UTS is the oldest independent seminary in the United States and has long been known as a bastion of progressive Christian scholarship, with a number of prominent thinkers among its faculty or alumni. It was founded in 1836 by members of the Presbyterian Church in the USA, but was open to students of all denominations. In 1893, UTS rescinded the right of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church to veto faculty appointments, thus becoming fully independent. In the 20th century, Union became a center of liberal Christianity. It served as the birthplace of the Black theology, womanist theology, and other theological movements. It houses the Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, one of the largest theological libraries in the Western Hemisphere.
Union Theological Seminary was founded in 1836. During the late 19th century it became one of the leading centers of liberal Christianity in the United States. In 1891, Charles A. Briggs, who was being installed as the chair of biblical studies, delivered an inaugural address in which he questioned the verbal inspiration of Scripture. When the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. vetoed Briggs' appointment and eventually deposed Briggs for heresy two years later, Union removed itself from denominational oversight. In 1939 the Auburn Theological Seminary moved to its campus and departed in 2014.
In 1895, members of the Union Theological Seminary Alumni Club founded Union Settlement Association, one of the oldest settlement houses in New York City. After visiting Toynbee Hall in London and inspired by the example of Hull House in Chicago, the alumni decided to create a settlement house in the area of Manhattan enclosed on the north and south by East 96th and 110th Streets and on the east and west by the East River and Central Park.
The neighborhood, known as East Harlem, was filled with new tenements but devoid of any civic services. The ethos of the settlement house movement called for its workers to "settle" in such neighborhoods in order to learn first-hand the problems of the residents. “It seemed to us that, as early settlers, we had a chance to grow up with the community and affect its development,” wrote William Adams Brown, Theology Professor, Union Theological Society (1892–1930) and President, Union Settlement Association (1915–1919).
Union Settlement still exists, providing community-based services and programs to support the immigrant and low-income residents of East Harlem. One of East Harlem's largest social service agencies, Union Settlement reaches more than 13,000 people annually at 17 locations throughout East Harlem through a range of programs, including early childhood education, youth development, senior services, job training, the arts, adult education, nutrition, counseling, a farmers' market, community development, and neighborhood cultural events.
20th century to present
Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich made UTS the center of both liberal and neo-orthodox Protestantism in the inter-war period. Niebuhr joined UTS in 1929 and Tillich in 1933. Prominent public intellectual Cornel West commenced a promising academic career at UTS in 1977. As liberalism lost ground to conservatism after the 1960s (while neo-orthodoxy dissipated) and thus declined in prestige, UTS ran into financial difficulties and shrank significantly because of a reduced student base.
Eventually, the school agreed to lease some of its buildings to Columbia University and to transfer ownership of and responsibility for the Burke Library to Columbia. These agreements helped stabilize the school's finances, which had been hobbled by increasing library costs and the need for substantial campus repairs.
On June 10, 2014, Jones announced that the Seminary would be joining the movement to divest from the fossil fuels industry in protest at the damage the industry is causing to the environment. The Seminary's $108 million endowment will no longer include any fossil fuel investments.
Although administratively independent from Columbia, Union is represented by one voting faculty member, and one non-voting student observer member, of the Columbia University Senate.
The Burke Library at Union Theological Seminary, one of the largest theological libraries in North America, contains holdings of over 700,000 items. The Burke's holdings include extensive special collections, including Greek census records from 20 CE, a rare 12th Century manuscript of the Life of St. Boniface, and one of the first African-American hymnals, published in Philadelphia in 1818.
The Burke Library also maintains a number of world-renowned archival collections, including the Archives of Women in Theological Scholarship and the Missionary Research Library Archives.
In 2004 Union's Burke Library became fully integrated into the Columbia University Libraries system, which holds over 14 million volumes. The library is named in honor of Walter Burke, a generous benefactor to the library who served as Chairman of the Board of Directors of the Seminary from 1976 to 1982.
In 1930, Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Postgraduate Teaching Fellow at the seminary. He later returned in 1939 to be a member of the faculty and to escape Nazi harassment in Germany. Writing of his experience there in his book Barcelona, Berlin, New York, Bonhoeffer was dismayed by the liberalism of the seminary and its students, noting, "The students are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about. They are not familiar with even the most basic questions. They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, are amused at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level...." Referring to Union Seminary, Bonhoeffer noted: "A seminary in which numerous students openly laugh during a public lecture because they find it amusing when a passage on sin and forgiveness ...is cited has obviously, despite its many advantages, forgotten what Christian theology in its very essence stands for" (pp. 309–10). He soon regretted his decision and decided that he had to return to Germany to resist the Nazis. He took the last ship from New York to Germany in late August 1939. Due to his secret involvement with the 20 July plot on Hitler's life, he was executed at the Flossenbürg concentration camp on April 8, 1945, only 15 days before the United States Army liberated the camp.
Both Reinhold Niebuhr and Paul Tillich taught at the seminary. Nieburhr joined the faculty in 1929 and retired in 1952. Tillich was recruited by Niebuhr to UTS following his dismissal from the University of Frankfurt. Nazi officials terminated Tillich from the University of Frankfurt and placed him on their list of "undesirables." Tillich subsequently narrowly escaped arrest by the Gestapo in October 1933 and made his way out of Germany joining UTS in December, 1933.
Philip Schaff (1819–1893) – Theologian and ecclesiastical historian who served as chair of theological encyclopedia and Christian symbolism, then as chair of Hebrew and the cognate languages, followed by chair of sacred literature, and finally chair of church history until his death in 1893.
James Cone (1936-2018) – a founder of Black theology, he was Charles Augustus Briggs Distinguished Professor of Systematic Theology until his death
Beverly Wildung Harrison - a Christian feminist ethicist, she taught for 34 years at Union, and was the Caroline Williams Beaird Professor of Ethics. She was the first woman president of the North American Society of Christian Ethics.
Henry Sloane Coffin – President of Union and a leading theological liberal. Coffin also obtained his Bachelor of Divinity from the Union Theological Seminary in 1900. He declined an offer to become president of Union Theological Seminary in 1916. In 1926, offered the presidency (a second time), he accepted and retained the post until 1945.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer – German Lutheran theologian and Nazi resister who spent half a year at UTS. Of UTS he wrote: "There is no theology here... they (the students) talk a blue streak without the slightest substantive foundation and with no evidence of any criteria. The students... are completely clueless with respect to what dogmatics is really about. They are unfamiliar with even the most basic questions. They become intoxicated with liberal and humanistic phrases, laugh at the fundamentalists, and yet basically are not even up to their level."
Anton Boisen – founder of Clinical Pastoral Education (CPE) movement
V.C. Samuel – Indian Christian theologian, philosopher and historian
Malcolm Boyd – Episcopal priest and author. He was one of the most prominent of the gay clergy to come out of the closet when he did so in 1977. For two years in 1956 and 1957, Boyd engaged in post-graduate studies at Union Theological Seminary where he wrote his first book, Crisis in Communication. He participated in the civil rights and anti-Vietnam War movements in the 1960s.
Frederick Buechner – an American writer, novelist, poet, essayist, theologian, and ordained Presbyterian minister. Buechner described his time at Union at length in his 1982 autobiographical work, The Sacred Journey. In 2008 Union honored Buechner with the Unitas Distinguished Alumni/ae Awards, bestowed upon alumni/ae who exemplify the Seminary’s academic breadth, diversity, and inclusiveness.
Edwin Otway Burnham (Bachelor of Divinity, 1855) – a rifle shooting Congregational missionary in Sioux Indian territory who could bark a squirrel, swing an axe or dispense Gospel with equal fervor and efficiency.
Mark Juergensmeyer – Professor of Sociology, Religious Studies, and Global Studies at the University of California at Santa Barbara and Director of the Orfalea Center for Global and International Studies
Norman J. Kansfield – President New Brunswick Theological Seminary 1993–2005 and Senior Scholar in Residence, Theological School, Drew University