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The History of Union Theological College

Union continues to build on a rich heritage of theological education. Training has been provided at our Belfast home since 1853.

Beginnings: Two Sites

In the early nineteenth century, those who hoped to serve as Presbyterian ministers were educated either in Scotland or at the Belfast Academical Institute, opened in 1814 as both a secondary school and a college. Irish Presbyterianism underwent a significant change in 1840 when the General Synod of Ulster and the Secession Synod were united to establish the Presbyterian Church in Ireland (PCI). As one of its first goals, the newly formed General Assembly undertook to establish a complete seminary for its students.

In 1846, Mrs Magee, the widow of a Presbyterian minister, left £20,000 to the Church for the establishment of a Presbyterian College. It was decided that the money would be used to build a complete college—including both Arts and theology—in Londonderry. The government also agreed to finance seven professorships of theology in a Presbyterian Theological College in Belfast. Students were encouraged to attend the Queen’s College for their undergraduate Arts course, before taking their theology courses at the new college in Belfast. As a result, Assembly’s College was opened in 1853 in the building Union still uses today, and Magee College was established in Londonderry in 1865.

PTFI: Royal Charter awarded

In 1881, the professors of the College, who constituted the Presbyterian Theological Faculty Ireland (PTFI), were granted a Royal Charter to confer academic degrees. The PTFI is therefore recognised under UK law as having the power to award postgraduate degrees. The College was delighted to receive a renewed Royal Charter in 2021, ensuring that it can continue to award postgraduate degrees. All of Union’s degrees are marked by strict academic standards approved by the Faculty and regulated by the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) in the UK.

All of Union’s ministry courses are overseen by the Council for Training in Ministry of the Presbyterian Church in Ireland.

Union Theological College: Past and Present

In 1978, the theological department of Magee was moved to Belfast and united with Assembly’s College, forming Union Theological College. Today, Union still meets in its original location, a place marked by a storied history. Designed by Sir Charles Lanyon, the strikingly beautiful building served as the location for the newly–formed Parliament of Northern Ireland from 1921 until 1932, during the construction of Stormont. Union’s building was used again between 1941 and 1948, when the city police’s headquarters were bombed during the Belfast Blitz.

Today, Union’s diverse student body is made up of students from across the world and closer to home; those training for ordained ministry and those that come to avail of the high-quality learning opportunities available across programmes both on-campus and online. When you study at Union, you enter into a rich tradition of theological education in a place filled with centuries of history.

The Presbyterian Church in Ireland

The Presbyterian Historical Society