Union Theological Seminary History & Mission

About Us


1836-69   1870-99   1900-19   1920-39   1940-59   1960-79   1980-99   2000-Present

  1836:  Group of New School Presbyterians found "The New York Theological Seminary."

1837:  Bible Professor Edward Robinson calls Union "the nursling of the churches in the city."

The Presbyterian schism occurs between Old School and New School members of the denomination.

1838:  Leander Van Ess collection purchased – the cornerstone of the Seminary’s library.

The first building of Union is dedicated at 9 University Place.

First seminary building on
University Place

1839: Seminary incorporated as "The Union Theological Seminary in the City of New York." Thirty graduates from many states (only six from New York & Brooklyn).


1841: Union students are "asked" to pay $10 tuition.

Detail of daguerrotype
of Union's 1850

1850: Henry Boynton Smith – historian and systematic theologian – puts Union "on the theological map."
1855: Allen Wright, later Chief of the Choctaw Nation, graduates. Believed to be Union’s first Native American graduate.
  1853:  The Davenport Professorship of Hebrew and the Cognate Languages becomes the first endowed chair at Union.
1861:  John Bunyan Reeve, Union’s first Black student, graduates; later becomes dean of what is now Howard University Divinity School.
  1870:  Union directors allow the Presbyterian General Assembly a veto over appointments to professorships.

Philip Schaff, Swiss theologian and church historian, joins faculty – known for forward-thinking ecumenical ideas.
  1880:  The Society of Biblical Literature is founded in the study of Philip Schaff.

700 Park Avenue

1884:  David McAlpin endows collection of British theology and history to the Union library.

Union moves to new quarters at 700 Park Avenue.

  1888:  The American Society of Church History is founded by Philip Schaff.

1893:  Professor Charles Briggs suspended from Presbyterian ministry after heresy trials. Union becomes independent.

Emilie Grace Briggs

1895:  Union Settlement opens.

The first women students request and receive permission to attend courses at Union.  In December, Emilie Grace Briggs is admitted as a "special student" and allowed to take courses for credit.


1897:  Emilie Grace Briggs, the professor’s daughter and among the first women students, receives Bachelor of Divinity degree summa cum laude.

Charles Cuthbert Hall becomes president at Union.

  1904:  An affirmation of the principals in Union's Preamble to the Constitution replaces the Presbyterian approved doctrinal oath of faculty.

1908:  Ground is broken and the cornerstone is laid for Union's new Morningside Heights campus.

Francis Brown (nicknamed “Yahweh” by students) inaugurated as president.


1909:  Julia Pettee begins reclassification system for library’s 152,000 titles.

George Coe appointed to faculty and builds Department of Religious Education and Psychology.

Union adopts its official seal.
  1910:  New campus dedicated at present Morningside Heights site.

The American Academy of Religion is founded.
  1913:  Abraham J. Muste graduates, becomes prominent in labor and pacifist movements.
  1914:  Daniel J. Fleming organizes department of foreign missions; later, two Union graduates – Horace Pitkin and Charles H. Holbrook – are killed in China while serving as missionaries.
  1915:  Harry Emerson Fosdick joins Hugh Black, Henry S. Coffin, and George Ross as professors of homiletics. Union struggles with the Presbyterian Church over faculty appointments – Union will not adhere to “The Fundamentals.”

1917:  Arthur C. McGiffert assumes presidency after death of Francis Brown.

Enrollment reaches 260, including students from neighboring educational institutions.

  1918:  Harry F. Ward, author of the Social Creed of Methodism, is named professor of ethics.
  1921:  “Perhaps [Union] is wielding in the liberal school of thought the strongest influence, as is Princeton in the conservative school, of the institutions [161] here considered,” writes Robert L. Kelly in his survey of theological education.
  1924:  Enrollment is at 424 – including 145 women in a group of 192 "special students."
  1926:  Henry Sloane Coffin – who had begun his ministry over a Bronx meat market – is inaugurated as president.

Mary Ely Lyman

1927:  Two alumnae – Mary Ely Lyman and Sophia Lyon Fahs – are appointed as lecturers.

1928:  Reinhold Niebuhr comes to Union.

Union faculty becomes a constituent faculty of Columbia University.

The School of Sacred Music opens.

Six-week summer session begins; total seminary enrollment rises to 600.

  1929:  The Missionary Research Library comes to Union.
  1930:  Dietrich Bonhoeffer comes from Germany to study.

Students care for unemployed men in gymnasium.

The Great Depression causes drop in enrollment to under 300 by 1936.
  1931:  The Riverside Church is dedicated with Fosdick as the senior minister.
  1932:  Union erects McGiffert Hall on the Morningside Hieghts campus as a residence for faculty and students.
1933:  Paul Tillich comes to Union; faculty takes pay cut to bring him.
  1934:  Students form The Agenda Club for social action, participate in protests and strikes. The Red Flag is run up Union flagpole on May Day.
  1938:  Faculty and students at The Jewish Theological Seminary join Union memorial service after Kristallnacht.
  1939:  Auburn Seminary moves to New York City and becomes associated with Union.

1940:  “The Union Eight” resist registration for military draft and serve a year in prison.

Albert Einstein writes article “Science and Religion” for new publication The Union Review; student Roger Shinn is managing editor.

  1941:  Coffin, Niebuhr, and Van Dusen found bi-weekly Christianity and Crisis, advocating involvement in the crisis caused by Nazism – published till early 1990s.

Eunice Jackson becomes the first black female graduate from Union.
1944:  Harry Emerson Fosdick, Class of 1904, preaches at The Riverside Church during the height of World War II. His congregation included a large number of men and women in uniform.

1945:  Henry Pitney Van Dusen inaugurated as president.

Luce Foundation endows Visiting Professor of World Christianity in memory of Henry Winters Luce, Union student 1892-94 and again in 1927.

William Adams Brown Ecumenical Library is established

  1946:  St. Vladimir's Russian Orthodox Seminary is provided space in Reed House by Union until its own campus is developed.
  1947:  Reinhold Niebuhr becomes a founding member of the Americans for Democratic Action.
  1948:  East Harlem Protestant Parish founded.

In Amsterdam, 87 persons with Union connections help found the World Council of Churches.
  1950:  Auburn funds are used to erect Auburn Hall in the Union quadrangle.
  1951:  Enrollment swells by 200 to almost 650; G.I. Bill, joint degrees with Columbia, women pursuing Master of Religious Education, and overseas students account for the increase. B.D. program enrollment remains around 200.
  1951-57:  The Interpreter’s Bible is developed by Union professors under leadership of George Buttrick.
  1952:  Women’s Committee sponsors first “January Lectures” to provide “extension” training for laypersons.

Paul Tillich publishes The Courage To Be.
  1954:  Van Dusen appears on Time’s Easter issue cover as second World Council of Churches convenes in Evanston, Illinois.
  1955:  Program of Advanced Religious Studies (PARS) established with Rockefeller Foundation grant, bringing the number of international students to almost 100.
  1956:  Rockefeller Grants boost Religious Drama Program headed by Robert E. Seaver.

The Program in Psychiatry and Religion is underwritten by Old Dominion Foundation.

Margaret E. Towner '56 becomes the first woman ordained in the PCUSA.
  1959:  The Society of Christian Ethics is founded.

Dickinson Hall is dedicated, completing the quadrangle.
  1960:  Student Interracial Ministry (SIM) organized and quickly becomes a national program. Professor Roger Shinn is advisor.
1963:  Roger Shinn is arrested for involvement with with SIM protests in Wilmington, NC.

A new residence building, Van Dusen Hall, is dedicated.
  1964:  John Bennett inaugurated as president.

Washington Civil Rights Vigil is organized at Union.

Closer ties are developed with Roman Catholics during Second Vatican Council period (1962-65).

Union establishes a reciprocal educational relationship with Jewish Theological Seminary.
  1965:  Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel is inaugurated as Fosdick Visiting Professor.

Union establishes a reciprocal educational relationship with the graduate department of theology at Fordham, though the program was limited by the distance between campuses.

The Rev. Cannon Malcolm Boyd ’56 publishes the prayer “This is a homosexual bar, Jesus...” in his bestselling classic Are You Running With Me Jesus?, becoming the first prominent openly gay clergyman.
  1967:  Twenty-six Union students turn in their draft cards in protest of Vietnam War.

Enrollment reaches all-time peak of 793.
  1969:  The Black Manifesto: pressured by students, Union board pledges $1 million for black economic development.

James H. Cone joins Lawrence N. Jones and C. Eric Lincoln as first Black faculty members. Cone publishes Black Theology and Black Power.

Union's Dean of Students George W. Webber '48 is called to be president of New York Theological Seminary, marks the beginning of a long-term partnership.

After calls from students for more participation in governance, a transitional plan is made, forming the Union Assembly composed of both faculty and students.
  1970:  Commencement exercises include a service of mourning for students killed at Kent State and protests of war escalation.

Rosalind Havemeyer (Mrs. Horace Havemeyer Jr.) becomes the first woman to chair the Seminary's Board.

Fr. Raymond Brown

1971:  Summer sessions end after 40 years, and B.D. degree becomes M.Div.

Fr. Raymond Brown is appointed Auburn Professor of Biblical Studies in cooperation with Woodstock Jesuit Seminary.

The Union Assembly passes a resolution against the United States involvement in Vietnam, including extensions for exams and papers to provide the option for students to participate in action groups.
  1972-73:  School of Sacred Music closes due to shortage of funds.

“Planning Group” presents recommendations for gender and racial diversity.

Woodstock Jesuit Seminary moves to Union and Fr. John McNeill, SJ, co-founder of the New York City chapter of Dignity, an organization of Catholic gays and lesbians, joins the faculty.

Joyce Stedge Fowler ’56 becomes the first woman minister ordained in the Reformed Church USA.
1974:  Roger Shinn becomes acting president after Mosley resigns under pressure.

Eleven Episcopal women are ordained "irregularly" in Philadelphia, three Union alumnae were among the eleven.
  1975:  Donald W. Shriver, Jr., inaugurated as president.

Union faces many challenges – finances and declining enrollment cause reduction in faculty.
  1976:  Ecumenical and World Christianity Center established, headed by Robert McAfee Brown '45 and his wife Sydney.
  1980:  James Memorial Chapel is renovated – the new, controversial arrangement has movable seats, lecterns, and a communion table.
1983:  Beverly Harrison publishes Our Right to Choose: Towards a New Ethic of Abortion.

The Renovated library is dedicated – named for benefactor Walter Burke.

Suzan Johnson Cook ‘83 becomes the first woman called to serve as pastor in the American Baptist Church.

Katie G. Cannon ‘83 becomes the first African American Women to graduate from Union with a PhD, as well as the first African American women ordained in the PCUSA.
  1984-85:  Enrollment continues to become increasingly diverse: goal of women realized – M.Div. students number 159 men and 164 women, Black students number 33 men and 20 women.
1985:  President Shriver and others are arrested in demonstration at South African consulate.

The board votes to "accept the principle of divestment."
  1987:  Rev. Nancy Sehested '78 is called to ordination by Prescott Memorial Baptist Church.
1989:  James A. Forbes, Jr., Union’s first Joe R. Engle Professor of Preaching, returns to church ministry as first African-American pastor at The Riverside Church.
  1990:  Mary Galeone, RSM '92, works to open Mercy Center in the Bronx.
  1991:  Holland Lee Hendrix becomes president.

Dr. Chung Hyun Kyung '89, current Associate Professor of Ecumenical Theology, of the Korean Presbyterian Church makes a controversial presentation at World Council of Churches assembly in Australia.

Alumna Elizabeth Carl '90 becomes the first woman openly living in a lesbian relationship to be ordained by the Episcopal Church.

Union Holds its first commissioning ceremony for Catholic women graduating as M.Div.
  1992:  Professor Larry Rasmussen is a World Council of Churches delegate to global ecology summit in Rio de Janeiro.

1993:  Delores Williams '91 publishes Sisters in the Wilderness: the Challenge of Womanist God-talk.

Union professors Barbara Lundblad and Delores Williams are participants at the ecumenical feminist "ReImagining" conference.

  1994:  Dietrich Bonhoeffer Professorship and Lecture Exchange established with funds raised in Germany and U.S.
  1995:  Mary C. Boys and Janet R. Walton become the first Roman Catholic women to be inaugurated to chaired professorships on Union's faculty.
  1996:  Delores S. Williams becomes the first African-American woman to be inaugurated to a chaired professorship on Union's faculty.
  1997:  Union Alumnae Sandie Richards '95 and Altagracia Perez '85, '86 join Southern California's "living wage" movement.
  1998:  Alan M. Cooper appointed professor of Hebrew Bible, jointly by Union and The Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
1999:  Joseph C. Hough, Jr., inaugurated as president after Mary McNamara serves one year as interim president.

Professor Ana Maria Diaz-Stevens is inaugurated as Union's first fully tenured Latino/a professor.
  2000:  Burke Library renewal begins with major grants from Lilly Endowment and Mellon Foundation.

The Union Medal is awarded to Bill Webber, former Union Faculty member and founder of the East Harlem Protestant Parish, and to Marian Wright Edelmann, founder of The Children’s Defense Fund.
  2001:  Union students, faculty, alums serve at Ground Zero after 9/11 attacks. 

Union hosts interfaith Iftar at James Chapel.
  2003:  Euan Cameron is installed as Henry Luce III Professor of Reformation Church History, a chair newly endowed by the Luce Foundation.

Library and space leasing greement signed with Columbia University; Union history professors John A. McGuckin and Euan K. Cameron named full members of Columbia faculty. Read more about Union's financial turnaround.

The Union Medal is awareded to renowned pastor, preacher and peace activist William Sloane Coffin.

Students and community leaders meet with President Joseph Hough to propose a program whose goal would be to eliminate poverty. From this grew the interdisciplinary Poverty Initiative at Union.

Suzan Johnson Cook '83 becomes the first women president of the historic Hampton University Ministers Conference, the largest interdenominational conference of black clergy in the U.S.
  2004:  Euan Cameron becomes Academic Dean upon the retirement of Dean Rosemary Keller.

Union completes a $39 million capital campaign. Read more about Union's financial turnaround.

Ph.D. programs are redesigned. M.Div. curriculum is revised to include a specific focus on religions in the city.
  2005:  The Union Medal is awarded to television journalist Bill Moyers, children's advocate Judith Davidson Moyers and former chairwoman of Union's Board, Anne Hale Johnson '56.

Members of the Peace Council convene at Union for five-day "Peace is Possible" conference. His Holiness the Dalai Lama is one of the participants.
2006:  Sixteen Union students and instructors take part in a January one-week immersion trip to Gulf Coast areas affected by hurricane Katrina.

President Hough delivers the keynote address for the Hwacheon Peace Festival in Seoul, South Korea. He is accompanied by Professor Chung Hyun Kyung, and Vice President for Institutional Advancement Su Yon Pak '99.

The Union Medal is awarded to Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu of Cape Town, South Africa, and Dr. Paul Farmer and Ophelia Dahl of Partners In Health.
2007:  Prof. Gary Dorrien is inaugurated Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics.

Union's "Trailblazers" announce The Rev. Dr. James A. Forbes, Jr. Scholarship for Excellence in Church Ministry.

Hough Presidential Fellowships established in honor of Pres. Joseph C. Hough, Jr. and Heidi Hough.

Prof. John McGuckin is installed in the newly dedicated Ane Marie and Bent Emil Nielsen Chair in Late Antique and Byzantine Christian History. His installation address, “The Strange Case of Santa Claus,” is published in the Christmas Day issue of the New York Times.
2008:  The Rev. Dr. Serene Jones is inaugurated the 16th President of Union and the first woman President in the Seminary's 172-year history.

Prof. Paul F. Knitter is inaugurated as Union Theological Seminary's Paul Tillich Professor of Theology, World Religions and Culture.

Student Jerry Breen '08 is among 34 protesters convicted for demonstrating against conditions at Guantanamo prison.

Prof. James Cone and several other Union faculty, students and alumni/ae are quoted in the media as Black liberation theology is drawn back into the national spotlight by Barack Obama’s presidential campaign.
  2009:  Prof. Daisy L. Machado is inaugurated as Professor of the History of Christianity.

Professor Barbara Lundblad is inaugurated as Joe R. Engle Professor of Preaching.

Profs. Jones, Dorrien, and West appear on Bill Moyers Journal after setting out on a pedagogical adventure, launching the Christianity and the Current U.S. Crisis course and Union's iTunes University program.

Union:inDialogue Blog launched as center for online conversations from the Union Theological Seminary community.

Compassion, the first exhibition from Union’s Institute of Art, Religion, and Social Justice, is reviewed in the New York Times.
  2010:  Simultaneous immersion trips to the US/Mexico Borderlands and Parliament of the World's Religions.

Mary H. White, MD is elected Chair of the Board of Trustees.

UnionNow launches as new publication from the Seminary community.
  2011:  Cornel West announces his return to Union's faculty as Professor of Philosophy and Christian Practice.
  2012:  Union celebrates its 175th anniversary with a commemorative gala.

2013:  Union graduates its 175th class.

Mary Boys becomes the first Catholic Dean of Students in the school's history.

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