In a few years after the movement began for the organization of churches west of the Hudson River, the needs of theological instruction for residents of that region were being discussed. In 1827 the younger Henry Ware was interested in a plan of uniting Unitarians and “the Christian connection” in the establishment of a theological school, to be located in the eastern part of the state of New York. In July of that year he wrote to a friend: “We have had; no little talk here within a few days respecting a new theological school. Many of us think favorably of the plan, and are disposed to patronize it, if feasible, but are a little fearful that it is not. Others start strong objections to it in toto. Something must be done to gain us an increase of ministers.”[1] This proposition came from the Christians, and their plan was to locate the school on the Hudson.

Although this project came to nothing for the time being, it was revived a decade later. When the Unitarian Association had entered upon its active missionary efforts west of the Alleghanies, the new impulse to denominational life manifested itself in a wide-spread desire for an increase in the number of workers available for the western field. The establishment of a liberal theological school in that region was felt to be almost a necessity, if the opportunities everywhere opening there for the dissemination of a purer faith were not to be neglected. Plans were therefore formed about 1836 for the founding of a theological school at Buffalo under the direction of Rev. George W. Hosmer, then the minister in that city; but, business becoming greatly depressed the following year, the project was abandoned. In 1840 the importance of such a school was again causing the western workers to plan for its establishment, this time in Cincinnati or Louisville; but this expectation also failed of realization. Then Rev. William G. Eliot, of St. Louis, undertook to provide a theological education for such young men as might apply to him. But the response to his offer was so slight as to indicate that there was little demand for such instruction.
The Beginnings in Meadville.

The demand for a school had steadily grown since the year 1827, and the fit occasion only was awaited for its establishment. It was found at Meadville, Penn., in the autumn of 1844. In order to understand why it should have been founded in this country village instead of one of the growing and prosperous cities of the west, it is necessary to give a brief account of the origin and growth of the Meadville church. The first Unitarian church organized west of the Alleghanies was that in Meadville, and it had its origin in the religious experiences of one man. The founder of this church, Harm Jan Huidekoper, was born in the district of Drenthe, Holland, at the village of Hogeveen, in 1776. At the age of twenty he came to the United States; and in 1804 he became the agent of the Holland Land Company in the north-western counties of Pennsylvania, and established himself at Meadville, then a small village. He was successful in his land operations, and was largely influential in the development of that part of the state. When his children were of an age to need religious instruction, he began to study the Bible with a view to deciding what he could conscientiously teach them. He had become a member of the Reformed Church in his native land, and he had attended the Presbyterian church in Meadville; but he now desired to form convictions based on his own inquiries. “When I had become a father,” he wrote, “and saw the time approaching when I should have to give religious instruction to my children, I felt it to be my duty to give this subject a thorough examination. I accordingly commenced studying the Scriptures, as being the only safe rule of the Christian’s faith; and the result was, that I soon acquired clear, and definite views as to the leading doctrines of the Christian religion. But the good I derived from these studies has not been confined to giving me clear ideas as to the Christian doctrines. They created in me a strong and constantly increasing interest in religion itself, not as mere theory, but as a practical rule of life.”[2] As the result of this study, he arrived at the conclusion that the Bible does not teach the doctrines of the Trinity, the total depravity of man, and the vicarious atonement of Christ. Solely from the careful reading of the Bible with reference to each of the leading doctrines he had been taught, he became a Unitarian.

With the zeal of a new convert Mr. Huidekoper began to talk about his new faith, and he brought it to the attention of others with the enthusiasm of a propagandist. In conversation, by means of the distribution of tracts, and with the aid of the press he extended the liberal faith. He could not send his children to the church he had attended, and he therefore secured tutors for them from Harvard College who were preparing for the ministry; and in October, 1825, one of these tutors began holding Unitarian services in Meadville.[3] In May, 1829, a church was organized, and a goodly number of thoughtful men and women connected themselves with it. But this movement met with persistent opposition, and a vigorous controversy was carried on in the local papers and by means of pamphlets. This was increased when, in 1830, Ephraim Peabody, afterwards settled in Cincinnati, New Bedford, and at King’s Chapel in Boston, became the minister, and entered upon an active effort for the extension of Unitarianism. With the first of January, 1831, he began the publication of the Unitarian Essayist, a small monthly pamphlet, in which the leading theological questions were discussed. In a few months Mr. Peabody went to Cincinnati; and the Essayist was continued by Mr. Huidekoper, who wrote with vigor and directness on the subjects he had carefully studied.

In 1831 the church for the first time secured an ordained minister, and three years later one who gave his whole time to its service.[4] A church building was erected in 1836, and the prosperity of the congregation was thereby much increased. In 1843 a minister of the Christian connection, Rev. E.G. Holland, became the pastor for a brief period. At this time Frederic Huidekoper, a son of the founder of the Unitarian church in Meadville, had returned from his studies in the Harvard Divinity School and in Europe, and was ordained in Meadville, October 12, 1843. It was his purpose to become a Unitarian evangelist in the region about Meadville, but his attention was soon directed by Rev. George W. Hosmer to the importance of furnishing theological instruction to young men preparing for the Unitarian ministry. He was encouraged in this undertaking by Mr. Holland, who pointed out to him the large patronage that might be expected from the Christian body. It was at first intended that Mr. Huidekoper should give the principal instruction, and that he should be assisted by the pastor of the Independent Congregational Church (Unitarian) and by Mr. Hosmer, who was to come from Buffalo for a few weeks each year, exchanging pulpits with the Meadville minister. When the opening of the school was fixed for the autumn of 1844, the prospective number of applicants was so large as to necessitate a modification of the proposed plan; and it was deemed wise to secure a competent person to preside over the school and to become the minister of the church. Through the active co-operation of the American Unitarian Association, Rev. Rufus P. Stebbins, then settled at Leominster, Mass., was secured for this double service.

The students present at the opening of the school on the first day of October, 1844, were but five; but this number was increased to nine during the year. The next year the number was twenty-three, nine of them from New England. For several years the Christian connection furnished a considerable proportion of the students, and took a lively interest in the establishment and growth of the school, although contributing little or nothing to its pecuniary support. It was also represented on the board of instruction by a non-resident lecturer. At this time the Christian body had no theological school of its own, and many of its members even looked with disfavor upon all ministerial education. What brought them into some degree of sympathy with Unitarians of that day was their rejection of binding creeds and their acceptance of Christian character as the only test of Christian fellowship, together with their recognition of the Bible, interpreted by every man for himself, as the authoritative standard of religious truth. The churches of this denomination in the northern states were also pronounced in their rejection of the doctrines of the Trinity and predestination. Unitarians themselves have not been more strenuous in the defence of the principle of religious liberty than were the leaders among the Christians of the last generation. The two bodies also joined in the management of Antioch College, in southern Ohio; and when Horace Mann became its president in 1852, he was made a minister of the Christian connection, in order that he might work more effectually in the promotion of its interests.

The Meadville school began its work in a simple way, with few instructors and a limited course of study. Mr. Stebbins taught the Old Testament, Hebrew, Biblical antiquities, natural and revealed religion, mental and moral philosophy, systematic theology, and pulpit eloquence. Mr. Huidekoper gave instruction in the New Testament, hermeneutics, ecclesiastical history, Latin, Greek, and German. Mr. Hosmer lectured on pastoral care for a brief period during each year. A building for the school was provided by the generosity of the elder Huidekoper; and the expenses of board, instruction, rent, fuel, etc., were reduced to $30 per annum. Many of the students had received little education, and they needed a preliminary training in the most primary studies. Nevertheless, the school at once justified its establishment, and sent out many capable men, even from among those who came to it with the least preparation.

Dr. Stebbins was president of the school for ten years. During his term of service the school was incorporated by the legislature of Pennsylvania in the spring of 1846. The charter was carefully drawn with a view to securing freedom in its administration. No denominational name appeared in the act of incorporation, and the original board of trustees included Christians as well as Unitarians. Dr. Stebbins was an admirable man to whom to intrust the organization of the school, for he was a born teacher and a masterful administrator. He was prompt, decisive, a great worker, a powerful preacher, an inspirer of others, and his students warmly admired and praised him.
The Growth of the School.

The next president of the school was Oliver Stearns, who held the office from 1856 to 1863. He was a student, a true and just thinker, of great moral earnestness, fine discrimination, and with a gift for academic organization. He was a man of a strong and deep personality, and his spiritual influence was profound. He had been settled at Northampton and over the third parish in Hingham before entering upon his work at Meadville. In 1863 he went to the Harvard Divinity School as the professor of pulpit eloquence and pastoral care until 1869, when he became the professor of theology; and from 1870 to 1878 he was the dean of the school. He was a preacher who “held and deserved a reputation among the foremost,” for his preaching was “pre-eminently spiritual.” “In his relations to the divinity schools that enjoyed his services, it is impossible to over-estimate the extent, accuracy, and thoroughness of his scholarship, and his unwearying devotion to his work.”[5]

During Dr. Stearns’ administration the small building originally occupied by the school was outgrown; and Divinity Hall was built on land east of the town, donated by Professor Frederic Huidekoper, and first occupied in 1861. In 1857 began a movement to elevate, the standard of admission to the school, in order that its work might be of a more advanced character. To meet the needs of those not able to accept this higher standard, a preparatory department was established in 1858, which was continued until 1867.

Rev. Abiel A. Livermore became the president of the school in 1863, and he remained in that position until 1890. He had been settled in Keene, Cincinnati, and Yonkers before going to Meadville. He was a Christian of the finest type, a true gentleman, and a noble friend. Under his direction the school grew in all directions, the course of study being largely enriched by the addition of new departments. In 1863 church polity and administration, including a study of the sects of Christendom, was made a special department. In 1868 the school opened its doors to women, and it has received about thirty women for a longer or shorter term of study. In 1872 the academic degree of Bachelor of Divinity was offered for the first time to those completing the full course. In 1879 the philosophy of religion, and also the comparative study of religions, received the recognition they deserve. The same year ecclesiastical jurisprudence became a special department. In 1882 Rev. E.E. Hale lectured on charities, and from that time this subject has been systematically treated in connection with philanthropies. A movement was begun in 1889 to endow a professorship in memory of Dr. James Freeman Clarke, which was successful. These successive steps indicate the progress made under the faithful administration of Dr. Livermore. He became widely known to Unitarians by his commentaries on the books of the New Testament, as well as by his other writings, including volumes of sermons and lectures.

In 1890 George L. Cary, who had been for many years the professor of New Testament literature, became the president of the school, a position he held for ten years. Under his leadership the school has largely advanced its standard of scholarship, outgrown studies have been discarded, while new ones have been added. New professorships and lectureships have been established, and the endowment of the school has been greatly increased. Huidekoper Hall, for the use of the library, was erected in 1890, and other important improvements have been added to the equipment of the school. In 1892 the Adin Ballou lectureship of practical Christian sociology was established, and in 1895 the Hackley professorship of sociology and ethics.

From the time of its establishment the Huidekoper family have been devoted friends and benefactors of the Theological School.[6] Frederic Huidekoper occupied the chair of New Testament literature from 1844 to 1855, and from 1863 to 1877 that of ecclesiastical history. His services were given wholly without remuneration, and his benefactions to the school were numerous. He also added largely to the Brookes Fund for the distribution of Unitarian books. His historical writings made him widely known to scholars, and added to the reputation of the school. His Belief of the First Three Centuries concerning Christ’s Mission to the Underworld appeared in 1853; Judaism at Rome, 1876; and Indirect Testimony of History to the Genuineness of the Gospels, 1879. He also republished at his own expense many valuable works that were out of print.

Among the other professors have been Rev. Nathanial S. Folsom, who was in charge of the department of Biblical literature from 1848 to 1861. Of the regular lecturers have been Rev. Charles H. Brigham, Rev. Amory D. Mayo, and Dr. Thomas Hill. There has been an intimate relation between the Meadville church and the Theological School, and several of the pastors have been instructors and lecturers in the Theological School, including Rev. J.C. Zachos, Rev. James T. Bixby, and Rev. James M. Whiton. The Christian denomination has been represented among the lecturers by Rev. David Millard and Rev. Austin Craig.

The whole number of graduates of the Meadville Theological School up to April, 1902, has been 267; and eighty other students have entered the ministry. At the present time 156 of its students are on the roll of Unitarian ministers. Thirty-two of its students served in the civil war, twenty per cent of its graduates previous to the close of the war being engaged in it as privates, chaplains, or in some other capacity. The endowment of the school has steadily increased until it now is somewhat more than $600,000.

[1] Memoir of Henry Ware, Jr. 202.

[2] J.F. Clarke, Christian Examiner, September, 1854, LVII. 310. “Mr. Huidekoper had the satisfaction, in the later years of his life, of seeing a respectable society worshipping in the tasteful building which he loved and of witnessing the prosperity of the theological school in which he was so much interested. We have never known any one who seemed to live so habitually in the presence of God. The form which his piety mostly took was that of gratitude and reliance. His trust in the Divine goodness was like that of a child in its mother. His cheerful views, of this life and of the other, his simple tastes, his enjoyment of nature, his happiness in society, his love for children, his pleasure in doing good, his tender affection for those nearest to him,–these threw a warm light around his last days and gave his home the aspect of a perpetual Sabbath. A well-balanced activity of faculties contributed still more to his usefulness and happiness. He was always a student, occupying every vacant hour with a book, and so had attained a surprising knowledge of biography and history.” Mr. Huidekoper died in Meadville, May 22, 1854.

[3] John M. Merrick, afterwards settled in Hardwick and Walpole, Mass., who was in Mr. Huidekoper’s family from October, 1825, to October, 1827. He was succeeded by Andrew P. Peabody, who did not preach. In 1828-30 Washington Gilbert, who had settlements in Harvard, Lincoln, and West Newton, was the tutor and preacher.

[4] Rev. George Nichols, July, 1831, to July, 1832; Rev. Alanson Brigham, who died in Meadville, August 24, 1833; Rev. John Quincy Day, October, 1834, to September, 1837.

[5] A.P. Peabody, Harvard Reminiscences, 165, 166

[6] The first treasurer of the school was Edgar Huidekoper, who was succeeded by Professor F. Huidekoper, and he in turn by Edgar Huidekoper, the son of the first treasurer. Among the other generous friends and benefactors of the school have been Alfred Huidekoper, Miss Elizabeth Huidekoper, and Mrs. Henry P. Kidder.