“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
Pacific School of Religion was founded in 1866 by Congregational ministers and laypeople, and funded by the historic congregations in the East and the emerging congregations in 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 school’s history is firmly cemented in the history of social justice in the United States. Inspired by the influx of immigrants into the country in the late 19th century, the first classes of what was originally known as the California Theological Seminary answered calls to emerging Protestant communities in Mexico, China, and Japan. In 1901 the school moved to its first Berkeley location to be near the University of California campus. By that time the student community included Asians (the first Japanese student graduated in 1887), and women (first admitted in 1895), and students from a wide variety of Protestant denominations.
In 1916, Pacific Theological Seminary became Pacific School of Religion, a name change that reflected PSR’s new nondenominational status and the faculty’s growing interest in the importance of the world’s religions to the Christian faith. 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 and Stillson Judah, PSR’s 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. 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 Vietnam War protests. 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 the GTU has developed into an interfaith consortium, exploring relationships among Western Christianity, Eastern Orthodoxy, Judaism, Buddhism, and Islam.
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 groundbreaking 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, expressed in PSR’s close partnership with the Center for the Arts, Religion, and Education. Furthering its progressive Christian tradition, in 2000, PSR opened its Center for LGBTQ and Gender Studies in Religion, the first seminary-based academic center dedicated to the study of LGBTG+ issues. In the same year PSR established the PANA Institute (The Institute for Leadership Development and Study of Pacific and Asian North American Religion), which served as the hub for Asian American studies in religion in North America.
Along with new degree and strategic programs, the Ignite Institute embodies PSR’s renewed vision to prepare spiritually-formed, theologically-rooted leaders for social transformation within and beyond the church. PSR has formal relationships with three denominations: the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), while close connections are held with several other denominations, faith communities, and social transformation partners.
Today, Pacific School of Religion remains committed to preparing theologically and spiritually rooted leaders for social transformation. PSR values highly its home in the San Francisco Bay Area and Western United States and looks forward to expanding its reach throughout the dynamic Pacific Basin. The school’s graduates are known for innovative ministries of compassion and justice around the world—in urban and rural parishes, on city streets and college campuses, in the arts, public policy, and many other fields. Strong faith communities require an integration of faith and reason, theory and practice, piety and critical intellect, tradition and creativity.
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, Pacific School of Religion carries its tradition of boldness forward to continue God’s work in the world.