A History of General Seminary
Although it is frequently dropped in informal reference, the tiny article "the" in the Seminary’s name is an important reminder of the institution’s broader origin. For the Seminary was intended from the beginning to be a Church-wide resource for the whole Episcopal Church which created it.
In 1814, with American victory in the War of 1812 having brought final freedom from European entanglements, the Diocese of South Carolina, with a burst of national vision, proposed the founding of a theological institution that would belong to the whole Episcopal Church. Dioceses would share responsibility for the maintenance of one institution of learning. Students from all parts of the country who came to the school to study for the priesthood would experience close and lasting association with one another. It was hoped that in these ways the Church's general seminary would strengthen the bonds of affection among the Church's dioceses.
Bound up in its very name, service to the Episcopal Church nationwide became central to the Seminary’s heritage. In 1817 the General Convention met in New York City and on May 26-27 these two Resolutions passed both Houses:
- That it is expedient to establish a General Theological Seminary which may have the united support of the whole Church in the United States and be under the superintendence and control of the General Convention.
- That the Seminary be located in the City of New York.
This location in New York City quickly became General’s greatest asset. First, the parishioners of Trinity Church, Wall Street, who provided the financial underpinning of the nineteenth century renewal of American Anglicanism, also generously supported its new General Seminary.
In 1821 Jacob Sherred, a vestry member of Trinity Parish, provided $70,000 in his will to endow "a General Episcopal Seminary in New York City." This was enough to make General one of the best-endowed seminaries in the nation. Another Trinity parishioner who made a significant contribution to the Seminary was Clement Clarke Moore, famous as author of the poem which begins, "’Twas the night before Christmas." He owned a large estate in Chelsea, which at that time was an undeveloped area of Manhattan, north of the city--in Moore’s own words, "a quiet, rural retreat on the picturesque banks of the Hudson." He offered a tract of 66 lots on his Chelsea estate to the Church on condition that a seminary be built there. General was not able to occupy Moore’s lots until 1827 when an East Building was erected. When the student body had grown to 64 in 1836, the West Building was erected to house 60 students.
Another advantage of locating the Seminary in the Diocese of New York was its bishop, John Henry Hobart. In Chelsea Square Bishop Hobart wished to restore the ancient pattern of the bishop as teacher surrounded by representative voices of the whole Church. The Seminary professor who happened to be a bishop would preside over meetings of the faculty. Hobart did this himself until 1830; his successor as Bishop of New York followed the pattern into the 1850s. There was no real Dean of the seminary until the 1860s.
In addition to the clergy, Hobart now also appointed two laypersons to make the faculty more representative: Clement Clarke Moore, a linguist and Hebrew scholar who undertook instruction in Biblical languages, and Gulian Verplanck, a gifted and eccentric New York legislator who was appointed Professor of Evidences of Revealed Religion and Moral Science.
Bishop Hobart believed that this corporate and representative body, in union with the Bishop as president, shared collectively in the ministry of defending and interpreting the Apostolic Faith to the nation. He wrote of the Seminary in 1825:
Harmony, union, vigour, zeal, like the life-blood of the human frame, are thus sent from this heart of our system, into every part of the spiritual body.... Strength arising from... the primitive truth and order which the apostles proclaimed and established.
The challenge since the 1840s has been to combine the richness and variety which emerged from later patterns of Episcopal theological education with the idealistic vision of the earlier Hobartian era, a vision born out of the time of the adjustment of Anglicanism to the new cultural dynamic of democracy.
Throughout its history and today, General has sought to be a seminary of the whole church, and that vision has been extended to include the ecumenical community and the Anglican Communion. Diverse theological, liturgical and spiritual emphases of successive periods have found a home here, and the community aspires to reflect the richness of the whole People of God.