The Early Years

The Earlham School of Religion has surpassed a number of important milestones since its establishment in 1960.  One of the most important of these, of course, was becoming a seminary in the first place.  It was by no means the prevailing wisdom in the late 1950s that founding a new seminary was the right thing to do; for Quakers, or anyone else for that matter.  At the time, Howard Thurman —the noted Quaker author, philosopher, theologian, and educator—commented on the "audacity of Friends" for establishing a seminary at a time when many others were closing (Cooper, The ESR Story, pg. 10).  Charles Taylor, then Executive Secretary of the American Association of Theological Schools (later rechristened The Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada [ATS]), echoed Thurman's concern, questioning the wisdom of opening a new seminary when so many others in the country were either closing or amalgamating (Ibid., pg. 20).

ESR began its life as an experimental two-year program that incorporated Earlham's already existing M.A. degree in religion.  Despite many initial misgivings, both stated and silent, the Earlham's Board of Trustees approved the creation of this program at its February, 1960, meeting on the recommendation of the College's then newly appointed President, Landrum Bolling.  Wilmer Cooper, who later went on to become the founding Dean of ESR, was appointed as the program's Administrative Secretary.  Offices were set up in the south end of Carpenter Hall during the summer, and the program accepted its first class of eleven students the following autumn.  From this initial existence as an experimental two-year program, ESR quickly grew into its role as a full-fledged seminary.  In April 1961, the first annual Pastor's Conference was initiated (a gathering that was recently revived, in 1998, and is again hosted by ESR each autumn).  The following year, in the summer of 1962, the program moved out of Carpenter Hall and into its new and expanded quarters in Jenkins House, then located at the corner of College Avenue and the National Road.

Later in 1962, Earlham's Board of Trustees considered the merits of upgrading the College's experimental program in religion to a full-fledged seminary.  This upgrade primarily involved expanding its degree offerings to include a three-year Bachelor of Divinity (B.D.) degree, then the accepted academic nomenclature for the profession of ministry.  Earlham's Trustees had previously expressed concerns over expanding the program's academic offerings to include a B.D. degree.  Gaining accreditation for such a degree would entail a significant commitment of resources to develop faculty and library collections.  These resources might be put to better use, it was then conjectured, improving the existing liberal arts curriculum of the College.  Despite these objections, though, there was also a strong sense that the B.D. degree was needed if the religion program was ever going to be taken seriously as a seminary.  This ambivalence was best summarized by Howard Mills, Sr., then the Chairman of Earlham College's Board of Trustees, who remarked: "My head says no but my heart says we have to do it" (Ibid., pg. 23). Another prominent Trustee and 'plainspoken' former Chairman, Ed Wilson, voiced a similar sentiment, telling Earlham's President: "Well Landrum, if you are going to have this seminary you better make it the best da*ned seminary in the country!"