A longing for the intellectual life at Bangor Theological Seminary

Posted March 28, 2014, at 6:10 a.m.
Last modified March 31, 2014, at 12:27 p.m.

Bangor Theological Seminary closed its doors last year — seemingly quite unnoticed by the larger community around it. The school, founded in 1814, had witnessed a steady decline in enrollment and a dwindling endowment over the last few decades.

Still, the cluster of old brick buildings, perched above a grassy slope at the intersection of Hammond and Union streets, were a familiar landmark for people driving from the airport east toward the coast.

As a graduate who earned his master of divinity there in the 1990s, I remember sensing the economic fragility of the institution perhaps more acutely than most, as I was managing my own weekly newspaper — a small business challenged by slim profit margins — while enrolled at the seminary.

But up in the Bangor Seminary environment this temporal challenge seemed camouflaged behind the comforting rhythms of liturgy, a cloak of piety and liberal theology’s embedded bias toward hope.

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In fact, the seminary sometimes reminded me of a remote and secluded beacon of intellectual life tucked away like in “Fahrenheit 451,” the movie based on Ray Bradbury’s novel. The novel portrays a grim world in which intellectual life is banned, and “firemen” are ordered to burn all books. Yet remaining in this futuristic world are a few lonely communities of intellectuals where these relics of the past are cherished and studied.

It is indeed that quality of committed scholarship and ecumenical learning, as well as free thought, that upholds my fondest memories of this little seminary.

Bangor Theological was isolated not just geographically and economically, but it suffered from the universal decline of liberal seminaries in contemporary America, a national trend mirrored by the empty pews in most mainline Protestant churches. It is not so much from Americans’ disinterest in spiritual matters — witness the success of last year’s “The Bible” miniseries on the History Channel — but the dwindling appeal of liberal or liberation theology with all its troubling, open-ended questions.

Church growth and prosperity across the U.S. belongs to the born again and fundamentalists with their clear-cut and over-simplified interpretations. I later attended another old liberal seminary, Andover Newton Theological School in Boston, which has barely escaped the same fate as Bangor Theological. Both these seminaries were at the forefront of inclusivity and feminist theology. Indeed, you risked flunking a paper if you referred to God strictly as a male. In this sense these liberal seminaries were perhaps not quite as open-minded as they liked to think of themselves

Another unadvertised truth was that the student body profile of the seminary had been gradually transformed from the days of Jonathan Fisher, the first settled Congregational minister of Blue Hill. Instead of training young students for lifelong service as rural church ministers, Bangor and most other liberal seminaries had become psychological retooling centers catering more to midlife professionals exploring either alternative career options or searching for some form of emotional healing.

Bangor Theological first caught my attention when one day, in the midcoast area where I lived, I heard a radio ad offering to “expand one’s horizons.” I wondered why they were not advertising in my newspaper. So I drove to Bangor to see if I could sell the president on advertising with us; instead, he sold me on expanding my horizons and enrolling there. It was obvious to all that I was an unlikely candidate for ordination, but my intellectual curiosity drew me in.

The main reason I stayed on is that I was genuinely inspired by the quality of the faculty and their commitment to scholarship. Burton Throckmorton’s classes in the New Testament, Ann Johnston’s classes in the Hebrew Testament, Marvin Ellison’s classes in ethics and Glenn Miller’s classes in church history among others equaled any class I have taken at Harvard College and Stanford University.

One of the most unheralded aspects of this seminary was the outstanding quality of its teachers, as well as the rigorous scholastic standards they maintained. Students attended the school with a broad variety of faith systems and differing personal objectives, but the core theological curriculum offered there remained extraordinarily solid.

William S. Patten of Mount Desert was the publisher and editor of The Camden Herald from 1982 to 1997.


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