The city of Cambridge: Theological colleges

Pages 139-141

A History of the County of Cambridge and the Isle of Ely: Volume 3, the City and University of Cambridge. Originally published by Victoria County History, London, 1959.

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CHESHUNT COLLEGE, the oldest of the Cambridge theological colleges, owed its foundation largely to the expulsion from St. Edmund Hall, Oxford, early in 1768, of six Anglican students because of their alleged Methodist leanings. (fn. 44) Lady Huntingdon, desiring to provide for the theological training of young ministers of the Methodist persuasion, acquired a house at Trevecca (Brecon), and opened there a training college for clergy on 24 August 1768. Its first president was an Anglican cleric, and its students have always been free to enter the ministry of any denomination. But, as the circumstances of its origin would suggest, it gave a religious training that was not only strongly evangelical but also a substitute for, rather than a supplement to, that of the universities. The students, who received their education free, remained there for three years.

On the death of the countess, who had resided in the College, the trustees decided to transfer it to a site nearer London. In 1792 a house at Cheshunt (Herts.) (fn. 45) was acquired, and there the College remained for the next 114 years, becoming in course of time especially associated with the Congregationalists. In 1906 the increased provision for theological teaching in the reconstituted University of London decided the trustees to leave Cheshunt and migrate to Cambridge. (fn. 46)

In its new buildings, erected in 1915 from the designs of Morley Horder on a site between Bateman Street and Brookside, the College preserves, amongst other links with its beginnings, the portraits of the foundress and her family, of the first trustees, and of the famous Francke, forerunner of the charity school movement, a 1536 edition of Tyndale's New Testament, once the property of Lady Huntingdon, a volume of Charles Wesley's hymns in his own writing, and other manuscripts and letters associated with the early days of Methodism.

Of the five theological colleges of Cambridge Cheshunt is the only one not associated by its constitution with any one denomination. Students are not required to subscribe to Lady Huntingdon's fifteen articles in which she defined the Calvinistic tenets of her Connexion for the trustees. Besides serving as a hostel for theological students who belong to some college of the University and for post-graduate students training for the ministry, Cheshunt also houses extramural students sent to Cambridge by their industrial firms for short courses of study. In addition both men and women students are accepted who, without aiming at the ministry, wish to qualify as specialist teachers of Scripture in schools, and read for a degree or diploma in theology, usually followed by a University course in education. Only graduates are accepted for ministerial training, and their course, which takes two or three years, includes practical work. There is a common table for all, but married and women students live out. There is accommodation for some 20 inmates.

Cheshunt has sent a long succession of its students to the mission field, and amongst those who have laid down their lives there should be named James Chalmers of New Guinea (d. 1901) and Alfred Sadd, killed by the Japanese in the Gilbert Islands in 1943.

Westminster. (fn. 47)

In 1844 the newly constituted Presbyterian Church in England founded a college for the training of would-be Presbyterian ministers. Its resources were scanty. It had no house of its own until 1864 (in Queen Square, London), and the complement of four professors required for a theological course and for a duly constituted senatus was not reached until 1878. Two proposals to transfer to a university town had been rejected when in 1892 the offer of a Cambridge site made such a move practicable, and after three years' debate it was accepted.

Once again the benefactors were women. The twin sisters Margaret Gibson (1843–1926) and Agnes Lewis (1843–1920) were natives of Ayrshire, widows of scholars, and themselves learned orientalists, who had in 1892 discovered the Sinai palimpsest of the Old Testament in the monastery of St. Catharine's, Sinai, to which their knowledge of modern Greek had gained them admission. (fn. 48) Besides the site, they gave the College £6,000. This lead was followed up by the congregations, and when the building, designed by H. T. Hare, was opened in October 1899, Westminster College stood free of debt. It is placed south-west of the old Roman Camp, where the slope comes down from the Castle Hill towards the Backs.

The College is for the training of ministers of the Presbyterian Church and is governed by the Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in England, but members of other churches are received, and the College lectures are attended by students of the other theological colleges and of the University. The senate, made up of the four professors, is responsible directly to the assembly for the teaching given in the College. All are members of the University faculty of theology and some have held University appointments. (fn. 49) Since its establishment in Cambridge, the College has trained some 350 candidates for the Presbyterian ministry in England and some 150 students of other churches. The student body numbers about 40. The library, which contains some 20,000 theological works, possesses valuable collections of 17th-century pamphlets and of oriental manuscripts presented by Mrs. Lewis and Mrs. Gibson. The chapel, added in 1921, has some fine stained glass by Douglas Strachan.

Ridley Hall.

It was no coincidence that the same year, 1881, saw the beginnings of the two Anglican theological colleges, Ridley Hall and Westcott House. By the middle of the 19th century the shortage of adequate theological training for Anglican clergy was apparent to many church leaders, (fn. 50) all the more as there was good provision for the training of Free Church ministers. The initial impulse to link such training with the older universities (fn. 51) came from the Evangelicals, particularly strong at Cambridge, where the traditions of Charles Simeon's ministry at Holy Trinity were kept alive by various activities. (fn. 52) One such was 'the most famous of all Sunday Schools' opened in 1827 in the old Quaker meeting house to meet the needs of the rapidly growing parish of St. Andrew, Barnwell. The Jesus Lane sunday school, (fn. 53) transferred in 1833 to King Street and in 1867 to Paradise Street, Barnwell, was originally staffed by undergraduate members of Simeon's congregation. In 1877 it had 646 scholars and 112 teachers. It might almost be called the nursery of Ridley Hall, one of whose founders, E. H. Carr (1810–80), (fn. 54) had taught there in the thirties, whilst another, Charles Perry (1807–91), (fn. 55) had been the generous friend of both school and parish. These two were mainly responsible for the meeting at C.M.S. House in London in March 1876 at which it was proposed that two theological halls should be founded, one at Oxford and one at Cambridge. (fn. 56) By the scheme adopted in April 1877 a joint trust was set up, with two distinct councils for Wycliffe Hall, Oxford, and Ridley Hall, Cambridge. (fn. 57) The names selected for the two halls reflected the views dominating the founders' minds, who saw in ritualism and rationalism the main dangers against which theological reinforcement was needed. The same fear led Bishop Perry to insist on the insertion in the trust deed of certain doctrinal safeguards; as a result Professors Lightfoot and Westcott, hitherto warm supporters, decided to take independent action. (fn. 58)

The purpose of Ridley Hall, as defined by the deed of trust, was to furnish supplementary theological instruction in conformity with the doctrines of the Protestant Reformed Church to graduate candidates for ordination and to afford them economical residence. (fn. 59) It was 'to provide the missing link between the universities and the ministry', (fn. 60) and the great majority of Ridleians have been Cambridge graduates, though in the course of 70 years a number of graduates of other universities have studied there.

On 31 January 1881 the College opened on a site at Newnham, (fn. 61) with its full complement of eight students, under the headship of the Revd. Handley Moule (1841–1920). Moule was also lecturer at Holy Trinity, and his Sunday evening sermons there carried on the Simeon tradition. (fn. 62) He has been justly called 'the creator of Ridley Hall'. (fn. 63) Five hundred and fourteen students had come under the influence of his vigorous and saintly personality when he resigned in 1899, and about one-fifth of them had gone to the mission field. (fn. 64) The buildings, enlarged in 1882 and 1891, could then accommodate 40 students. Under Moule's successor, T. W. Drury (1847–1926), (fn. 65) more emphasis was laid on the scholastic training of the ordinands, (fn. 66) and 'all shades of ecclesiastical opinion' came to be found among them. (fn. 67) The tradition of Evangelical and practical pastoral work has been effectively maintained, as well as the association with Holy Trinity Church, further strengthened by the foundation of the Cambridge Pastorate in 1897. (fn. 68) The supply of volunteers for the mission field has continued, and at least seven old Ridleians are or have been overseas bishops. (fn. 69) Further additions were made to the buildings in 1912 and 1914, and the College today normally holds 52 students.

Westcott House.

The Clergy Training School, known since 1902 as Westcott House, owes its inception to B. F. Westcott (1825–1901). An active promoter of better theological training for Anglican ordinands, he, with Lightfoot, had supported the Ridley scheme until, in their words, it adopted a basis 'narrower than that of the National Church'. (fn. 70) With the co-operation of a number of college deans, notably Frederick Wallis of Caius College, the Clergy Training School was opened in January 1881. It was from the first more closely connected with the University than Ridley, since the Regius Professor of Divinity (Westcott) was the first President, and its council, as constituted in 1887, included all the Divinity Professors being clergymen of the Church of England. Its beginnings were modest and tentative. The lectures and meetings were held in hired rooms at 20 King's Parade, a sidechapel in King's served for common worship, there was no common hall, and the students lived in their own colleges or in rooms. There was no principal or resident tutor, and most of the lecturers gave their services gratis. By the end of the second year, however, there were fourteen students, and larger rooms were taken, in St. Mary's Street in 1884 and at 6 St. Mary's Passage in 1889. F. H. Chase was appointed tutor in 1884, to become the first Principal (1887–1901) when the School was given a formal constitution. By 1893 the School had 28 present and 225 past students. (fn. 71)

In May 1899 it moved into permanent buildings in Jesus Lane, which included rooms for the Principal and six students, a common room, a lecture room, and a temporary chapel. Thus the members of the College were still largely non-resident. (fn. 72) In 1903 32 Jesus Lane was acquired as a house for the Principal.

In 1916 Westcott House, like other theological colleges, had to close down. In 1919 it reopened with B. K. Cunningham (1871–1944) as Principal. Cunningham (fn. 73) had been head of the Farnham Theological Hostel from 1899 to 1914, and of the Army Chaplains' School at St. Omer from 1917 to 1919. His unique combination of simplicity, humour, sympathy, and saintliness, together with his ideal of 'unity in diversity' and his belief in 'a minimum of discipline imposed from without with a maximum of discipline worked from within', (fn. 74) has given Westcott House a marked character of its own, and has attracted men from many other universities. The House reopened in the spring of 1919 with the Principal, vice-principal, and 8 men; by the beginning of the second term there were 20, and the number soon rose to 40. A hall had been built in 1912, a chapel and library in 1924, and additional rooms in 1914 and 1929. In 1944 Cunningham retired, and W. Greer became Principal, to be succeeded in 1947 by K. Carey.

The average number of students is today about 45. As a rule only graduates and those recommended by a bishop's selection board are accepted and the normal course lasts for two years or eight terms. The greater part of the teaching is given by the Principal, vice-principal, and chaplain-tutor, who direct the life and studies of the members, but the University professors and lecturers also share in the work. As a rule, members do not read for the Theological Tripos. A larger proportion of the students than at Ridley come from universities other than Cambridge. (fn. 75)

Wesley House was founded in 1921 by Michael Gutteridge, a Methodist layman who had built up a great business in Naples and was well known in Italy as a generous supporter of good causes. For four years its work was carried on at 2 Brookside, in close co-operation with Cheshunt College, until in 1925 the present College buildings were erected on a site purchased from Jesus College, on land once belonging to St. Radegund's on the opposite side of Jesus Lane to Westcott House. The Principal's house was completed in 1929, and the Chapel, which contains paintings by Harold Speed, in 1930.

The College is administered by a special board of trustees, and is worked under the direction of the Methodist Conference, acting through a board of governors. There is room for some 30 students. As a rule only graduates are admitted, though, in exceptional circumstances, the Methodist Conference may send an undergraduate here for training. All are expected to read for the Theological Tripos.

Of the two chairs, that in Systematics and Pastoral Theology was held by the first Principal, Dr. H. Maldwyn Hughes, throughout his headship from 1921 to 1937, whilst that in New Testament Language and Literature was held by the Revd. R. Newton Flew from 1927 to 1937, when he succeeded Dr. Hughes both as Principal and professor.

With a history far shorter than that of the four other theological colleges, Wesley has already made notable contributions both to the administration of the Methodist Church and to the teaching of theology in other universities and theological colleges. (fn. 76)


  • 44. A. V. Murray, Cheshunt College, Cambridge, 5. This is the authority for all statements about the College.
  • 45. V.C.H. Herts. ii. 97.
  • 46. Its buildings were acquired for the use of an Anglican theological college: V.C.H. Herts. iii. 441.
  • 47. Except when otherwise stated, this account derives from W. A. L. Elmslie, Westminster College, Cambridge, 1899–1949.
  • 48. D.N.B.
  • 49. C. A. Anderson Scott, Professor of N.T. Theology at Westminster, was in 1920 the first non-Anglican to receive the degree of D.D. at Cambridge since 1662. J.W.C. Oman was appointed a University lecturer in 1913, and H. H. Farmer was elected Norris-Hulse Professor of Divinity in 1949.
  • 50. F.W.B.Bullock, History of Ridley Hall, Cambridge, i. 10.
  • 51. Schools of theology had been functioning at the University of Durham and at King's College, London, since 1832 and 1846.
  • 52. See V.C.H. Cambs. ii. 192–3.
  • 53. Bullock, Hist. of Ridley Hall, i. 54 sqq. and sources noted there.
  • 54. Ibid. 72 sqq. for biographical details.
  • 55. Ibid. 94 sqq.
  • 56. Ibid. 88.
  • 57. Ibid. 108 sqq.
  • 58. Ibid. 132 sqq., 177.
  • 59. Ibid. 119.
  • 60. Ibid. 136.
  • 61. Ibid. 144. The architect was Charles Luck.
  • 62. Ibid. 163–6. Other links were the presence on the council of William Carus, Simeon's friend and biographer, and the continuing support of the 'Jesus Lane' Sunday School: ibid. 180.
  • 63. Ibid. 315.
  • 64. Ibid. 331–3.
  • 65. Ibid. 357 sqq.
  • 66. Ibid. 365, 569.
  • 67. Ibid. 430. Relations between Ridley and Westcott House from the first have been consistently close and friendly.
  • 68. Ibid. 296, 368–9, 379, 457.
  • 69. Ibid. 343.
  • 70. Ibid. 133.
  • 71. B. K. Cunningham, Hist. of Westcott House, 3–16; F. H. Chase in Supplement to Cambridge Review, 1 June 1899, cvi–cvii.
  • 72. B. K. Cunningham, Hist. of Westcott House, 20.
  • 73. J. R. H. Moorman, B. K. Cunningham, a Memoir.
  • 74. Ibid. 96.
  • 75. Ex inf. Vice-Principal, Westcott House.
  • 76. Ex inf. Mr. Flew.