Letter from Associate Dean Hannah T. Peters

Thomas Hollis never went to Harvard Divinity School. In fact, he lived and died three generations before HDS was founded. But few people have had a greater impact on the School, Harvard University, and American higher education as a whole.

Hollis was a wealthy London merchant who knew something of religious intolerance. As one of the most prominent Baptists in England, Hollis often found himself and his family at odds with the orthodoxy of the Church of England during the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries.

He had heard through relatives and others of the liberties enjoyed by his fellow Baptists in New England, and of the college in Cambridge where religious liberalism was on the rise. He struck up a correspondence with the leadership there—themselves clergy—and in 1719 made what was then a major gift for “the use of pious young Students for the Ministry instructed at [Harvard] Colledg.”

Hollis was far from done. In 1721 he established the Hollis Professorship of Divinity—the first professorship in any American college. Six years later, Hollis founded the Professorship of Mathematicks and Natural Philosophy. These gifts helped to secure Harvard’s future when the University was still young and to shape higher education throughout the New World.

The chairs Hollis funded emphasized the importance of scholars who were experts in their fields, rather than teachers of general knowledge. They also set the standard for the kind of philanthropy that has made American universities global leaders in education and research. And by creating a path for those of unorthodox religious beliefs to join the Harvard faculty, Hollis’s gift made possible the founding in 1816 of the nation’s first nonsectarian divinity school: HDS.

Thomas Hollis’s legacy is visible at HDS today in the work of Karen King, one of the world’s leading scholars of early Christianity and the first woman to occupy the Hollis Professorship of Divinity. And it is also faithfully represented by the School’s supporters—our amazing alumni, whose contributions include not only their donations to HDS, but also the work they do every day to make the world a better place; and others who, like Hollis, never attended HDS but who believe deeply in our mission to advance understanding of all the world’s major religious traditions.

This year, as we celebrate the School’s bicentennial, we also mark with gratitude the support of donors like you who enable HDS to illuminate, engage, and serve the world. Thanks to you, as the late Rev. Peter Gomes, STB ’68, wrote, “Harvard Divinity School has never wasted an opportunity to take itself beyond its own expectations.” With you at our side, we never will.

Thank you for being our partners and our stewards.

Hannah Peters
Associate Dean for Development and External Relations