UU Minute #62

The Hollis Chair of Divinity

Harvard Divinity School’s Hollis Chair of Divinity was established in 1721 by a donation from the wealthy merchant, Thomas Hollis. The Hollis chair is the oldest endowed chair in the United States, the first professorship in theology in the country, and, in the early 1800s, was the most prestigious professorship in America.

The first three holders of the Hollis chair were Calvinist Congregationalists: Edward Michael Wigglesworth (43 years); his son, Edward Wigglesworth (27 years); and David Tappan, who died in 1803 after holding the chair for just nine years. At Tappan’s death, the chair was vacant for two years as the liberal and conservative wings fought over who would succeed to the chair.

Jesse Appleton was the conservative candidate, Henry Ware the liberal. The six-member board charged with making the decision was evenly divided. The decision was debated and delayed. Finally, the liberal, Henry Ware, was selected to be the Hollis Professor of Divinity. The conservatives were so angered by this choice that they resigned from Harvard’s Board of Overseers. Liberals replaced them, taking effective control of Harvard and the process by which leadership of the church would be educated.

The conservatives responded by establishing Andover Newton Theological Seminary, which opened in 1808. The new seminary was overtly Calvinist, committed to a creed to which professors would be required to resubscribe every five years as a guard against creeping liberalism.

The schism was sealed. It remained only for the liberals to declare themselves a distinct denomination. But who would lead such a declaration? Eyes turned to the brilliant young minister of Boston’s Federal Street church: William Ellery Channing.

NEXT: The Unitarian Controversy

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