The origins of Harvard Divinity School and of the study of theology at Harvard can be traced back to the very beginning of Harvard College, when an initial fund of 400 pounds from the General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony established the College in 1636. The founders of Harvard recorded their reasons for establishing this center of learning:
After God had carried us safe to New England and we had builded our houses, provided necessaries for our livelihood, reared convenient places for God's worship, and settled the civil government: One of the next things we longed for and looked after was to advance learning and perpetuate it to posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate ministry to the churches, when our present ministers shall lie in the dust.
Because of the founders' desire to perpetuate a learned ministry, preparation for religious learning and leadership continued to hold a position of importance as Harvard grew. The first named professorship in the College, and the oldest in the country, was the Hollis Professorship of Divinity. Endowed in 1721, it continues to the present. In 1811, the first graduate program for ministerial candidates was organized; and in 1816, Harvard Divinity School itself was established to ensure that "every encouragement be given to the serious, impartial, and unbiased investigation of Christian truth." The Divinity School, the first nonsectarian theological school in the country, was the second professional school established at Harvard (the Medical School was founded in 1788).
Now, two centuries later, the concerns of the founders of Harvard continue to guide the Divinity School, but within a much enlarged and broadened sense of mission, a mission that includes fostering first-rate scholars and important critical scholarship; preparing individuals for the professional ministry and for service professions; and developing not only religious leaders who will contribute to the national and international public discussion, but also leaders in a variety of other fields whose work will be enriched by religious and theological studies.
In 2008, the Divinity School faculty, students, and staff adopted a new HDS mission statement and associated set of goals and guiding principles to express the purpose of the School and the community's aspirations for the twenty-first century:
Harvard Divinity School educates students of religion for intellectual leadership, professional service, and ministry.
To provide an intellectual home where scholars and professionals from around the globe research and teach the varieties of religion, in service of a just world at peace across religious and cultural divides.
- Scholars of religion should employ critical analysis, multiple disciplines and be reflective about their own positionality and that of others.
- Scholars of religion should have a deep and broad understanding of more than a single religious tradition;
- An exemplary scholarly and teaching community requires respect for and critical engagement with difference and diversity of all kinds.
- To foster a strong sense of community among our faculty, students, alumni, and staff.
- To offer excellent religious studies for undergraduate, master's, and doctoral students in collaboration with the Faculty of Arts and Sciences and Harvard’s Graduate Schools;
- To help diverse communities engage past and contemporary issues in light of the best scholarship and through rigorous preparation of ministers, professionals, and other religious leaders;
- To study religion with attentiveness to issues of diversity—in regard to race, class, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, religious tradition, and ideology;
- To foster a welcoming and inclusive community among our faculty, students, alumni, and staff;
- To commit to ecological sustainability and good environmental stewardship.