History of Pacific School of Religion

"No community can flourish in a state of feverish off-look religiously. It must look to itself, and supply from within itself, as soon as possible, its spiritual wants. California, therefore, needs a Theological Seminary of its own; and this need is urgent."
Historical Sketch of the Pacific Theological Seminary Association, 1867

1868–1926: An Institution of the People

PSR was founded by Congregational ministers and laypeople, and funded by the historic congregations of the East and the emerging congregations of the West. The seminary was established on the traditions of New England Protestantism combined with the spirit of the Western frontier, with a focus on democratic governance, educational excellence, and ecumenical cooperation. The founders of PSR intended the seminary to be, in their own words, "an Institution of the People, a child of the churches."

The California Theological Seminary, as it was then called, first met in 1868 in a fourth-floor loft above a bookstore in San Francisco, where a small group of students lived, worked, and studied. The seminary soon moved to its own campus in Oakland, where it slowly built a faculty, curriculum, and enrollment. The seminary of the late 19th century absorbed massive social shifts, including influxes of immigrants and an anti-immigrant backlash that sometimes resulted in violence. Economic boom and bust cycles of the Bay Area's burgeoning economy constantly threatened the school's survival. The 1906 earthquake destroyed seminary property and financial records, and taxed the energies of students, professors, and trustees who tended to thousands of refugees from San Francisco.

In addition to responding to the unparalleled diversity of the Bay Area, students answered calls to emerging Protestant communities in Mexico, China, and Japan. The first three students to graduate with Bachelor of Divinity degrees (in 1872) worked to establish congregations in Guadalajara, Mexico, where one was killed in an anti-Protestant uprising. It is little wonder that PSR historian Harland Hogue referred to the school's founders as possessing "a courage bordering on rashness."

In 1901, the school moved to its first Berkeley location on Atherton Street, to be near the University of California campus. By that time the student community included Asians (the first Japanese student graduated in 1887), women (first admitted in 1895), and Nazarenes, Methodists, Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, Episcopalians, and Congregationalists. New faculty established the school's reputation for producing ground-breaking scholarship. William Frederic Badè joined the faculty as professor of Old Testament in 1902. Badè was known for his historical research of the Bible, including his discovery and excavation of Tell en-Nasbeh, at a time when historical-critical biblical scholarship was highly controversial.

In 1916 Pacific Theological Seminary became Pacific School of Religion, a name change that reflected PSR's new non-denominational status and the faculty's growing interest in the importance of the world's religions to the Christian faith. After a devastating fire destroyed much of the neighborhood north of the UC Berkeley campus in 1923, land became available at PSR's current location on "Holy Hill," with breathtaking views of Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco Bay, and the Golden Gate. PSR moved to this location in 1926, into neo-gothic and half-timbered buildings designed by leading Berkeley architect Walter Ratcliff.

1940s–1960s: Expanding Atop Holy Hill

During World War II, five PSR seminarians were imprisoned under government orders in relocation centers for Japanese Americans on the West Coast. PSR President Arthur C. McGiffert and Professor John C. Bennett, among others, spoke up against the internment. Stillson Judah, PSR librarian, helped to organize libraries in the relocation centers. For two years after the war, President McGiffert organized a Post-War Rehabilitation School at PSR to train students to minister to the diverse needs of war-shattered communities in Europe and Asia.

The relatively peaceful post-war years saw a strengthened faculty, an enlarged campus, and a doubled student enrollment. Georgia Harkness, one of the best-known theological writers of the time, became PSR's first tenured woman professor in 1950. New gifts funded construction of the Chapel of the Great Commission and d'Autremont Hall. By this time PSR and neighboring seminaries had developed strong programs for advanced graduate study. In the early 1960s, PSR participated in the creation of the Graduate Theological Union, a daring experiment in ecumenical cooperation between Protestant and Catholic institutions. Since then, GTU has developed into an interfaith consortium, exploring relationships among Western Christianity, Eastern Orthodoxy, Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam.

PSR students and faculty were on the leading edge of change during the social upheavals of the 1960s, including support of the civil rights movement, the farmworkers' rights movement, and protest of the Vietnam War. In 1961, when many theological institutions were still debating how to react to the civil rights movement, PSR invited Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., to speak at its commencement and receive an honorary doctorate. Dr. King had to cancel his engagement at the last minute to attend to members of his staff who had been arrested and injured during the Freedom Rides.

1970s–present: Increasing Progressive Christian Leadership

During the last decades of the 20th century, PSR embraced changes in the profile of those called to ministry. In the 1970s and 1980s, the number of women admitted grew from 10 percent to more than 50 percent. In 1971, PSR graduate Bill Johnson of the United Church of Christ became the first openly gay minister ordained in a major American denomination. The number of second-career people entering seminary grew considerably, and African American students from historically black churches increasingly enrolled at PSR. In 1975, Dr. Archie Smith Jr., the first African American faculty member, joined PSR as an associate professor in religion and society; and in 1977, Dr. Roy Sano became the first full-time Asian American professor.

During this era, PSR faculty and academic programs continued to lead progressive religious dialogue in America and around the world. In the late '70s and early '80s Robert McAfee Brown built on his work in ecumenism and civil rights by supporting liberation theology in Central and South America and opposing nuclear proliferation. Theologian Rosemary Radford Reuther extended her ground-breaking feminist theology to include issues in eco-feminism. Other widely published and internationally known PSR faculty of this era included Christian ethicist Karen Lebacqz, Asian theologian C.S. Song, and pioneering professor of art and religion Doug Adams.

In 2000, PSR opened its Center for Lesbian and Gay Studies in Religion and Ministry, the first seminary-based academic center dedicated to the study of LGBT issues. That same year, PSR opened its Institute for Leadership Development and Study of Pacific and Asian North American Religion (PANA). After years in development, PSR's Dismantling Racism Program was officially launched in 2007 with the hiring of its first director.

After the retirement of William McKinney in 2010, Riess Potterveld was named president. Potterveld was officially installed as the seminary's 11th president in a campus-wide ceremony on January 25, 2011.

Tested and refined by its history, PSR stands as an exceptional institution, uniquely situated to train religious leaders for the 21st century. Progressive and diverse, welcoming and engaged, focused on academic excellence and justice with compassion, balancing a strong historic legacy and commitment to positive change, PSR carries its tradition of boldness forward to continue God's work in the world.

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