This is a ranking of the Top 10 Mainline Protestant Seminaries in the United States.
In the modern and digital age it seems like everyone wants to attach a number to everything. We rank states, video games, movies, and just about anything else one can think of. And yet, despite all the ranking services which exist, there are almost no seminary/divinity school rankings. Why?
One obvious answer is that the criteria which one would use to rank a theology program is difficult to quantify. People who pursue these degrees are not necessarily concerned with how many publications their professors have, or how the endowment of their institution measures up against its competition. Instead, people who pursue theological instruction often care more about how their experience will better enable them to pursue a higher calling. It matters little if a degree was free, or came from a world renowned institution, if a person looses their sense of calling in acquiring the credential.
Nevertheless, prestige and the history of an institution does play a role in seminary selection. Most would rather study God at a well-funded and respected school under world-class scholars, and study in a community that is receptive to the student’s particular faith. Thus, we have decided to divide these schools into three broad categories, in three related articles.
First we ranked the Top 10 Evangelical Seminaries in the U.S. These institutions are far more conservative by nature. They typically hold to biblical inerrancy, or at least a very high view of inspiration, and will often take a very traditional stand on social issues such as gender roles, abortion, and homosexuality. These schools are often younger than their mainline kin, and as a group have only become academically prominent in the last few decades. Nevertheless, Evangelical schools have flourished. Some of these schools are now the largest places of theological instruction in the world, and have growing international influence. Their academic interests tend more towards apologetics than the more socially minded mainline schools.
In this article we ranked the Top 10 Mainline Protestant Seminaries in the U.S. These include both schools affiliated with theologically left (liberal) denominations, and institutions which have little to no remaining connection with the denominations which started them. They are often schools that are primarily driven by some combination of academic prestige and social justice. A degree from one of these programs is often very similar to a degree from a well-respected religious studies program.
And finally, we include apostolic traditions, in particular, the Top 10 Catholic Seminaries. Those who study at these schools are likely entering a more formal priest craft with extremely detailed and ancient liturgies. These schools produce a large number of scholars in a variety of fields, and have the strongest ties to their respective denominations.
As a general rule, most prospective students will feel comfortable studying within their category. A Methodist will probably still feel at home at the Presbyterian Princeton Seminary. Likewise, an Orthodox priest may love writing a thesis at Notre Dame. And most Calvinists would find substantial common ground at a school like Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. However, in the same light, those wishing to study outside of their category should expect their courses to be taught from an alternative, and possibly even opposing, worldview. We leave it to the student to decide whether this is preferable or not. Either way, each of the schools mentioned are exemplary and represent the best that their respective category of Christian theology has to offer.
1. Princeton Theological Seminary (Princeton, NJ)
Founded in 1812, Princeton Theological Seminary is the oldest seminary in the United States. It is the flagship seminary of the Presbyterian Church of the United States of America, and has produced many of America’s most well respected theologians. Here is where Charles Hodge wrote his three volume systematic theology that replaced Francis Turretin’s work for several generations. It is also where B. B. Warfield wrote the definitive defense of the doctrine of inerrancy, which later went on to define Evangelicals. Princeton produced a school of apologetics steeped in evidentialism that is still highly regarded.
Nevertheless, the school transitioned during the moderninist/fundamentalist divide, and has since become a largely Neo-Orthodox seminary heavily influenced by Karl Barth. It now stands as the most conservative of the liberal schools, and consequently attracts a more eclectic range of students than many of the other mainline schools on this list. Princeton has an enormous endowment of roughly 1 billion dollars, making it one of the richest seminaries in the world. It also runs numerous institutes and centers, such as its Center for Scottish Common Sense Philosophy and its Abraham Kuyper Institute. But despite its heavy academic emphasis for doctoral level students, its MDiv program is still focused on producing pastors. Its doctoral candidates do well in academic placement, while its master’s level students typically pursue church work.
2. Yale Divinity School (New Haven, CT)
Like many of America’s early schools, Yale University was founded by Christians with a Puritan heritage. Yale was formed in 1701 as a school for the training of Congregationalists ministers. The school grew into a major college and eventually a full-fledged university. Consequently, some felt that a separate department designated for the specific training of ministers was needed, and in 1822 Yale Divinity School was formed. But the divinity school still remains a part of Yale University, with most faculty holding joint appointments in other departments such as history or religious studies.
Yale Divinity School maintained adherence to its Congregationalist Puritan tradition until the mid-19th century when it moved in a more ecumenical direction. It is now most closely aligned with the Episcopal Church, and even runs the Berkley Episcopal Seminary. Students also have access to the Institute for Sacred Music, and several research centers that employ students such as the Johnathan Edwards Center. The school is famous for initiating the post-liberal narrative movement in theology that Duke would later embrace. Yale is a relatively small Divinity School with 385 students, which allows for a more intimate and personal learning environment. It also produces an unusually high percentage of students who pursue additional degrees, (about 27%), and specifically the PhD, (about 17%), thus making it one of the best schools for students interested in academic preparation.
3. Duke Divinity School (Durham, NC)
Duke Divinity School is one of the 13 seminaries/divinity schools run by the United Methodist Church. It was founded as the first graduate school of Duke University. The school’s facilities were both expanded and renovated in 2005. The school is famous for championing the Yale initiated post-liberal or narrative theology movement.
Traditional/conservative schools heavily emphasize systematic theology and take an encyclopedic approach to scripture while classically liberal schools heavily emphasize social/moral theology and often treat scripture as a source for inspiration. But the post liberals focus on the Bible as an evolving story and seek to understand scripture as the unfolding narrative which it presents itself as. This school of thought has found appeal to a wide audience. Duke runs several major initiatives such as the Center for Reconciliation, Theology Medicine and Culture, the Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts, the Center for Studies in the Wesleyan Tradition, Leadership Education at Duke Divinity, Thriving Rural Communities, the Clergy Health Initiative, and the Duke Youth Academy.
4. Harvard Divinity School (Cambridge, MA)
Harvard University, like many of its sister Ivy League Schools, was founded to educate ministers and spread the Christian gospel. As time passed, however, these small, local schools transformed into much larger Universities, and eventually Harvard built its Divinity School in 1816. This particular place of theological instruction is unique in that it was founded as the nation’s first openly non-sectarian place of theological instruction.
A wide range of students attend Harvard Divinity School, including some without any religious affiliation. Thus, its character is much closer to a secular religious studies program. Although it does offer the masters of divinity degree and actively trains people for ministry, Harvard has a more academic focus than its peers. There is perhaps more attention given to non-Christian religious traditions here than any other divinity school. At just over three hundred students this school is extremely small, but this is mitigated by its inclusion in a massive research university settled in a city dominated by numerous other research centers.
5. Vanderbilt Divinity School (Nashville, TN)
Vanderbilt Divinity School was founded in 1875, just two years after the creation of its parent university. The school originally had ties to Methodism, and although these formal ties were severed in 1915, it is still most closely connected with that religious tradition and other similar, mainline Protestant groups. Both the larger university and the divinity school have quickly become dominant centers of learning in the south, and gone on to develop international renown.
The school runs several learning centers such as the Carpenter Program in Religion, Gender, and Sexuality, and the Kelly Miller Smith Institute on black church studies. The divinity school itself has a heavy focus on practical theology. It offers two degrees, the Master of Divinity and the Master of Theological Studies. The doctoral level work at Vanderbilt is available through the department of religion at the university. This gives Vanderbilt both a ministry-centered environment and opportunities to tap into larger academic venues.
6. The University of Chicago Divinity School (Chicago, IL)
The University of Chicago was founded on strict empiricism. Not surprisingly, this philosophy of argument and evidence backed up by seemingly limitless Rockefeller money catapulted the university into academic excellence. Its divinity school has also earned a reputation as academically rigorous, as it offers over 100 courses every year.
The divinity school runs 4 academic programs, which include the Master of Arts, Master of Divinity, Doctor of Philosophy, and Master of Arts in Religious Studies, and takes full advantage of its inclusion within a world class research facility. The University, although founded with a Baptist heritage, has now become nonsectarian, and consequently the Divinity School bears no denominational affiliation. Chicago runs numerous centers, including ones focused on race and gender. Historically the Divinity School’s activities have been divided into three major branches: Constructive Studies in Religion (such as ethics and theology), Historical studies, and religion and the human sciences.
7. Emory – Candler School of Theology (Atlanta, GA)
The United Methodist Church runs 13 separate seminaries/divinity schools. Of these, the Emory–Candler School of Theology, founded in 1914 at Wesley Memorial Church, is one of the most established and respected. It is affiliated with Emory University, a world class school with a more than 5 billion dollar endowment. This gives the school numerous additional resources and allows for prestigious dual degree programs such as those which it shares with Emory Law School.
It also offers dual degrees in Bioethics, Business, Development Practice, Public Health, and a dual degree in Social Work with the University of Georgia. In keeping with the Wesleyan holiness tradition from which it came, Emory–Candler puts a high priority on practical theology. This is one of the reasons why the school houses the World Methodist Evangelism Institute, which it runs in cooperation with the World Methodist Council. The school serves 500 students from 50 denominations, and offers numerous degrees from applied Master’s degrees in leadership and public life to Doctorates in ministry.
8. Union Theological Seminary (New York, NY)
In many ways Union Theological Seminary is of the same New York City spirit which surrounds it. The school is noted for its extremely progressive theology that emphasizes social justice. The school is fond of saying, “Union is where faith and scholarship meet to re-imagine the work of justice.” Union is the oldest independent seminary in the U.S. It is interested in addressing the theological questions faced by a variety of faiths beyond Christianity as well as pertinent social concerns.
Some of recent history’s leading thinkers, such as systematic theologian Paul Tilich, president Obama’s favorite philosopher Reinhold Niebuhr, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer (who was killed by the Nazis for his involvement in the failed assassination attempt on Adolf Hitler), have studied or taught at Union. The seminary also partners with several of the New York area’s leading schools such as Columbia University, JTS, Manhattan School of Music, Fordham, and Drew Theological School. Union is perhaps most famous for giving birth to important theological movements such as black liberation theology and womanist theology, as well as being an epicenter for classical liberal theology.
9. Boston University School of Theology (Boston, MA)
Like many of the other schools mentioned on this list, the Boston University School of Theology is a place of religious instruction with connections to a larger research university. This gives it all the associated academic advantages. Also, being in Boston, the school benefits from emersion within one of America’s leading education centers, which is why it is a member of the prestigious Boston Theological Institute.
The school runs several unique centers, such as the Steward Program which focuses on applying pious principles to economics, and its Religion and Conflict Transformation Program, which focuses on working through differences in our extremely diverse world. Other centers cover topics such as global Christianity, religion and the arts, women and theology, and practical theology. Boston University is officially affiliated with the United Methodist Church, but it’s also intensely ecumenical, and all faith traditions are welcome. Boston University offers various theology degrees ranging from the Master’s through Doctoral level, including a Master of Sacred Music degree.
10. Wake Forest University, School of Divinity (Winston-Salem, NC)
Wake Forest Divinity School was founded on the Baptist heritage, but has since become a non-sectarian research university. Its divinity school is ecumenical but retains strong ties to its Baptist roots, and was the first university-based divinity school to lack any denominational heritage from its inception. The divinity school itself only offers one degree, the Master’s of Divinity, but it also offers multiple joint degree programs that operate in conjunction with other departments. This gives students the chance to study bioethics, counseling, education, law, and sustainability alongside of theology.
Furthermore, Wake Forest offers three different concentrations for its degree, which include one in education, one in the environment and sustainability, and one in well-being and public health. Former Wake Forest theologian Melissa Rogers is now the director of the Office of Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships at the White House. Roughly half of the school’s alumni enter ministry at graduation, while the other half are divided amongst the academy, counseling, education, and numerous other fields.
*The Top 10 Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Seminaries article is currently being written and will be forthcoming soon.
Top 10 Mainline Protestant Seminaries
This article was written by Stephen DeRose. Stephen writes articles about education for different venues and has worked for multiple test prep and admissions companies, such as Kaplan and the Huntington Learning Center.