The Founding of Duke Divinity School

Divinity School LogoIn September, 1926, the new university's first professional school, then called the School of Religion and now known as the Divinity School, opened its doors. It was an inauspicious time to be launching a professional school in the South dedicated to the academic training of clergy. National attention had been riveted on the fundamentalist wing of Southern Christianity during the recent Scopes trial over the teaching of evolution in the public schools of Tennessee. A survey of Methodist clergy in the South revealed that 53 per cent had a high school education or less, 11 per cent had a college education, and only 4 per cent had training both in college and a theological seminary. It was difficult to discern whether potential for a School of Religion was so great that success would soon follow or the obstacles so large, it would take a long time to succeed.

That Duke's first new professional school was a School of Religion was not surprising. The institution had a religious affiliation since 1838 when Methodists and Quakers joined forces to form Union Institute to permanently educate their children. More formal ties emerged with the Methodist Church and in 1859 the school became Trinity College with the motto Eruditio et Religio. In 1890 the future of the college became forever linked to the wealthy Duke family when church ties led to Trinity becoming the primary focus of the family's philanthropy. In 1924 at James B. Duke's behest, the indenture creating Duke University read in part, "I advise that courses be arranged, first, with special reference to the training of preachers, teachers, lawyers and physicians, because . . . by precept and example they can do most to uplift mankind. . . ." There was no more willing advocate than President William P. Few who had long sought to increase limited curriculum offerings in the preparation of preachers. The Duke gift presented the opportunity to move beyond undergraduate instruction provided in part through support from the local conferences of the Methodist Church.

From the beginning it was clear that the School of Religion was to be ecumenical, staffed by first-class academically-trained faculty, and subject to high standards. As the college became a university, Few's first selection as a Dean was Edmund D. Soper, a New York Methodist then teaching at Northwestern University. His degrees were from Dickinson College and Drew Theological Seminary. Also added to the faculty were Elbert Russell, a Quaker, who came from a position at Swathmore College and had degrees from Earlham College and the University of Chicago, and Bennett Harvie Branscomb, a Methodist with undergraduate training at Birmingham-Southern College and two degrees from Oxford University. Already on the Duke faculty were James Cannon III in Religion, who was educated at Trinity and Princeton, and Paul Neff Garber, a former member of the Church of the Brethren who had become a Methodist. Garber transferred from the history department where he was teaching with a Ph.D. degree in history from the University of Pennsylvania. Russell, Garber and Cannon were to become Deans of the Divinity School, and Branscomb was to be Director of the Libraries at Duke and a distinguished Chancellor of Vanderbilt University.

Candidates for admission to the School of Religion had to be graduates with certified transcripts from colleges of recognized standing. Women were admitted on the same conditions as men and either a local pastor, church official, or college professor had to attest to the applicant's Christian character and purpose. Graduation was dependent upon satisfactory completion of ninety semester hours of work, usually taken in three years, plus the approval of a written thesis.

With a minimum of publicity, twenty-three students, twenty men and three women, enrolled the first year. Twenty students were graduates of Trinity and Duke with degrees earned between 1906 and 1926. All but two were from North Carolina. Within five years enrollment reached one hundred fifty, with students from eighteen states and Korea and Japan. While fifty-three per cent were from North Carolina, every southern state as well as eight additional states were represented. Students from over forty undergraduate colleges enrolled with Duke continuing to provide the most by a large margin.

The School of Religion achieved recognition rapidly for offering above average training for all types of Christian service. While focusing clearly on the role of the minister in a local church, the school also sought to prepare missionaries, teachers, directors of religious education and social workers. Proud of its Methodist heritage and ties, the school, nevertheless, was conducted on ecumenical and not narrow denominational lines. But above all, it was launched on the strong conviction that the education offered should be based on standards of the highest level.

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© 1991. William E. King, University Archivist, 1972-2002

This article is reprinted from If Gargoyles Could Talk: Sketches of Duke University by William E. King. Carolina Academic Press, 1997.