Theology has been taught at the University of Edinburgh since its foundation in 1583. New College was established in 1843, and became part of the University of Edinburgh - merging with the Faculty of Divinity - in 1935.
The foundation of New College was the product of the zeal that arose from religious conflict.
New College was founded as the theological college of the Free Church of Scotland. It opened for classes in Edinburgh’s New Town on 1 November 1843 before moving to the Mound soon after. Rev Dr Thomas Chalmers laid the foundation stone for the current building on 3 June 1846*.
The Free Church had left the Church of Scotland at the Disruption of 1843. The Disruption was a time of division, when over a third of the ministers and perhaps half the lay membership left the established Church of Scotland in protest against what they perceived as state efforts to undermine the Church's spiritual independence and integrity.
Against all odds, the outgoing clergy and laity formed the Free Church of Scotland as a new national Church, free from state connection and acknowledging only the headship of Christ. Amid the idealism and fervour aroused by the Disruption, the struggling Free Church founded New College as an institution for educating not simply a learned ministry, but a new Scottish Christian leadership.
The hope was that these new leaders would guide the nation through a new Reformation, reassert the spiritual independence of the Church, and elevate the religious and moral conditions of the Scottish people.
For a time, New College was envisaged as a free university, a citadel of conscience which would stand against the system of patronage and privilege that for centuries had enabled the Crown and members of the gentry and aristocracy to dominate the religious and intellectual life of the nation.
In 1935, New College was merged with the Faculty (now the School) of Divinity in the University of Edinburgh, following the reunion of the Church of Scotland and United Free Church in 1929.
Theology had been studied at the University since its earliest days.
Theology at the University since 1583
The University of Edinburgh was, at its founding in 1583, largely a theological college for the training of clergy in the Church of Scotland. The first Principal of the University, Robert Rollock (c.1545-1599), was appointed Principal in 1583 and became Professor of Theology from 1587. The first endowed professorship in the University was the Professorship of Divinity (1620). This was followed by the Professorship of Hebrew and Oriental Languages (1642) and the Professorship of Ecclesiastical History (1694).
New College today
Today New College is two things. It is the place in Edinburgh where the Church of Scotland trains its ministerial candidates, and the name of the building which houses both that training college and the University’s School of Divinity.
The School of Divinity offers broader academic study across a wide range of religious beliefs, ancient and modern, with no expectation that staff hold any particular faith perspective.
Women in New College
Elizabeth Glendinning Kirkwood Hewat was one of the first women to study theology at New College, the first to graduate BD in 1926, and the first female doctoral graduate in 1934.
In 1996, Ruth Page (1935-2015) became the first female principal of New College.
Marcella Althaus Reid (1952-2009) was the first woman to hold a Professorial Chair in New College.
Elizabeth Templeton (1945-2015) was the first woman to hold a full-time lectureship in the University's Faculty of Divinity.
In 2018, for the first time, the roles of Principal of New College and Head of the School of Divinity are both held by women – Professor Susan Hardman Moore and Professor Helen Bond respectively.
There is a list of the Principals of New College, 1843-1943, in Hugh Watt, 'New College: A Centenary History' (Edinburgh, 1943).
More information on the history of theology in the University of Edinburgh.
These articles give a more detailed view of the history of theology in the University of Edinburgh and New College.