“For this is theological education: bumping into, shaking out, trying to make sense of real issues—not just the familiar, safe, traditional questions long propounded to keep abstract intellects pleasantly engaged, but the real thumpers, the tough ones, the disquiets and dissemblings and distempers that matter, that make a present difference in this, God’s earth, at this, God’s time, to these, God’s people.”—Rev. Theodore Gill, Ph.D., President of San Francisco Theological Seminary from 1958-1966
In the mid-19th century, Presbyterians in the Bay Area were determined to establish Presbyterian institutions of learning in the West. In 1871, San Francisco Theological Seminary began when the Synod of the Pacific, a council within the Presbyterian Church, charged a newly appointed Board of Directors with “organizing a theological seminary such as the present wants and future interests of this coast demand.” Four professors and four students first met for instruction at the Presbyterian City College in what now is Union Square on Nov. 14, 1871. Six years later, the Seminary moved to its own building at 121 Haight Street in San Francisco.
By the late 1880s, the Board of Directors was persuaded, chiefly by Arthur Crosby of First Presbyterian Church of San Rafael, to consider moving to a site in Marin County, where the Seminary might serve as the “theological sanitarium of the Church.”
In 1890, with Synod approval, the Board voted to accept the offer of a 14-acre hilltop site in San Anselmo from Arthur W. Foster, seminary trustee, and original instructor William Anderson Scott's son-in-law. The pioneer financier and philanthropist Alexander Montgomery donated the money for student and faculty housing, and the well-stocked library. Montgomery’s gifts to the Seminary eventually totaled nearly a half-million dollars. On September 21, 1892, with 1,200 people in attendance, a faculty of six, and about 20 students, Montgomery and Scott Halls were dedicated and the San Anselmo campus officially opened.
"Its climate is as nearly perfect as possible. An unlimited supply of clean pure water is just at hand. ... There are unlimited and varied opportunities for outdoor exercise." —Arthur Crosby, SFTS director, 1889
In 1900 a new charter gave the Seminary power to grant degrees, and in 1913 jurisdiction over the Seminary was transferred from the Synod to the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. Enrollment increased and in 1922, with 106 students, SFTS ranked third in size among Presbyterian seminaries. From its early days, students came from around the Pacific Rim and graduates went into missions abroad. One-third of students in 1922 were women, mostly as special or mission course students.
In the post-World War II era, the Seminary enjoyed unprecedented expansion, with enrollment increasing to more than 300 and new buildings rising. In 1962, SFTS joined with neighboring theological schools in founding the Graduate Theological Union, a consortium based in Berkeley that provides an institutional framework for interfaith discussion and education.
In 2019, the seminary was embedded in the University of Redlands as part of a new Graduate School of Theology.
This chronology relies heavily on the book “San Francisco Theological Seminary: The Shaping of a Western School of the Church, 1871-1998” written by Robert B. Coote and John S. Hadsell. SFTS Professor of Church History Chris Ocker and librarian Michael Peterson also contributed to this report. Other historic documents and interviews were used to develop this timeline.
William Anderson Scott sails from New Orleans to San Francisco to found Calvary Presbyterian Church in 1854. Five years later, he calls for a theological school at the Golden Gate: “Even now the foundation should be laid, and funds secured and invested.” Scott is considered one of the founders of SFTS along with William Alexander and George Burrowes.
Presbyterians in the Bay Area are driven to establish institutions of learning in the West. William Anderson Scott emerges as a leader, pastor, preacher and scholar. Largely under his direction, a college and later a seminary are started in San Francisco churches where he serves. City College opens in 1861 in Calvary Presbyterian Church.
In 1871, the Synod of the Pacific founds San Francisco Theological Seminary. Four professors and four students begin classes at the Presbyterian City College located in what now is Union Square. Students room in Scott’s church, St. John’s Presbyterian Church. Six years later, the Seminary gets its own building on Haight Street. Charles Anthony is the first SFTS graduate in 1873. He had hoped to attend Princeton, but the San Francisco Presbytery twists his arm to remain on the West Coast for the good of the new Seminary.
With an expansive library of 13,600 volumes (fifth largest among Presbyterian seminaries), SFTS begins to look for another campus. Options include Berkeley, Palo Alto, San Rafael and California Street in San Francisco. Rev. Arthur Crosby of First Presbyterian Church in San Rafael is convinced Marin is the ideal place to relocate the Seminary thanks to its healthy environment, where young men can develop mind and body. Crosby’s vision is supported by Arthur Foster, president of North Pacific Coast Railroad and son-in-law of William Anderson Scott. In September 1889, Foster buys the San Anselmo property at an auction, intending to donate it to the Seminary. A financial commitment from Alexander Montgomery for Seminary buildings had already been secured.
San Anselmo campus comes to life
With Synod approval in 1890, the Board votes to accept the offer of a 14-acre hilltop site in San Anselmo from Arthur Foster. A nationwide fundraising campaign for buildings, and student and faculty housing, as well as the library, is led by pioneer financier and philanthropist Alexander Montgomery, whose total gifts reach nearly $500,000. In September 1892, the San Anselmo campus officially opens, as Montgomery and Scott Halls are dedicated with 1,200 people in attendance. The Seminary comprises six faculty members and 20 students. Three new faculty homes help define the campus ambiance. Montgomery Chapel is dedicated in 1897. SFTS groundskeeper Alexander Bouick circulates prohibition petitions as early as 1893.
John MacIntosh is elected the first president of SFTS in 1904, helping the Seminary keep pace with business and industry models. The SFTS campus is damaged during the 1906 earthquake, including the toppling of the Scott Hall tower with its clocks on either side. Chimneys crash in Montgomery Hall, then a student dorm. The earthquake sends San Franciscans to San Anselmo, which incorporates in 1907 in response to the growth.
SFTS admits women in 1911, more than a decade before Princeton. That same year SFTS curriculum includes a course on Christianity and Social Reform, which replaces one of the three-year requirements in church history. Athletics are encouraged with the hiring of a part-time athletic director and turning a barn into a gymnasium. The Seminary Bulletin begins publishing in 1916, evolving into Chimes in 1937.
Ties with the academic community in Berkeley, advocated by the planners since the 1880s, lead to the establishment of a short-lived extension program in 1921. In 1922, SFTS boasts 106 students, third among Presbyterian seminaries. SFTS draws students from around the Pacific Rim (six from Asia) and sends graduates to missions abroad. Women constitute a third of the enrollment, mostly as special or mission course students. In 1922, Captain and Mrs. Dollar donate the Seminary carillon. At its dedication in 1923, “Blest Be the Tie That Binds” rings across Ross Valley. A gymnasium opens in 1926; later it will be converted into a theater.
The Great Depression forces SFTS to cut faculty salaries more than 30 percent in 1932-33. The budget is finally balanced in 1936. In 1935, SFTS awards its first Doctor of Theology degree. SFTS receives accreditation from the American Association of Theological Schools in 1937, as many seminaries begin to accept standards common with colleges and universities. Jesse Hays Baird becomes president in 1937, beginning his 20-year tenure, the longest in SFTS history. Baird and the Trustees concentrate on financial solvency and revitalized academics. The first T.V. Moore Lectures are delivered in 1938. Margaret Tappan becomes the first woman faculty member and helps launch the Master of Arts degree in Christian Education. The Seminary Women’s Auxiliary, led by Susanna Baird, begins to refurbish dorms.
Physical and spiritual expansion
The Diamond Jubilee Campaign begins in 1943, raising $550,000 for campus buildings. A week of activities in 1947 celebrates SFTS’s rise from near-collapse. With financial solvency and renewed credibility, the Seminary grows in academic depth and quality. New appointments in 1947 more than double the size of the faculty under Baird. Hunter Hall, named for donor Jennie Hunter and her parents, is built in 1948. Landon Hall, named for former President and Professor Warren H. Landon, is built in 1949.
In the post-World War II era, the Seminary under Baird enjoys unprecedented expansion, with enrollment increasing to over 300 and new buildings rising all over the San Anselmo campus. Baird Hall opens in 1950 as a women’s dorm. Geneva Hall is completed in 1952, and a year later the chimes are moved there from Montgomery Hall. Alexander Hall is built in 1953 in memory of William Alexander, one of the four founding professors. Redwood trees are planted around Bouick Field in 1953. Among the new faculty are Surjit Singh, who arrived in 1951 and served as dean (1972-78), and Arnold Come, who arrived in 1952 to teach theology and later to serve as president (1967-82). Training for new forms of ministry begins, including internships at San Quentin Prison in 1952. The PC(USA) constitution changes in 1956, allowing women to be ordained. Theodore Gill becomes president in 1958 and begins to establish the Seminary’s international reputation.
Global changes impact SFTS
Hollywood legend Jimmy Stewart narrates SFTS promotional video in 1960. Sixth-generation Chinese-American Robert Lee becomes first professor of East-Asian background at an American seminary in 1961, teaching social ethics. The Advanced Pastoral Studies (APS) program begins in 1961 with a doctoral degree program for clergy (Doctor of the Science of Theology) and is succeeded by the Doctor of Ministry in 1970. In 1962, SFTS joins with Bay Area theological schools in founding the Graduate Theological Union, a consortium of nine seminaries based in Berkeley. SFTS faculty member John Dillenberger becomes GTU dean for its first decade. Karl Barth, regarded by many as the most important Protestant theologian of the 20th century, lectures and meets with students in 1962. During his only trip to the United States, the Swiss theologian selects four schools to visit: SFTS, University of Chicago, Princeton Theological Seminary and Union Theological Seminary in Richmond. President Gill, faculty members and students march with Martin Luther King, Jr., from Selma to Montgomery in 1965 seeking racial justice. During the five-day march, 51 SFTS students set up tents, dig latrines, and serve as guards and lookouts. African-American theologian Cornelius “Neal” Berry joins the faculty in 1969. Professor Come and future Dean Lewis Mudge (who arrives at SFTS in 1987) are key members of the Presbyterian committee proposing the Confession of 1967. Thirteen SFTS students refuse to cooperate with the Selective Service System (military draft) in a 1967 demonstration, followed by four others two months later. SFTS adopts a drug policy after evidence of sales and use of LSD and marijuana surfaces. Most of the SFTS M.Div. program moves to Berkeley for four years in 1969.
SFTS joins other GTU members in a one-day strike to protest the National Guard’s killing of four Kent State University students during a Vietnam protest in 1970. SFTS student association votes to offer sanctuary to those avoiding the draft. Another student caucus discusses the support of gay and lesbian ordination and the role of gays and lesbians in the church. Campus leaders include Jane Spahr (M.Div. ’70, D.Min. ’87), a national speaker on this controversial issue. The feminist movement is responsible for increasing women M.Div. students from 3 to 45 percent of the student body in 1971-82. The economic recession of the ’70s contributes to a growing budget deficit. Several staff terminations occur to help offset the deficit. Campus turmoil eases thanks to unexpected revenue from the D.Min. program, the decision to return the M.Div. program to San Anselmo and faculty-administration cooperation. The Stewart Chapel pipe organ is given to the Seminary.
“The Plan for a Decade” is bolstered by generous gifts from Jane Newhall and Beryl H. Buck. With the development of the Center for Christian Spirituality Disciplines, and later the Program in Christian Spirituality in 1985, SFTS reasserts itself as a center of creative theological education in the western United States. SFTS reconnects with its Presbyterian roots thanks to President J. Randolph (Randy) Taylor (1985-94), who had just served as General Assembly Moderator for the reunited denomination. The SFTS staff features four former Moderators at the same time: Taylor, Ben Weir, Harriet Nelson and Howard Rice. The Children’s Center makes SFTS the only Presbyterian seminary with an accredited childcare program. SFTS renews its commitment to racial justice by requiring students to take one course dealing with the racial-ethnic experience in the U.S., and explore cultural experiences other than their own. SFTS also hires James Noel (M.Div. ’75), an African-American, as interim director of continuing education (and later the H. Eugene Farlough, Jr., California Chair in African-American Christianity) and David Ng (BD ’59) as professor of Christian education.
The decade begins with the “A Time to Lead” campaign under President Taylor’s leadership to increase the endowment for faculty chairs and student scholarships. It raises $15 million, the largest to date. SFTS trustees authorize teaching M.Div. courses in Southern California in 1990 and another former moderator, Jack Rogers, is appointed to head the new program. President Taylor is followed by Donald McCullough in 1994. The Lloyd Center Pastoral Counseling Service evolves from an educational focus to a counseling focus and becomes the only West Coast pastoral counseling training program accredited by the American Association of Pastoral Counselors in 1995. Korean and Korean-American students increase, emerging as the predominant ethnic minority among students. The average age of students, starting in the 1980s, is mid to late 30s and produces a high level of student experience, with many beginning their second and third careers. The Seminary enjoys financial stability with half its income derived from an endowment enhanced by a robust stock market. During President McCullough’s presidency the Seminary conducts the “Leading the Way” campaign and raises $10 million for deferred capital improvements to Hunter Hall and other buildings on campus.
Following President McCullough’s sudden resignation in 2000, James Emerson becomes interim president. Philip Butin is elected president in 2002. Scott and Montgomery Halls are rededicated in 2000 after being closed for years due to damage sustained in the Loma Prieta earthquake. The Shaw Family Chair for Clinical Pastoral Education is established in 2000, the first of its kind among seminaries. New high-speed Internet lines are installed to enhance research and communications in 2000. Solar panels are installed at Oxtoby Hall in 2005 as the campus begins to focus on reducing carbon emissions. SFTS hires two biblical faculty members from Europe, Annette Weissenrieder and Annette Schellenberg in 2007, and adds Korean Charlene Jin Lee in 2008 as assistant professor of Christian Education at SFTS/Southern California. In 2007, faculty and students spend Spring Break helping rebuild homes toppled by Hurricane Katrina. The 2008 stock market collapse forces the Seminary to reduce its budget by 15 percent, eliminate staff and faculty positions, and restructure the Lloyd Center’s focus from community counseling to student counseling and spiritual direction. Dr. Elizabeth Liebert becomes the first Roman Catholic sister to be named dean at a Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) seminary in 2009.
After nearly eight years as president, Rev. Dr. Philip Butin steps down to return to pastoral ministry in 2010. SFTS looks to Rev. Dr. Laird Stuart as interim president. Stuart is the third pastor from Calvary Presbyterian Church in San Francisco to lead SFTS. Students, faculty, administration and staff adopt an Inclusive Community Statement, ensuring a welcoming environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender persons in May 2011. The Board of Trustees votes to close the SFTS Southern California campus after 21 years and the graduation of an estimated 300 students. Rev. Dr. James McDonald is elected as the 11th president in SFTS history, beginning his tenure in July 2011. SFTS celebrates Commencement with its first transgender MDiv graduate, Jamie Lee Sprague-Ballou, in 2017.
SFTS merges with the University of Redlands in 2019 to become part of the Graduate School of Theology.