St. Lawrence Foundation for Theological Education History

The St Lawrence Foundation for Theological Education is the successor to the tradition—and assets—of the Theological School at St. Lawrence University.

In 1855, representatives of the Village of Canton, New York, near the St. Lawrence River, approached the Universalist Education Society with a proposal to establish a new seminary for the preparation of Universalist ministers, along with a College of Arts and Sciences. While there was skepticism about the ability of the somewhat isolated community to support such an endeavor, it went ahead. The New York State Legislature granted a charter in 1856, and classes began in 1858. From its first graduates in 1861 through the final class in 1965, the Theological School granted 419 Bachelor of Divinity degrees (largely to Universalist and Unitarian men and women committed to the liberal ministry), and 67 Certificates in Religious Education.

Following the consolidation of the Universalist Church of America and the American Unitarian Association in 1961, the new Unitarian Universalist Association appointed a Commission to evaluate theological education. In the judgment of the Commission, it was not practical to have a hundred Unitarian Universalist seminarians scattered over five schools (including Harvard, which was non-denominational, although it had a significant Unitarian tradition and a number of Unitarian students). In 1965, St. Lawrence had five faculty members and a total of ten students in its three-year program. The Commission recommended that all UU ministerial educational endeavors be merged at Meadville Theological School at the University of Chicago. Ultimately, only the two Universalist schools, St. Lawrence and Crane (Tufts), were closed.

The Trustees of the St. Lawrence Theological School voted in June,1964, to terminate its instructional program in June, 1965, and in October, 1964, they voted to establish a Foundation to use the school’s endowment for its original purpose: to support theological education.

Although the Boards of Trustees of the Theological School and the University had been separated in 1910, the University’s trustees believed, given their linked history, they had a claim to the Universalist endowment. Only after the New York State Convention of Universalists brought a lawsuit and pursued it to a successful conclusion was the University forced to release the funds that had been contributed for the support of the Theological School. The St. Lawrence Foundation was created and empowered to receive and administer those funds.

As originally organized, the Foundation had a board of thirteen members: seven from the State Convention and two each from the UUA, the St. Lawrence District, and the Metro New York District. That was subsequently reduced to seven to reduce expenses, four from the State Convention, and one each from the other constituent bodies. In 2016, upon dissolution of UUA districts, two representatives (replacing St Lawrence District and Metro NY appointees) would be appointed by the Board of the Foundation.

Over the years a pattern developed of transferring the lion’s share of the earnings from the fund administered by the Foundation to the UUA for support of ministerial education. The all-volunteer board simply did not have the time, expertise, or resources to independently evaluate and select candidates for grants from the Foundation’s funds.

In the early 1980s the Board began to question whether this procedure represented the wisest use of the Foundation’s resources and appointed an Implementation Committee to study the matter. The Committee considered a number of potential actions, ranging from (a) transferring the entire assets of the Foundation to the UUA to be administered as a trust for the purposes set out in the Foundation’s Certificate of Incorporation; to (b) continuing operations unchanged.

The various possibilities were heatedly debated, not only by the Foundation Board but perhaps even more passionately by the New York State Convention of Universalists. Many delegates to the Convention had vivid memories of perceived misuse of Universalist funds by the UUA after the merger and were vehemently opposed to turning over any more funds to the UUA with essentially no strings attached.

After much debate, it was decided that the Foundation would turn over approximately 95% of its assets to the UUA for administration, under the condition that:

  1. 5% of the assets would be available for distribution each year. Of this amount, 2/3 would be allocated to the UUA for scholarship aid and the other 1/3 would be subject to allocation by an Advisory Committee of the Foundation; and
  2. the Foundation would retain the right to require the funds held by the UUA to be returned to the Foundation upon demand.

The proposed Endowment Agreement with the UUA was adopted by the Foundation’s Board of Trustees at its meeting on May 3, 1988, and was formally signed by the Foundation and the UUA on January 27, 1989.

Since that time, the endowment income allocated by the Foundation has been used to support scholarships and programs for students preparing for the Unitarian Universalist ministry at UU-affiliated seminaries and at other seminaries with significant UU enrollment.

Read more: 120 Years: An Account of the Theological School at St. Lawrence University (PDF).