When Harvard’s leaders established the nation’s first nonsectarian theological school in 1816, they gave it a clear mission: Harvard Divinity School would educate learned clergy. Over the next 200 years, fueled by rigorous minds and open hearts, that mission grew.
Not only would the School prepare ministers to speak at the pulpit, it would produce scholars to discover knowledge. It would examine a range of traditions and explore diverse faiths. It would promote a culture of service and strive to inculcate goodness. It would create new generations of leaders, literate in religion, grounded in ethics, and passionate about social justice.
As HDS celebrates its bicentennial, we see the fruits of that legacy. The School helped shape Theodore Parker, the nineteenth-century abolitionist whose words inspired Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. It was the home of Henry Cadbury, who accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in 1947 on behalf of the American Friends Service Committee, an organization he co-founded and led for many years. More recently, HDS has set the standard for inclusion of women, people of color, and people of different religious traditions—both in the subjects of its teaching and research, and in the “Faces of Divinity” that populate its faculty, its student body, and the remarkable exhibit on the School’s history that graces its campus this academic year.
I speak often about One Harvard and the idea that each part of the University is made stronger by the spirit and purpose of the whole. To me, the Divinity School is a part of Harvard that keeps our eye on the questions that matter. Where do we find meaning in an age of infinite information? How do we understand ourselves and our common humanity in a world that is more connected than ever but is profoundly shaped—and often shaken—by its contrasts and differences? This search for the experience of meaning and significance, as Dean Hempton puts it, is “humanity’s greatest challenge.”
Harvard Divinity School aspires every day to meet that pressing challenge. Its work has never been more vital to our understanding of a complex world, to the well-being of our planet, and to the purpose of the University. Across campus, its subjects of inquiry have never felt more urgent—from the discussions of values and ethics buzzing across the Schools to the tremendous appetite at the College for answers to the complex questions of how to live a good life.
For 200 years the Divinity School has demonstrated what it can do, and what it must do. As we celebrate its bicentennial, it is clear that we need HDS and the extraordinary community it creates. We need its leadership and insights. We need its humility on the path toward truth. And, most of all, we need its capacity to magnify and dedicate for the betterment of humankind the questioning soul, the curious mind, and the compassionate heart.
Drew Gilpin Faust
President of Harvard University
Lincoln Professor of History