A ‘Grand Errand’: Book charts Divinity School’s mission over two centuries

In a Q&A, Ray Waddle, editor of YDS’s theological journal Reflections, discusses his comprehensive history of the school and its impact over the past 200 years.
Sterling Divinity Quadrangle

At a celebration marking the Yale Divinity School’s (YDS) bicentennial this summer, Yale President Peter Salovey spoke of the school’s enduring imprint on campus and beyond — and how it has come to embodfy the university’s motto Lux et Veritas.

What started as a modest venture to supply clergy to the New England region has since become a wellspring of scholarship and service that benefits humanity,” Salovey said. “It has enriched, in a dark and fragmented world, an education of veritas [Latin for truth] with the rays of lux [light]. It has allowed Yale students to pair their pursuit of knowledge and understanding with a sense of high moral purpose. And it has helped our graduates, therefore, to mobilize the power of a Yale education for the common good.”

The Yale Divinity School circa 1872 at its previous location on the corner of Elm and College streets
The Yale Divinity School circa 1872 at its previous location on the corner of Elm and College streets, showing Marquand Chapel between East and West Divinity Halls.

Yale College was founded in 1701 for the purpose of training clergy and other civic leaders. In 1822, responding to a student petition, Yale created a graduate school for more specialized theological training, a move that signified the creation of what became known as Yale Divinity School.

In a new book, “This Grand Errand: A Bicentennial History of Yale Divinity School,” Ray Waddle, editor of YDS’s theological journal Reflections, provides a comprehensive history of the school and its impact on theology, religious life, and culture over the past 200 years. It documents the school’s transformation from a regional seminary into a top-flight global institution for the training of religious, scholarly, and public leaders.

Waddle recently spoke to Yale News about the major themes that run through YDS’s rich history and what he learned about YDS while writing the book. The interview has been edited and condensed.

What was your approach to researching the book?

Ray Waddle: This is the first history of YDS since 1957, when historian Roland Bainton published “Yale and the Ministry.” A lot has happened since the Eisenhower era! When Dean Greg Sterling authorized this new project, he made it clear he did not want hagiography. The book chronicles the school’s achievements and impact as one would expect, but I also tried to be candid about our turbulent periods. I relied on Bainton’s work at many points as I reconstructed the school’s entire history while also aiming to update the story. I didn’t start out with any particular thesis in mind, but certain threads quickly became evident.

I sifted through a vast number of records, transcripts, dissertations, testimonials, anecdotes, and vintage photos. I interviewed many alumni, faculty, students, and staff. Crucially, I had the help of researcher Martha Smalley, the longtime special collections librarian at the Divinity Library. Even after her retirement in 2016, she continued working for YDS on various projects, including this one. She is an extraordinary researcher and archivist. We consulted regularly and she had answers for every question I asked her. Martha was an essential partner.

What’s the significance of “This Grand Errand” in the book’s title?

Waddle: Today YDS remains rooted in ecumenical Christian commitments, applying those principles to all sorts of issues in tumultuous, unpredictable times. This identity is reflected in the phrase “This Grand Errand,” which comes from a circular that Yale’s founders drafted in 1701 to advertise their newly chartered collegiate school. It originally spoke to a sense of Protestant mission that the college’s founding Puritan clergy envisioned for New England and beyond. It has been reinterpreted — broadened, reimagined — in every era since. By now, “This Grand Errand” suggests a high-stakes theological global endeavor to build communities of faith, inspire learning, pursue the common good, speak to the climate crisis, and embody hope.

What themes arose as you studied the school’s history?

Waddle: One overarching theme is that — across two stormy centuries of American history — YDS has remained remarkably steady in its mission: It has always been Christian-oriented but open to new perspectives and methods, responding to contemporary social crises and conditions with creativity, sending out ministers, scholars, and cadres of theologically minded practitioners into fields beyond church or academy. A triad of commitments — religious faith, intellectual seriousness, social reform-mindedness — has made YDS a preeminent educator of congregational ministers, deans and presidents of colleges, religion scholars, teachers, chaplains, denominational executives, and nonprofit innovators.

That central idea kept me focused on the larger picture as I worked: The YDS story is that of one institution’s endeavor to live out the perennial definition of theology — faith seeking understanding.

How did that unique sense of mission emerge?

Waddle: It has been in place from the start: Christian-centered but in urgent conversation with the world and its seismic changes. That conversation has meant very different things depending on the era and decade, whether 1822, 1922, or 2022. But the school’s first faculty hire set the tone: Theologian Nathaniel Taylor created space within New England Calvinism by arguing for a more flexible and relatable version of Christian faith for new generations in this new American republic. In those first decades after 1822, Taylor’s “New Haven Theology” drew much criticism from old-guard Calvinists but it liberated many YDS students to pursue some daring ministries and scholarship, start new colleges and churches in the pioneer West, and in notable cases become abolitionists who influenced regional debates before the Civil War.

What’s something you learned about YDS while conducting your research that surprised you?

Waddle: I didn’t know that in 1931, the school hosted a pivotal national seminar on the future of Black churches where Black YDS alumni and prominent Black thinkers — civil rights advocates A. Philip Randolph, Benjamin Mays, and others — discussed Black congregations’ relationship to Depression-era labor issues, urbanization, and the vicious racism that pervaded the United States. With the recommendations they articulated there, the event is now seen as an important forerunner to the modern civil rights movement. For example, they discussed Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent resistance, seeing that as a strategy to apply to the American struggle.

I also learned how extensively YDS took a lead at Yale in providing a moral response to the accelerating emergencies that marked the 1960s, including the escalation of the Vietnam War and the urgency of civil rights, racial justice, and labor rights. There were lots of marches from the Quad to the New Haven Green in those years. By about 1967, YDS was on the FBI’s radar. Agents started hanging out at the Quad trying to interview or interrogate students who had refused to sign up for the draft. When Dean Robert Clyde Johnson learned of this, he demanded that the FBI stop the practice. Apparently, that’s all it took. The agents stopped visiting.

What would you hope readers take away from the book?

Waddle: I hope readers of this history will come away with a sense of the ways YDS approaches religion and faith — as a matter of both intellect and heart. In today’s climate, religion often gets characterized as a politicized voting bloc or as a spent force in a secularizing era of scientific revolution. YDS holds out for a view of religious belief as something much more complex, constructive, and interesting: The school communicates an image of the divine that cares about the wellbeing of the world and embraces its diversities, sciences, and artistic capacities with hope, not fear. At Yale and beyond, the school provides a witness to the long conversation about what it means to be human and to serve the greater good.

Share this with Facebook Share this with X Share this with LinkedIn Share this with Email Print this