History & Mission
At its founding in 1836, Union was Presbyterian in orientation. But even in those days we welcomed students from all denominations. This was a daringly ecumenical stance in the 19th century. Daring too was the choice of New York City, at a time when most seminaries were located in small towns. Union's founders saw "the greatest and most growing community in America" as an ideal place to train ministers, teachers of religion, missionaries, and others for work in churches and benevolent agencies.
The founders also stressed the Seminary's aim to provide sound professional training on a par with that emerging in the fields of law and medicine. The Seminary Library quickly became and has remained a major resource for theological study.
But Union's commitment to the historical criticism of the Bible thrust the Seminary into the middle of controversy. After the 1892 heresy trial of Union Professor Charles A. Briggs by the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A., the Seminary rescinded the prerogative of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church to veto faculty appointments. This was an irrevocable commitment to academic freedom, to higher academic and scholarly standards, and to independence from any denominational control. The 1910 move to Union's present campus on upper Broadway was another forward looking step that would bring the Seminary into closer association with major New York institutions: Columbia University, Teachers College, Barnard College, The Riverside Church, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and churches and community organizations in Harlem.
The development of advanced-degree "graduate" education in the early decades of the 20th century opened the way to further Union as a major scholarly and teaching institution. Since 1896, special agreements have enabled Union to provide instruction and supervision to candidates for the degrees of Master of Arts and Doctor of Philosophy in Religion at Columbia University. The Seminary also developed its own doctoral program stressing preparation for seminary teaching. From 1928 to 1973 Union also had a distinguished School of Sacred Music.
In the 1930s and 1940s Union's faculty and students contributed vigorously to the revival of Protestant theology, perhaps most forcefully through the work of Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich. During the post-World War II presidency of Henry P. Van Dusen, the Seminary reaffirmed longstanding commitments to missionary and ecumenical movements. Students and teachers from throughout the world gravitated to Union as its renown for attention to the special needs of the church in urban settings grew. In recent history, Union has made a strong commitment to the diversification of the Seminary and its constituencies.
Daily it is confirmed that the city provides a critical training ground where students can learn to grapple with the grave issues of our age. Our ecumenical, interfaith commitment grows and strengthens through programs of exchange with churches and seminaries throughout the world. Informed by the insights of liberation theologians, the Seminary embraces and addresses the richness and realities of religious pluralism.