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Since the mid-twentieth century in American higher education, "seminary" has referred to a group of special-purpose institutions of higher education whose primary purpose is theological education: graduate professional education for ministers, priests, or religious professionals or graduate education in the various theological studies disciplines. These higher education institutions have other names, such as divinity school or school of theology, but most higher education institutions of this kind in the United States have the word "seminary" in their names. The Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada is the agency that accredits most seminaries, and it has approximately 240 member institutions. All these schools operate at the postbaccalaureate level (a bachelor's degree or its equivalent is required for admission), conduct programs of professional education (law schools, medical schools, and graduate business schools are examples of other kinds of professional education in American higher education), and consider themselves to be within the Christian tradition, and most of them provide some programs in the graduate, academic study of theological disciplines at the graduate level. There are also several Jewish seminaries in the United States, and those related to Reformed, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism share educational and institutional similarities with the seminaries described in this entry. The schools for religious leaders in Buddhism, Islam, Hinduism, and other religious traditions present in America function differently, and tend to be identified with names other than "seminary."

History and Institutional Characteristics of Seminaries

The education of persons for the ministry was a motivating factor in the founding of many private colleges and universities in America. Gradually, the colleges and universities assumed broader educational purposes, and specific education for ministry moved to the theological schools, which were formed either as separate freestanding institutions or as college-related seminaries or university-related divinity schools. Currently, approximately 80 percent of the seminaries in North America are freestanding institutions and 20 percent are related to a college or university.

Most seminaries would identify themselves with one of three major families of Christianity in North America: Roman Catholic, Mainline Protestant, or Evangelical Protestant. Mainline and evangelical are arguable distinctions, but most Protestant seminaries would classify themselves as more closely related to one of these two major communities of Protestants or Protestant denominations than to the other.

Seminaries are primarily nineteenth- or twentieth-century institutions, although a few can trace their histories to the late 1700s. The oldest seminaries in North America were founded in the first half of the nineteenth century and tend to be related to denominations that would identify themselves as Mainline Protestant. During the second half of the nineteenth century, a number of seminaries were established in the South, following the Civil War–era separation of many American denominations (including Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian) into independent southern and northern denominations. A number of seminaries were founded around the turn of the twentieth century, as different immigrant groups arrived in America bringing immigrant churches with them. The Scandinavian Lutherans, western and southern European Roman Catholics, and eastern European Orthodox established seminaries not long after they became established in America. More than half of all the seminaries related to the Association of Theological Schools (ATS) were founded in the twentieth century.

Since the 1960s, seminaries have been affected by several shaping forces. Because seminaries grow out of the broader enterprise of religion, the most salient changes in seminaries reflect the changes more broadly experienced in American religion. Three of these changes are of particular importance. First, Mainline Protestantism has changed. Mainline Protestants, with whom almost half of all American seminaries could be identified, has experienced a substantial decline in membership—almost 30 percent in many mainline denominations—and that has had an impact on seminaries. Interestingly, the number of students has increased, but the students are, on average, older and are enrolled in a greater variety of degree programs. Second, membership of the Roman Catholic Church continues to grow, but the number of men presenting themselves as candidates for the ministerial priesthood has declined since the 1950s. While the enrollment of men studying for ordination has decreased, the total enrollment in Catholic seminaries has actually increased. This enrollment phenomenon is the result of the increase in students enrolled in programs such as the Master of Pastoral Studies, a degree program for persons preparing for nonordained professional ministry. Third, since World War II, one of the most interesting changes in American Protestantism has been the growth in numbers of persons who could be described, in one way or the other, as Evangelical Protestants. Most of the seminaries founded since World War II identify themselves as Evangelical Protestant. The growth in seminaries over the past forty years—both in the number of schools and the number of students enrolled in those schools—has been greatest among seminaries that identify with Evangelical denominations or the Evangelical wings of mainline denominations.

Some changes in seminaries since World War II have a less direct correlation with changes in religious denominations; they are the result of influences that have constituted significant shaping forces in the seminaries. The first of these is the increasing percentage of students, faculty, and administrators who are women. While women have been enrolled in some seminaries throughout those schools' histories, their numbers were traditionally small. Over the past twenty five years, the percentage of women students in seminaries related to ATS has grown from 10 percent to more than 40 percent of the total enrollment. While the enrollment of women reflects increasing openness in many denominations to the ordination of women, the increase in the enrollment of women is as evident among many seminaries related to church bodies that do not ordain women as it is among seminaries serving those church bodies that do ordain women. The presence of women, in substantial numbers, as students, administrators, and faculty has changed the ethos and culture of many theological schools.

A second major change in seminaries is the number and kind of degree programs they offer. In the 1950s the typical seminary offered a degree program for students preparing for ordained ministry, in which the vast majority of students were enrolled and, perhaps, one or two other degree programs, which generally had much smaller enrollments. Few seminaries offered academic master's programs, and few offered professional degree programs other than the one for persons preparing for ordained ministry. Presently, most seminaries offer many degree programs to a larger variety of students. These multiple-degree programs have resulted in a diversity of educational goals and aspirations of students. Like the increasing percentage of women, the growth in degree programs is a substantive change in the ethos of seminaries.

Finally, the students themselves appear to be far more diverse than they were forty years ago. The typical student in 1950 had received an undergraduate degree from a church-related college, majored in an area such as religion, philosophy, or history that was taken to be a good undergraduate area of study in preparation for seminary study, and enrolled in the seminary immediately after completing the baccalaureate degree. In the 1990s, only a small minority of students would fit this profile. The majority of contemporary students in seminaries has completed undergraduate degrees in public colleges or universities, typically do not have undergraduate majors in religion or cognate fields, and have not enrolled in seminary directly upon the completion of their undergraduate degree program. The present student body in American seminaries is very diverse; most of the older homogenizing factors are no longer present.


In addition to their diversity, there are a variety of other characteristics of the student bodies in American seminaries that contribute to the understanding of these institutions. Approximately seventy thousand students are enrolled in degree programs in seminaries that are members of the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada. While not all seminaries are members of ATS, the vast majority are. About 42 percent of these students are pursuing the Master of Divinity degree, which is a three-year, post-baccalaureate degree program that educates persons for general pastoral ministry and is a requirement for ordination in many American denominations. Another 15 per cent of the students are in various professional master's degree programs designed to educate persons for a variety of specialized religious professional areas of work, such as religious education, social ministries, church music, or missions. The remainder of students are pursuing academic master's degree programs such as the Master of Theological Studies or a Master of Arts with a specialization in one of the theological disciplines, or research doctoral programs like the Doctor of Philosophy.

Students are studying at seminary for a variety of reasons. The majority hope to serve in vocational ministry contexts upon completion of their seminary education. These positions include working in parishes and congregations in a variety of ordained and nonordained roles, working in church- or denominationrelated agencies or institutions, in independent ministry organizations, as chaplains, or in other religious service in hospitals, industry, or military or other government-service chaplaincy. Others are studying in order to pursue careers in teaching or research in the academic disciplines related to theological study. Still others are studying in seminaries because they want to pursue advanced learning related to their own religious faith that is more academically rigorous than the religious education provided by parishes, congregations, or denominational agencies. Throughout the 1990s, approximately one-third of the students have been women and two-thirds men.

Seminary Curriculum

While seminaries offer a variety of degrees, the majority of students are enrolled either in the Master of Divinity or another professional master's program and are preparing for some form of ministry. While these degree programs have substantive differences in requirements and curricula, they share several common features that constitute the salient features of the seminary curriculum. All these degrees involve the equivalent of two or three years of full-time study—although most students take more than the minimum two or three years to complete their degree programs. The courses for these various degree programs reflect three primary areas of study: (1) Scripture and other sacred texts; (2) history, theology, ethics, philosophy, and comparative religions; and (3) studies in pastoral care and counseling, church administration, religious education, preaching, and sociology of religion—to attain skills necessary for professional work. The educational goals of seminary degree programs include knowledge of the content of the theological disciplines, the capacity to understand the social and cultural contexts in which religion is situated, proficiency in the skills necessary for religious leadership and the practice of ministry, and the development of personal and spiritual maturity. The educational goals of seminary are unique, in contrast to other areas of American higher education, in terms of this final category: students are expected to develop the kind of personal and spiritual maturity that will give them integrity as religious leaders, as well as the knowledge and competence that enable them to do their work well.

See alsoEvangelical Christianity; Judaism; Mainline Protestantism; Ordination; Ordination of Women; Roman Catholicism.


Aleshire, Daniel and Matthew Zyniewicz, eds. The FactBook on Theological Education. Published annually.

Carroll, Jackson, Barbara Wheeler, Daniel Aleshire, and Penny Long Marler. Being There: Culture andFormation in Two Theological Schools. 1997.

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Miller, Glenn. Piety and Intellect: The Aims and Purposesof Ante-Bellum Theological Education. 1990.

Schuth, Katarina. Seminaries, Theologates, and the Futureof the Ministry: An Analysis of the Trends and Transitions. 1999.

White, Joseph. The Diocesan Seminary in the UnitedStates: A History from the 1780s to the Present. 1989.

Daniel Aleshire