History on the Hill: Crane Theological School

The President's Lawn is pictured on Oct. 7, 2016. Alexis Serino / The Tufts Daily Archives

When Charles Tufts donated his land in Medford in 1852, promising to “put a light” on Walnut Hill, he was helping to create “the first higher educational institution founded under Universalist auspices in American history,” according to Peter Theusen’s “Universalism in the History of Tufts.”

While Tufts has been non-sectarian from its inception, the Crane Theological School was a long-time reminder of its Universalist founders, which was founded in 1869 and remained in operation until 1968, occupying Miner and Paige Halls. Rooms like the Crane Room in Paige, which was originally Crane Chapel, still exist in this space.

Initially called the “Tufts College Divinity School,” according to TheusenCrane was named after trustee Thomas Crane in 1906. The creation of the school was partially inspired by trustee Sylvanus Packard’s donation “for the establishment of a professorship in Christian theology,” Theusen wrote.

At the time of Tufts’ foundation, Massachusetts was divided religiously among Protestant groups, according to Dan McKanan, Ralph Waldo Emerson Unitarian Universalist Senior Lecturer in Divinity at Harvard Divinity School.

Unitarians, according to Theusen, had influence at a number of universities, including Harvard University. Unitarian Universalism (UU), with a strong base in rural areas, still lacked a university when Hosea Ballou II, Tufts’ first President, sought to establish a university, according to McKanan.

“For the first three decades of the nineteenth century, the Congregationalist and Unitarian Churches in Massachusetts received tax support,” he said. “So Ballou [I] was utterly opposed to state-supported religion, and that made him very skeptical of all of the institutional structure, including institutions like Harvard that helped the traditional clergy maintain their power.”

By the time Hosea Ballou II founded Tufts, state sponsorship for religion had stopped, McKanan said. This allowed Crane to continue playing an important role educating generations of Universalist ministers.

Reverend Gordon Gibson graduated from Crane in 1964 and spent his life as a UU minister. However, he remembers there was low enrollment when he attended the Crane school

“My entering class had ten members, I know at least one of those, I think two, dropped out over the course of three years. It was a small school. I think that offers some strengths, but also some real limitations,” Gibson said.

During his time at Crane, Gibson lived on campus and took theological courses, like other Crane students.

“The first two years I was at Crane, I lived in Paige Hall,” he said. “That was an interesting setting. I think it had been built as a dormitory for Crane students, but we didn’t have enough students to fill it. So there were a few undergraduate students who lived there and several foreign-born graduate students. It was a very cosmopolitan mix,” Gibson said.

According to McKanan, low enrollment contributed to Crane’s financial problems; however, the contraction of Unitarian Universalist theological education also played an important role. Following the merger of the Unitarian and Universalist Churches in 1961, Crane and St. Lawrence Seminary, the other Universalist seminary, were left in difficult positions.

“Whereas the two traditions had been roughly equal in size at the end of the nineteenth century, by the middle of the twentieth century when they merged, Unitarians were about twice the size of Universalists,” McKanan said. “And that meant that it was kind of an unequal partnership.”

This unequal partnership meant that UU funds were primarily allocated to Unitarian seminaries. Some Universalist schools like Crane and St. Lawrence were forced with the fiscal reality of closure.

Sol Gittleman, Alice and Nathan Gantcher University Professor of Judaic studies and Professor of German at Tufts, tied this to a larger trend of changing religious life on college campuses during the era.

“We had compulsory chapel until I think the 40’s or 50’s, I’m not sure. But the G.I. Bill changed all of that,” Gittleman said. “Once the soldiers came back, the veterans, they weren’t going to put up with any of this.”

This went even further in the sixties and seventies, with a wave of liberation movements challenging conventional Protestantism in the US, according to Gittleman.

“They were closing chaplaincies all over the country,” Gittleman said. “The late sixties/early seventies, that was probably the low-point of religious life on university campuses. Since then, it’s come back.”

Crane School was ultimately affected by this low-point of religious life, according to Gittleman, and financial issues caused it to close in 1968.

“By [1968], they couldn’t get the students, and the university was very poor. We had no money. And they closed it,” Gittleman said. “They would’ve had to spend a lot of money to celebrate the hundredth anniversary. That would’ve been 1969. And so to save money, they closed it.”

Gibson said that he was sad to learn that his alma mater was closing.

“Those of us who had attended Crane suffered some anguish,” he said. “We were very sad to see it closed. It felt like the school was, in some ways, on the upswing, and it seemed like a bad time to close it. I think we were unaware of some of the fiscal realities that went into the decision, and they made it kind of inevitable.”

Reverend Timothy Miller, now a professor of religious studies at the University of Kansas, attended Crane for one semester before transferring out. He said that part of his decision had to do with the fact that Crane was unaccredited and under financial stress.

“There was talk of [closing] when I was there. There was a real sense that the place was having trouble,” he said.

Nevertheless, Miller said that he enjoyed his time at Crane as well as the experience of living in the Boston area.

“I liked it well enough. The teachers were good, decent individuals, helpful to students and all of that,” he said. “It wasn’t really that I had any great dissatisfaction with the place. It’s just that there were other issues involved.”

One remnant of the Crane school is the Packard Chair of Theology, which was endowed by Sylvanus Packard. It still exists as a tenured position in the Tufts Department of Religion.

Professor Heather Curtis, chair of the Department of Religion, said that while many Crane professors transitioned into the Department of Religion after the school’s closing, the Department of Religion has a different focus than Crane.

“One of the functions of the Crane school was to train clergy for parish ministry, whereas the Department of Religion’s mission is to promote the academic study of religion as a facet of culture, history, the way it influences society, politics, economics,” Curtis said. “In that sense, the department certainly welcomes students who have that vocational interest, but it also welcomes students who want to think about religion as an important sphere of knowledge for pursuing a career in international relations, or medicine, or law, or the arts [or] social work.”

Additionally, Curtis pointed out that as a graduate school, Crane would not have taught undergraduate students. While the department is open to students who are aiming for a career in religion, the Department of Religion’s main focus is on undergraduate liberal arts education.

“I’m definitely open to hearing students’ ideas about the kinds of courses that they would want to pursue, whether it’s students who are interested in religion as a purely historical, sociological, philosophical pursuit, or whether it’s students who are interested in pursuing some kind of religious vocation for themselves,” Curtis said.