Jan 1, 2016
In 1866, seven of the eight members of Hope College’s inaugural graduating class wished to become ministers and petitioned the General Synod of the Reformed Church in America, asking that “arrangements be made for them to prosecute their theological studies at that college.” The RCA operated New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Jersey, but these students did not want to relocate. Synod responded favorably, noting that the first request to establish a theological center in the West had come in 1848. Dr. Cornelius Crispell was appointed professor of Didactic and Polemic Theology of Hope College’s new theology department and was soon joined on the theological faculty by Dr. Philip Phelps, president of the college, and Dr. Albertus C. Van Raalte, founder of the Holland colony.
A number of challenges confronted the college, including a devastating fire that destroyed most of the city of Holland in 1871, a nationwide financial crisis in 1873, lower-than-expected enrollments, and inadequate financial support from the western churches. The situation became so critical that the General Synod directed the college to suspend the activities of the theological department in 1877. To that date, 29 students had graduated with advanced degrees.
Theological education was resumed in 1884 with Dr. Nicholas Steffens installed in the freshly endowed ($30,000) chair of Didactic and Polemic Theology. Five students enrolled. A year later, in 1885, the seminary formally separated from the college, establishing its own governing board, faculty, and curriculum. The name of the new school was the “Western Theological Seminary of the Reformed Church in America.”
The new school had very little, and instruction continued on the Hope College campus. Years later, Dr. Albertus Pieters reflected, “What there was in my student days is easily described: grounds, none; recitation hall, none; maps, none; library, none; periodicals, none. This is a complete and accurate inventory of the Western Theological Seminary at that time.”
The first building, Semelink Family Hall, housing five classrooms and a chapel, was constructed in 1895. Zwemer Hall, a student dormitory, was built in 1914 at a cost of $27,216. Dr. James Zwemer was an indefatigable fundraiser for the seminary, as well as a professor of practical theology and president of the faculty. About the same time, a library was added, built by Dr. John W. Beardslee, Sr., professor of Biblical Languages and Literature, at his own expense. The enrollment grew steadily (there were 94 graduates in the 1910s and 131 by the 1930s), and eventually, Western became the largest supplier of ministers, missionaries, and theological professors to the RCA.
In 1955, under the leadership of President John R. Mulder, the familiar Georgian colonial seminary building was constructed during a time of sharp enrollment increases following the Second World War. 282 students graduated in the decade of the 1950s. A Master of Christian Education degree was developed in the 1960s, and women faculty and students joined the Western community.
The late 1960s and 1970s saw much change, including a creative experiment called the “Bi-level Multi Site” with New Brunswick Theological Seminary in New Jersey. For a short time, Western’s President Herman “Bud” Ridder became president of both schools, and students also moved between both institutions. The school also was becoming, albeit slowly, more multicultural.
The six-story Cook Center for Theological Research was opened in 1981 during the presidency of I. John Hesselink. The city of Holland closed 12th Street at about the same time between Columbia and College Avenues, causing Western to relocate its main entrance onto 13th Street. The school expanded its educational offerings significantly during Hesselink’s presidency by establishing a Doctor of Ministry degree.
During the presidency of Marvin D. Hoff in the 1980s and early 1990s, a growing need for better student housing resulted in townhouses being built across 13th Street. During those years the Bast Preaching Initiatives were endowed, and a professional development staff was added.
Over the years, the seminary has been blessed with strong, visionary leaders who led Western through program, building, finance and faculty expansions all in the name of preparing leaders for the church of Jesus Christ.
During the presidency of Dennis Voskuil (1994-2008), Western successfully completed two capital campaigns and built the DeWitt Center for Theological Education, housing the Burggraaff Atrium, classrooms, and administrative and faculty offices. A new Distance Learning Master of Divinity degree was launched, and in 2007 the Ralph and Cheryl Schregardus Friendship House was built, the first student housing of its kind in the country, where seminarians live alongside adults with cognitive disabilities.
During the presidency of Timothy Brown (2008-2019), seminary enrollment reached record heights. Innovations took place, like the partnership with the Newbigin House of Studies of City Church San Francisco, the Ridder Church Renewal process, a new focus on disability and ministry, and the launching of the Hispanic Ministries program. A major renovation of the Mulder Chapel was completed in 2012, and a Master of Arts degree was added in 2013. The seminary leadership adopted a comprehensive strategic plan in 2014, with ambitious initiatives in diversity, curriculum, and facility renovation. As a result, the physical campus underwent transformation as the 1950s building was renovated, and the 6-story library made way for the 21st Century Jack and Mary DeWitt Learning Center.
Dr. Felix Theonugraha became the twelfth president of Western on July 1, 2019. Dr. Theonugraha’s personal experience, as well as his professional role as a talented administrator, make him uniquely qualified to lead WTS into the rapidly changing and diversifying world of theological education.
The history of Western Theological Seminary is strong. It is a history of preparing leaders for the church of Jesus Christ through times of challenge and change. The future is bright, and Western will continue to prepare relevant, engaged leaders for the enduring work of the Gospel in all times and places.
Learn more about Western Theological Seminary