Union Theological College, originally known as the Assembly’s College, dates back to 1853. 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). The new denomination’s first General Assembly was held on 10 July 1840.
It became increasingly clear to the new denomination that the Belfast Institute was not providing a satisfactory theological education – before the union of 1840, the two conservative synods had removed their students from a particular professor’s class in metaphysics and ethics because of his controversial curriculum. The newly–formed General Assembly therefore undertook as one of its first goals the establishment of a complete seminary for its students.
This goal was complicated by two problems. The first was the government’s announcement of its intention to establish three institutes of higher education in Ireland—the Queen’s Colleges established in Belfast, Galway, and Cork respectively. The government was unlikely to financially support a theological college while it was simultaneously funding its own institutions. The second complication came in 1846 when a Presbyterian minister’s widow, Mrs Magee, left £20,000 to the Church for the establishment of a Presbyterian College. Mrs Magee’s trustees argued that the money should be used for a complete college, one that would teach not only theology, but also a full Arts programme. Meanwhile, the government expected the Church to first send its students to any of the newly established royal colleges after which it was up to the Church to provide a separate theological education after the undergraduate level.
How best to use Mrs Magee’s gift and to make use of the Queen’s colleges was a deeply controversial matter in the General Assembly. Finally it was decided that the Magee money would be used to build a complete college—including both Arts and theology—in Londonderry. Furthermore, the government 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 and so Assembly’s College was opened in 1853 in the building Union still uses today, and Magee College was established in Londonderry in 1865.
From its foundation, Assembly’s College was known for its confessional orthodoxy, and was modelled on Princeton Seminary in America. Robert Watts, who became Professor of Systematic Theology in 1866, had previously taught at Princeton and was determined to make ‘Belfast another Princeton’. 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 two Presbyterian Colleges—Magee and Assembly’s—maintained fine reputations for many decades, but the denomination was simply not large enough to require two separate institutions. By 1922, financial difficulties at Magee and an increasing number of students in Belfast led to two theological professors being transferred from Londonderry to Belfast. When the University of Ulster opened in Coleraine in 1968, Magee College was incorporated into the new university and the official relationship between the Presbyterian Church and College came to an end. In 1978, the theological department of Magee was moved to Belfast and united with Assembly’s College, forming the Union Theological College.
Today, Union College 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.
Union’s student body is made up of men and women from across the United Kingdom, Europe, and America. Training and preparing students for ordained ministry is still Union’s primary function, but increasingly students now come to study theology without the intention of entering the ordained ministry. When you study at Union, you enter into a rich tradition of theological education in a place filled with centuries of history.