concern. Conscious of weakness, and delighting in excitement, it will follow the blindest guide who speaks with confidence of his communications with God, rather than advance alone in the religious life. An enlightened ministry is the only barrier against fanaticism. Remove this, and popular enthusiasts would sweep away the multitude as with a torrent, [p. 8] would operate with an unresisted power on the ardent imagination of youth, and on the devotional susceptibility of woman, and would even prostrate cultivated minds in which feeling is the most prominent trait. Few of us consider the proneness of the human heart to extravagance and fanaticism, or how much we are all indebted for our safety to the good sense and intellectual and religious improvement of ministers of religion.

Ignorant ministers are driven almost by necessity to fanaticism. Unable to interest their hearers by appeals to the understanding, and by clear, judicious, and affecting delineations of religion, they can only acquire and maintain the ascendancy which is so dear to them, by inflaming the passions, by exciting a distempered and ungoverned sensibility, and by perpetuating ignorance and errour. Every man of observation must have seen melancholy illustrations of this truth, and what an argument does it afford in favor of an enlightened ministry!

Nothing more is needed to show the great interest which the community ought to feel in the education of young men for the ministry. But it will be asked, Are not our present means sufficient? Are not our pulpits filled with well furnished and enlightened teachers? Why seek

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to obtain additional aids for this important end? I answer, first, that a sufficient number of enlightened ministers is not trained for our pulpits. There is a demand beyond the supply, even if we look no farther than this Commonwealth; and if we look through the whole country, we shall see an immense tract of the spiritual vineyard uncultivated, and uncultivated for want of labourers. I answer, in the second place, that whilst in our pulpits we have ministers whose gifts and endowments entitle them to respect, we yet need and ought to possess a more enlightened ministry. Many of our religious teachers will lament to us the deficiencies of their education, will lament that the narrowness of their circumstances compelled them to too early an entrance on their work, will lament that they were deprived, by the imperfection of our institutions, of many aids which the preparation for the ministry requires. We have indeed many good ministers. But we ought to have better. We may have better. But unless we will sow more liberally, we cannot expect a richer harvest. The education of' ministers decides very much their future character, and where this is incomplete, we must not expect to be blessed with powerful and impressive instruction. The sum is, we need an increase of the means of theological education.

[p. 10] But it will be asked, Why shall we advance funds for the education of ministers, rather than of physicians or lawyers? Why are such peculiar aid and encouragements needed for this profession? Will not the demand for ministers obtain a supply, just as the demand for every other species of talent? This reasoning is founded on a principle generally true, that demand creates a supply; but every general rule has its exceptions, and it is one of the highest offices of practical wisdom to discern the cases where the rule fails in its application.

All reasoning should give place to fact. Now it is an undeniable fact, that whilst the other learned professions in our country are crowded and overstocked, whilst the supply vastly surpasses the demand, the profession of the ministry is comparatively deserted, and candidates of respectable standing, instead of obtruding themselves in crowds, are often to be sought with a degree of care and difficulty.

The reason of this is to be found in the difference between the ministry and other professions. Other professions hold out the strong lures of profit and distinction. They appeal to the ambition, the love of gain, the desire of rising in the world, which are so operative on youthful minds. These lures are not, and ought not to be, exhibited by the ministry. [p. 11] This profession make its chief appeal to the moral and religious feelings of the young; and we all know, how much fainter these are than those which I have previously mentioned. Can we wonder, then, that the ministry is less crowded?

I proceed to another remark. The professions of law and medicine do not imperiously demand any high moral qualifications in those who embrace them. A young man, whose habits are not altogether pure, or whose character is marked by levity, may enter on the study of these professions, without incurring the reproach of impropriety or inconsistency of conduct. The ministry, on the other hand, demands not merely unexceptionable morals, but a sobriety and seriousness of mind, and a propensity to contemplative and devout habits, which are not the ordinary characteristics of that age when a choice must be made of the business of life. On this account, the number of the young who are inclined by their own feelings, and advised by others, to enter the ministry, is comparatively small.

I am now led to another reflection, growing out of the last. The profession of the ministry has an aspect not inviting to the young. Youth is the period of animation and gaiety. But to the hasty observation of youth, there is [p. 12] a gloominess, a solemnity, a painful self-restraint belonging to the life of a minister. Even young men of pure morals and of devotional susceptibility, shrink from an employment which they think will separate them from the world, and impose a rigorous discipline and painful circumspection. That path, which they would probably find most tranquil and most flowery, seems to them beset with thorns. Do we not see many obstructions to a sufficient supply of students of theology?

I now proceed to another most important consideration. We have seen, that a large number of young men, qualified by their habits and feelings for the ministry, is not to be expected. It is also a fact, and a very decisive fact, that young men, thus qualified, generally belong to families whose circumstances are confined, and whose means of educating their children are exceedingly narrow. The children of the rich, born to prospects of ease, and formed to gaiety if not licentiousness by indulgence, have little relish for the ministry. On the contrary, the sons of poorer families, whose circumstances impose great self restraint, whose collegiate education is their whole portion, and often demands their own as well as their parents' exertions, are naturally formed to greater seriousness and con- [p. 13] sideration, and to a willingness to meet the toils and uncertainties of the ministry. From this class of the young, the ministerial profession, as is well known, receives its largest supplies. Do we not at once discover from this statement, that this profession demands from the community peculiar encouragement? -Let me briefly repeat what I have said. From the nature of the ministry, but a small proportion of the young are disposed or fitted to enter it, and of this number a considerable part are unable to defray the expenses of their education; and yet the community has the highest possible interest in giving them the best education which the improvements of the age and the opulence of the country will admit. Is it not clear, that there ought to be provided liberal funds for this most valuable object?

Will it here be asked, why the candidate for the ministry cannot borrow money to defray the charges of his education? I answer, it is not always easy for him to borrow. Besides, a debt is a most distressing incumbrance to a man who has a prospect of a salary so small, that, without exertions foreign to his profession, it will hardly support him. Can we wonder that the profession is declined, in preference to such a burden?

Where this burden, however, is chosen, the [p. 14] effect is unhappy, and the cause of religion is often a sufferer. The candidate, unwilling to contract a larger debt than is indispensable to his object, hurries through his studies, and enters unfurnished and unprepared on the ministry. His first care is, as it should be, to free himself from his pecuniary obligations; and for this end he endeavours to unite some secular employment with his sacred calling. In this way the spirit of study and of his profession is damped. He forms negligent habits in his preparation for the pulpit, which he soon thinks are justified by the wants of a growing family. His imperfect education therefore is never completed. His mind remains stationary. A meagre library, which he is unable to enlarge, furnishes the weekly food for his flock, who are forced to subsist on an uninteresting repetition of the same dull thoughts.

This is the melancholy history of too many who enter the ministry. Few young men among us are in fact sufficiently prepared, and the consequence is, that religious instruction is not what it should be. The community at large cannot perhaps understand how extensive a preparation the ministry requires. There is one idea, however, which should teach them, that it ought to be more extensive than that which is demanded for any other profession. A lawyer [p. 15] and physician begin their employment with a small number of clients or patients, and their practice is confined to the least important cases within their respective departments. They have therefore much leisure for preparation after entering on their pursuits, and gradually rise into publick notice. Not so the minister. He enters at once on the stage. All the duties of a parish immediately devolve upon him. His connexion at the first moment, extends to as large a number as he will ever be called to serve. His station is at first conspicuous. He is literally burdened and pressed with duties. The mere labor of composing as many sermons as are demanded of him, is enough to exhaust his time and strength. If, then, his education has been deficient, how is it to be repaired? Amidst these disadvantages, can we wonder that the mind loses its spring, and soon becomes satisfied with very humble productions? How important is it, that a good foundation should be laid, that the theological student should have time to accumulate some intellectual treasures, and that he should be trained under circumstances more suited to give him an unconquerable love of his profession, of study, and of the cause to which he is devoted!

These remarks, it is hoped, will show the importance of liberally endowing a theological [p. 16] institution. It now only remains to consider this subject in relation to Harvard University. A very mistaken opinion is sometimes expressed, that this University is sufficiently opulent to accomplish any object, without any further publick assistance. A more erroneous sentiment could not prevail. The funds of this institution are indeed respectable; but they are already appropriated by the donors, or required by the general system of liberal education for the support of existing establishments, and very little can be furnished from its resources for the great end which has now been recommended.* The assistance afforded to students in theology is very limited, and not one professorship has as yet been established expressly for aiding their preparation for the ministry.# The Hol- [p. 17] lis Professorship of Divinity, and other Professors of the University, do indeed cheerfully contribute to this object, as far as their prescribed duties permit. But as their offices respect primarily the undergraduates, they can render little service in proportion to the demands of this most important end.

Two professorships are immediately wanted at the University. The first is a professorship of Sacred Literature, designated to introduce students to the original languages, in which the Scriptures were written, and to the various sources of light and information, which are required to the interpretation of the Scriptures.

Another professorship, still more necessary, should embrace for its objects sacred eloquence, and instruction in pastoral duty. It should be designed to instruct candidates for the ministry in the composition and delivery of sermons, and in the best methods of impressing the human mind, and to awaken an enlightened zeal and ardour in the performance of all the offices of ministerial life. What serious and reflecting man is not often reminded on the Sabbath of the painful truth, that some institution is need- [p. 18] ed to train our ministers for the impressive and effectual discharge of their duties! How much ability is lost, wasted, for want of the discipline which has now been recommended!

We want not only these professorships. We want funds to enable our young men to devote a longer period to preparation for the ministry.

These additions to the establishments at Cambridge, especially the foundations for assisting students in divinity to reside there for a proper time, would secure to the community the full benefit of the many advantages already possessed by the University for theological education, particularly its large and excellent Library. How great a blessing will be conferred on the church, if these aids are provided! We are apt to consider these as aids for Students in Theology. They are aids for ourselves, and for our children, who are to sit under the instruction of those, who may thus be trained, and who will be unspeakable gainers from our own bounty. The cause is our own and our children's. Let us not betray it by supineness, or a contracted mind.

It ought to be particularly observed, that the consequence of enlarging the theological funds of the University will not be the communication of a sectarian character to that institution. The design is not to inculcate the pecu- [p. 19] liarities of any sect, but to place students of divinity under the most favourable circumstances for inquiring for themselves into the doctrines of revelation.

It is not intended that the course of instruction given to the undergraduates shall be in any degree affected by the proposed extension of the theological department. The University in consequence of this extension will not become a Theological College, any more than it became a Medical College when the several medical professorships were founded. It is well known that in the distinguished Universities of Europe, ample provision is made for preparing students for every profession. This we trust will be the glory of Harvard. We hope to see an institution for Law as well as for Medicine and Theology, so that thus our alma mater, our beloved and venerable parent, will send forth sons, furbished for honourable and useful action in all the liberal professions and in every distinguished walk of life. Let her grateful children never rest till this hope be accomplished.

It may be proper to mention, that the object which has now been recommended is not of recent suggestion. The late Chief Justice Parsons communicated to a friend an address to the publick on this very subject, prepared by [p. 20] the late Rev. Mr. Buckminster. The Chief Justice expressed an unusual interest in the object, and observed, that a man in the last hours of life must derive great consolation from recollecting that he had contributed to its completion. The reasons of its postponement to the present time were the peculiar circumstances of the country.

These remarks are respectively submitted to the friends of Harvard University, of an enlightened ministry, of free inquiry, and of pure Christianity. Let them be weighed with seriousness, and it is hoped, that they will awaken some interest in the best and noblest cause, which human benevolence is permitted to advance.

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The Corporation of Harvard College have thought it their duty to adopt measures for increasing the means of Theological Education at the University. In order to enable Students in Divinity to reap the benefit of the eminent advantages which the College possesses for this purpose, there is need of funds for assisting meritorious Students in Divinity of limited means, to reside at the University for a requisite time:-- Of one or more Professors, whose attention may be exclusively given to the class of Students, and of a separate building.

The Corporation are disposed and determined to apply the resources of the College to this object, as far as other dispensable claims admit. But these resources being entirely inadequate to the accomplishment of their views, they feel it incumbent upon them to call upon the friends of the University, and of the Christian ministry, to cooperate with them in this interesting design.

As the best method of obtaining the assistance of the liberal and pious, it is proposed to form a Society "for the education of candidates for the ministry in Cambridge University." All persons who shall subscribe five dollars a year shall be members, and continue such so long as they shall pay the said annual sum: -- Clergymen paying two dollars a year to be considered as members.

All persons subscribing one hundred dollars to be considered members of the said Society for life. Subscriptions for smaller sums, either as annual payments or as donations, will be thankfully received.

Whilst annual and life subscriptions are desired, it is [p. 22] hoped, that affluent friends of the College and of the Churches will, by donations and bequests, do justice to the noble object of Christian munificence here presented.

The Corporation are induced to believe, that a large number of persons in this metropolis and in various parts of this Commonwealth will view theis invitation with favour; -- as an occasion for doing what many of them have anxiously wished to see accomplished.

In pursuance of this design, they have requested a large number of the sons and friends of the University to take charge of papers for subscription, and also Clergymen to promote the object in their respective congregations. After the first Monday of April next, the Corporation will call a meeting of the subscribers, that they may adopt any measures they may see fit for carrying this charitable plan into effect, and particularly choose five Trustees to act with the Corporation in the appropriation of the funds. In behalf of the Corporation, with the assent of the Board of Overseers.


Harvard College, Dec. 18, 1815.


In conformity to the foregoing proposal, we the subscribers, being disposed to cooperate with the Corporation and Overseers of Harvard College in providing for the education of Students in Divinity and Candidates for the Ministry at said College, and to aid in forming a Society for that purpose, do agree to pay the sums, annexed to our names respectively, to such Treasurer as the Society may appoint to receive the same;-- each annual subscriber to continue to pay his subscription, till he withdraw his name by written notice to the Treasurer.

N.B. Gentlemen holding subscription papers are requested to make a return of the result of their exertions on or before the first Monday in April next.

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* The offices at the College are all necessary or useful, and these cannot be maintained without considerable assessments on the students. Large expenditures recently in building University Hall and in the repair of the other edifices, in making two new permanent establishments for instruction, a new Philosophy Room, and in an extension of the Chemical and Anatomical establishment at College, with losses during the unsettled state of public affairs, have made large deductions from the College funds. Of the liberal and important grant from the Legislature, a quarter part is by law to be applied to lessen the fees of tuition of a certain number of students. The other portion of this grant, received for the first two years and a half, is absorbed by the creation of the Massachusetts Medical College in Boston; and the receipts hereafter will be needed for the erection of one or more colleges for the habitation of students, and for other valuable general purposes.

# A good deal has been recently done towards a supply of this deficiency by the Dexter foundation for lectures and dissertations on the interpretation of the scriptures, a donation of a township of land by Samuel [p. 17] Parkman Esq. For a Theological Professor for students in divinity, and by the Professorship of Greek Literature. But in order to render what has been already done effectual, the additional means of education, here suggested, are essential.

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