The Wake Forest University School of Divinity was accredited in June 2005 by the Association of Theological Schools in the United States and Canada, having admitted its first students in 1999. The idea of opening a professional school of theology within Wake Forest University (then known as Wake Forest College) was first proposed in the 1940s, but serious planning for a School of Divinity began in the 1980s. By that time the University had already developed schools of medicine, law, and management, but there was no professional school for ministry and theological study. Fissures in the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1970s and 1980s re-ignited the dream of a school of theology in the University as the Convention’s six theological seminaries grew increasingly dogmatic. Many Baptist leaders in North Carolina, including many alumni of Wake Forest, were concerned about the future of theological education and encouraged the University to establish a School of Divinity that would ensure academic and intellectual freedom for faculty and students alike.
It was an exciting time to start a new school. American religious life was in a state of flux in the latter half of the 20th century as every denomination debated significant theological and ethical ideas and individuals explored numerous spiritual avenues. The controversies of the era should not overshadow the sense of expectation as people explored new ways of worship and new styles of pastoral leadership. It seemed as if God was doing a new thing, and there was a hunger for spirituality and theological discussion in the public square. In 1989 the trustees of Wake Forest University responded to the desire for a progressive, Christian school of theology by approving of a new School of Divinity that was to be “Baptist in heritage and ecumenical in outlook.” Wingate Hall, located alongside Wait Chapel was renovated and expanded for the use of the School of Divinity.
Though the School of Divinity is only a decade old its history reaches back to the origins of Wake Forest University. The first gift to the School of Divinity came from First Baptist Church in New Bern, North Carolina in 1989. That was the congregation that Samuel Wait and his wife Sarah came to North Carolina to serve in 1827. Convinced of the need for an educated Baptist clergy, the Waits traveled the state’s byways, raising money to fulfill their vision of educating a new generation of ministers. Sarah Wait made hats to support her family while Samuel Wait preached hundreds of sermons each year. In 1834 the Wake Forest Manual Labor Institute was opened in Wake County with Samuel Wait as its first principal. Students worked in the fields by day and studied by candlelight at night. The school was re-chartered as Wake Forest College in 1838 after the end of the manual labor requirement, and it remained affiliated with the North Carolina Baptist State Convention until 1986. The College moved to a new campus in Winston-Salem, NC in the 1950s, and it became Wake Forest University in 1967.
Long gone are the days of candlelit study sessions, male-only classes, and compulsory chapel. Yet Wait’s original vision of educating ministers remains alive in the School of Divinity. The beginning of a new century was a momentous time to begin a divinity school, with much uncertainty about the future and significant transitions occurring in theological education and the world. Amid those transitions, the vision begun by Samuel and Sarah Wait was expanded to include men and women from widely diverse backgrounds. The Wake Forest University School of Divinity is one of the few theological institutions in the United States that have never been formally affiliated with a denomination. The progressive Baptist heritage of the school is important, but the ecumenical character of the school is indispensable.