When Auburn was founded more than 200 years ago as a Presbyterian seminary in upstate New York, no one could possibly have predicted that it would continue to thrive as the beating heart of the multifaith movement for justice.
With the passage of years came perspective and wisdom that guided Auburn to its present, compelling, and urgent mission to equip leaders of faith and moral courage to bridge divides, build community, pursue justice, and heal the world.
There is no doubt that Auburn’s mission today is far more expansive than its original mission. Along with every other Christian seminary of the era, Auburn was founded to meet a perceived spiritual need.
In the wake of the Revolutionary War, upstate New York experienced a population boom and an ancillary religious revival so fiery that the area became known as the “Burned-Over District.” Given the availability of land and money up there, and the difficulties of travel and finance faced by local students hoping to venture to one of the other two established Presbyterian seminaries of the day in Andover or Princeton, it became apparent that a third school had to open.
Settling on Auburn, New York, with its 2,047 inhabitants and an advantageous location along the first road constructed between Albany and Buffalo, Auburn Theological Seminary was born.
The dream of training ministers for the frontier in a bucolic setting where the trees allegedly “lifted their leafy arms to pray” materialized over the course of the next 121 years. In its heyday, the campus encompassed 15 acres and 40 buildings, along with a tennis court and baseball field. Approximately 2,600 men (more than the total population of the town of Auburn at the seminary’s founding!) and a handful of women would graduate from the seminary before Auburn relocated to New York City in 1939.
In the early years, Auburn was guided by a certainty that Christian values ought to shape the American nation then forming, so it sent its young men to missionize across the nation. While many alumni served among Indigenous Peoples, other populations came under Auburn’s influence, as well. For instance, Stanton Willard Salisbury (Class of 1916), became superintendent of social services and religious education at the Mizpah Presbytery Mission for Philadelphia’s Jews.
For Auburn men, missionizing did not stop at America’s borders.
From the first 15 classes alone, 17 of 210 graduates engaged in foreign missionary work, including nine in (the territory of) Hawaii; two in Ceylon (modern-day Sri Lanka); and one each in China, Cyprus, Greece, India, Turkey, and Siam (modern-day Thailand). Titus Coan (Class of 1835) singlehandedly baptized 13,000 people, 70 percent of the total population of Hilo, Hawaii (then known as the Sandwich Islands), earning the moniker “Bishop of the Volcano.” Abiding faith in the rightness of one’s beliefs, it must be said, fed the urge to impose those beliefs on others.
All in all, nearly 200 Auburnians served as missionaries abroad, including so-called “bright, capable Japanese men” of promise to whom Auburn awarded scholarships so that they could study at the seminary and then return home to engage in what one student called “aggressive evangelism.”
As alumni waged their battles for souls out in the world, back on the home front students were stirred to act on behalf of “the millions of our suffering colored brethren,” as they described those enslaved in antebellum America. In 1831, they formed one of the earliest anti-slavery societies in the state and publicized their views in the abolitionist newspaper, Friend of Man. Three years later the question of slavery would rouse the entire campus when Reverend Samuel Cox was welcomed to the seminary after rioters drove him out of New York City because he preached tolerance and suggested that Jesus himself may have been “dark-skinned.” Cox accepted the invitation and taught at Auburn from 1834-37 – the very years, incidentally, that Gerrit Smith, the famous abolitionist from upstate New York, served as an Auburn trustee.
While no official statements denouncing slavery emerged from the administration, quietly and unofficially, individuals engaged in acts of spiritual resistance over the course of the nineteenth century.
In one instance, when the legendary hero of the Civil War, Harriet Tubman, came to settle in the town of Auburn after leading 70 people from slavery to freedom, Professor Samuel M. Hopkins, who taught church history at the seminary, befriended her. He introduced Tubman to his sister, the author Sarah Hopkins Bradford, who interviewed her and published Harriet, the Moses of Her People, a classic biography of Tubman to this day. It contains an introduction by Professor Hopkins.
In another instance, Professor Ezra A. Huntington opened his home as a stop on the Underground Railroad; and, according to an eyewitness, during the summer months with the students on break, freedom seekers were sheltered in an empty seminary building.
To round out Auburn’s history, it is necessary to mention the open spirit that pervaded the campus from the get-go.
Children of Students, Auburn Seminary, c. 1939
The seminary was never strictly sectarian. The first entering class in 1821 included 11 students, representing eight different denominations. In fact, during Auburn’s centennial celebration in 1918, President George Black Stewart acknowledged the “men who were not known as churchmen” among Auburn’s founders, affirming that the school had never and would never betray their trust by resorting to “a narrow ecclesiasticism, a selfish denominationalism, or an intolerant spirit.”
True to Stewart’s words, twice in its long history Auburn played a prominent role defending theological freedom as faculty joined movements that successfully prevented a fundamentalist takeover of the Presbyterian Church and crafted critical documents of Church history known as the Auburn Declaration (1837) and Auburn Affirmation (1924).
That same progressive ethos arguably led the seminary to refresh its offerings by opening a Summer School of Theology (1911), a Summer School for Christian Workers (1913) and a School of Religious Education (1921) – the first of its kind in the country. President Harry Lathrop Reed defended the decision to expand educational opportunities for laity – including and especially women – as a measure for keeping Auburn “in step with this generation.” While Ida Thorne Parker, a Quaker minister and professor of Bible, became Auburn’s first female seminary graduate in 1917, it was to the School of Religious Education that women streamed. After all, Presbyterians would not ordain their first woman until 1956.
Reinventing itself again in 1939, Auburn closed its doors upstate and relocated to Union Seminary in New York City. The two institutions formed a cooperative partnership but retained their separate identities, with Auburn’s mission taking shape in the areas of continuing education and research. It developed, for example, a supportive community of learning for preachers in the Susquehanna Valley and innovative programs for, what was then called, “interfaith work,” while pioneering studies on feminism and religion, including a guest lecture by Alice Walker.
With the acquired wisdom and perspective of two hundred years, Auburn has learned to adapt gracefully to the demands of the day. Its call to “trouble the water, heal the world” conveys a legacy of audacity that has allowed it to take giant leaps of faith to free itself from traditional notions of religious leadership, theological education, and institutional norms.
Auburn is now fully engaged in multifaith, multiracial, multi-generational work. Its reach is broad and deep, and seeks to be broader and deeper still. All are welcome to avail themselves of Auburn’s resources and programs to fortify themselves for the leadership work our world so desperately needs.