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Newton Theological Institution: The Story of a School on a Hill


In 1825, New England Baptists established Newton Theological Institution on its hill outside Newton Centre, MA then a rural area of small farms and estates. But the ideas behind the seminary took root generations before.

Like almost all American Baptist institutions, Newton can trace its origins to Roger Williams’ famous escape, in January 1636, from Puritan Massachusetts to Narraganset Bay in what is now Rhode Island.

From Baptist radicalism to core American values

Williams, a Puritan pastor who arrived in Boston from England in 1631, had repeatedly angered the colonial authorities in Massachusetts. His tolerant views on religious matters and his firm insistence that the English colonists treat New England’s Native Americans fairly were threats both to the Massachusetts Bay Colony and its established Puritan church.

After many confrontations and partial reconciliations, the General Court finally ordered Williams to return to England, a fate he avoided only by the secret flight to Rhode Island.

On lands he purchased from the Narragansett Indians, Williams established the settlement of Providence and the colony of Rhode Island, naming the settlement in gratitude “for God's merciful providence unto me in my distress.” He and his small band of followers established the government of the colony on principles of complete religious toleration and the separation of church and state.

In 1639, Williams organized the first Baptist church in America. The church continues to this day, though Williams was a member for less than a year, choosing instead to remain outside any formal denomination.

Williams’ ideas were quickly embraced by New England Baptists, who themselves gained a reputation for holding progressive and unconventional religious and political views.

Freedom of religion and conscience, separation of church and state, tolerance, equality, democratic government--- all these seemed radical and even revolutionary in the 1630s. But, 150 years later, they were core American values, enshrined in the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

Founding Baptist institutions

Like the Congregationalists from which they sprang, the Baptists were great founders of schools and colleges. In New England and New York, these included Brown University, Waterville (later Colby) College, Colgate University, and Bates College.

For many years, the Baptists had also discussed creating a Baptist “theological department” or seminary. Early efforts to establish Baptist training at Waterville came to nothing.

Finally, in May 1825, a group of ministers of the Boston Baptist Association met at the First Baptist Church agreed to found a Baptist seminary in the Boston area.

The school comes to the hill

Several leading Baptists, including Newton Theological Institution founder Francis Wayland, later president of Brown, had attended Andover Theological Seminary in its early years. So Newton’s early program was closely based on the Andover model.

Wayland and the other founders raised some $8,000 to purchase and refurbish an 80-acre country estate, with a Federal-style mansion, barns, and gardens, just outside Newton Centre. The beloved “Hill” remains the seat of Andover Newton’s campus.

A tradition of great alumni

The new Baptist seminary quickly produced many of the most prominent Baptist clergy and educators of the era.

Three important presidents of Brown University--- the revered Barnas Sears (Brown’s president 1855-1867), Elisha Andrews (president 1889-1898), and William Faunce (president 1899-1929, the longest presidential tenure in Brown’s history) were among Newton’s early alumni. So were a number of prominent Brown faculty members, American Baptist pastors and theologians, and presidents and faculty members at other colleges.

The campus grows

Farwell Hall, Colby Hall

The estate's original “Mansion House” served as housing and classroom space in Newton’s first years. As the school on the hill grew, its campus expanded to include new dormitories, a library, a new classroom building and chapel, and a gymnasium (now the Meetinghouse), built from materials salvaged from the Mansion House after it was razed.

Boston industrialist and Newton Centre resident Gardner Colby was a long-time treasurer of the school and a benefactor of Newton and other Baptist institutions, including Brown. A vigorous fund-raiser and a strong financial manager, Colby steered the school around numerous rocks and shallows in its early years. Colby Hall and Colby Chapel on the Andover Newton campus are named for him as was Colby College (previously Waterville) in Waterville, ME.

Andover comes to the Hill

In the late 1920s, following the collapse of its merger plans with Harvard Divinity School, Andover Theological Seminary began to discuss the possibility of an affiliation with Newton Theological Institution, a school with which it had deep historical ties and sympathies.

Andover joined Newton on the Hill in the fall of 1931. In 1965, after three decades together on one campus, the two schools officially merged, becoming Andover Newton Theological School.

In a way, the new institution reunited the Congregational and Baptist strains of New England Calvinism, split apart on that winter’s day more than three centuries before.

About Andover Newton’s History

Since 1807, the Andover Newton community has crossed borders, climbed over barriers, and made connections. The nation’s oldest theological school and its first graduate institution, Andover Newton’s many innovations created the model used by almost all American theological schools today. Few schools of any kind have had as profound and lasting an impact on American life--- in religious and public service, in government, on public and higher education, in literature, linguistics, scholarship, social justice, equality, freedom, and the development of America’s core ideals and values. Its alumni and alumnae have included the founders of schools and colleges around the world, many nationally distinguished preachers, clergymen, and scholars of theology, three presidents of Brown University, the 9th president of Dartmouth College, and the author of the national hymn, “America.”

For more about Andover Newton's history, please click here.