Centuries to Celebrate: Harvard Divinity Turns 200

May 2, 2016
Bicentennial logo
Photo Illustration: Kristie Welsh

Two hundred years. Even in an institution as venerable as Harvard University, that's a long time.

Harvard Divinity School, the nation's first nonsectarian theological school, will celebrate its bicentennial during the 2016–17 academic year with events and exhibits that highlight the School's mission to illuminate, engage, and serve the world through the pursuit and practice of religious literacy.

From August 2016 through May 2017, HDS will celebrate 200 years of excellence in the study of religion and look ahead to its future. Community members will want to save the date for a multiday celebration planned for April 27–29, 2017.

"For two centuries HDS has advanced the study of religion and empowered men and women to serve others around the world," said HDS Dean David N. Hempton. "The bicentennial will allow us to reflect on this rich history, even as we envision anew the School's mission for the future."

Dean Hempton also extended an invitation to the wider University community to join in the celebration.

"Harvard was founded to educate ethical leaders in all fields," he noted. "For many years, the study of religion was at the center of that effort. HDS carries on that legacy, but it belongs to everyone at the University. We're very excited to celebrate HDS's bicentennial with Harvard and the larger community."

HDS is one of Harvard's earliest professional schools, founded in 1816 by the Society for the Promotion of Theological Education in Harvard University (former president John Adams was among the first donors).

Over the course of two centuries, HDS has progressed from a school where students like Ralph Waldo Emerson studied by candlelight to an institution that creates online courses for nearly 40,000 people from around the world. It has shifted its focus from a single faith tradition to the ambitious study of all religions. The HDS mission has evolved from simply educating ministers to graduating people with a dazzling kaleidoscope of careers and callings. And it has transformed itself from an isolated "greenfields" seminary to a center of engagement that brings to Harvard University thought leaders like the Dalai Lama, former president Jimmy Carter, and distinguished authors such as Toni Morrison.

One of the highlights of the bicentennial year will be Faces of Divinity: Envisioning Inclusion for 200 Years, a 21-station exhibit of landmark themes in the history of HDS. It will also showcase how the School's ongoing process of inclusion and "opening doors" has shaped the Divinity School—and helped HDS shape the world.

"The goal of Faces of Divinity is to draw on the School's history to show how we went from being a basically Unitarian school in 1816 to a multireligious school in the twenty-first century," said Ann Braude, curator of the exhibit and director of the Women's Studies in Religion Program. "We want to reflect back to the students who are here now that they have a history, that in one way or another there are precedents for the journey that brought them here."

A full schedule of events and details about School's bicentennial celebration will be posted on the HDS website. Community members can use the hashtag #HDS200 to share memories and their connection to HDS throughout the year.