The year is 1866 and seven students are preparing to graduate from Hope College. All seven are sensing a call to ministry, but they want to pursue their theological training in west Michigan. The solution is to petition the General Synod of the Reformed Church to allow for theological training through the Hope College Religion Department. Permission is granted and Western Theological Seminary (on the western frontier of the Reformed Church) is established.
Unfortunately, the early years were a struggle for Western Seminary. There was inadequate financial support from the churches. In 1871, Holland, Michigan was almost completely destroyed by fire, and the country was swept by financial panic just a few years later. By 1877, the General Synod directed that theological education be discontinued at Western Seminary.
As the need for theological training in the "west" was once again evident, the General Synod restored Western in 1883, and in 1885 the seminary was separated from the college. It now had its own board of trustees, faculty and curriculum. The seminary was chartered as "The Western Theological Seminary of the Reformed Church in America."
Of course, other than a board, faculty and a curriculum, Western Seminary had little else it could call its own. However, the General Synod had learned some important lessons through the closing of Western in 1877, one of which was the need for financial stability. Therefore, Western Seminary was required to establish a $30,000 faculty endowment before a person could be installed into a professorship.
Semelink Family Hall was constructed in 1895. Housing five classrooms and a chapel, it was the first building specifically built for Western Theological Seminary. This was followed by construction of the first dormitory in 1914.
In 1919 the seminary's first "development officer", Dr. James F. Zwemer, reported to General Synod that four faculty chairs were fully endowed in the amount of $40,000 each, and a fifth chair was well on its way to being endowed.
The current seminary building was constructed in 1955, and 26 years later the six-story Cook Center for Theological Research was completed. The city of Holland closed 12th street between College and Columbia Avenues at about this same time, forcing Western to relocate its main entrance from 12th street to 13th street. A growing need for better student housing necessitated the development of the current townhouses located across 13th Street from the seminary in 1992. As part of the Campaign for Western - Leadership: Challenge & Change, the DeWitt Theological Center was dedicated in 2003. This beautiful facility houses classrooms, a bookstore called "The Sacred Page", faculty offices, The Burggraaff Atrium, and Journey - a center for continuing education of the church. In 2007 the seminary introduced the innovative Friendship House, the first student housing of its kind across the country, which allows students to learn first-hand about disabilities by living with high-functioning, cognitively-impaired young adults.
Over the years, the seminary has been blessed with strong, visionary leaders who led Western through program, building, finance and faculty expansions all in the name of preparing leaders for the church of Jesus Christ. Under the leadership of President Dennis Voskuil (1994-2008), Western successfully completed two capital campaigns, constructed the DeWitt Theological Center, established a distance learning Master of Divinity program, developed Journey (continuing education), and built the Friendship House. Additionally, Western’s enrollment more than doubled during this time. In July of 2008 Rev. Timothy Brown accepted the reins of leadership from Dennis Voskuil and serves as president today.
The history of Western Seminary is strong. It is a history of preparing leaders for the church of Jesus Christ through times of challenge and change. The future is bright and Western will continue to face the challenges and make the changes necessary to prepare the leaders of the church for our children and grandchildren.