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Across the Quad: The Beginnings of Knox as a Theological College

Hewitson Wing where much of the Theological Hall teaching took place.
Hewitson Wing where much of the Theological Hall teaching took place.

Generations of Knox residents over the years will have been aware, to a greater or lesser extent, that their home at the College is shared with students who are studying theology and training for ministry in the Presbyterian Church of Aotearoa New Zealand.

The College was conceived in the mind of its principal founder, the Reverend Andrew Cameron, as a Theological College where students in residence would study theology and prepare for ministry in the Church. Cameron was determined however, that the Theological Hall, as it was originally named, should be set within a residential College that should not be for ministry students alone but should be open to students of all faculties in the University. This reflected the strong commitment of Dunedin’s Scottish Presbyterian settlers to the value of a broad and liberal education. That commitment had led earlier to the establishment of the University itself, and to the building of schools in Dunedin and beyond. Commensurate with the founding vision of the College as a place for theological education seven of the nine Masters (now Heads) who have led the College through its long history have been Presbyterian ministers.

Those former Masters continue to survey College activities from their respective positions in the gallery of portraits overlooking the College dining hall. While their primary responsibility has always been the management of the residential College, many of the Masters in former days were also teachers in the Theological Hall. Two of them, Hubert Ryburn and John (Jack) Somerville, were also Chancellors of the University, as was the College’s founder, Andrew Cameron.

Classes in the 1970s
Classes in the 1970s

A ministry student at the time the College was founded was almost always a young unmarried man and so residence in a College alongside other young men who were studying at the University was thought to be an entirely congenial arrangement. Today however, students for ministry are likely to be older, include both men and women, and are often married with children.

From the 1970s onward, therefore, theology students typically lived with their families in the surrounding neighbourhood but came to the College daily for lectures and other activities that were required as part of their training. The Hewitson wing, across the quad from the residential wings of the College, was a hive of activity and hosted lectures, not only for Presbyterian ministry students, but for a large number of other students in the University who came to Knox for classes in theology. This continued until 1996 when the University established its own Department of Theology and Religious Studies.

Presbyterian students training for ministry then did their theological degree at the University of Otago, or other tertiary institution, before then undertaking two further years of formational training at Knox.

Gumboot throwing competition
Gumboot throwing competition

In 2007 a further alteration to the model of ministry training was introduced that brought major change to the Knox campus environment. Ministry students are now trained on location in ministry internships around the country and come to the College for block courses only two or three times a year. In an associated development the offices for academic staff, formerly located in the Ryburn wing, have been relocated to the Hewitson wing and accommodation for the archivists of the Presbyterian Church, previously scattered through various nooks and crannies of the Hewitson wing, is now provided in the space previously occupied by a large common room for theological students. The Hewitson Library, along with the Frank Nicol Room and the Helen Hercus Room, previously used as classrooms for the Theological Hall, are now more readily available for use as study spaces by College residents.

Official Theological Hall group photograph for 1991, which would have been Murray Rae’s last year (he can be seen in the middle of the 4th row)
Official Theological Hall group photograph early 90s - Murray Rae is in the middle of the fourth row.

The Hewitson Library and the Chapel remain the most obvious signs of the joint purpose for which Knox College was established, along with the intermittent presence of ministry students and teaching staff in the Hewitson wing. That joint purpose is still a feature of life on the College campus but the way that purpose is fulfilled has changed substantially over the years.

- Professor Murray Rae

Board Chair. Board member since June 2018

Murray Rae began his working career as an architect in private practice before studying theology and philosophy in New Zealand, Germany and the UK. He is currently Professor of Theology at the University of Otago where he teaches courses in Christian Theology and Ethics. From 1998-2004 he taught theology at King’s College, London, and was previously a chaplain at the University of Auckland. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister, trained for Ministry at Knox Theological Hall, and taught at Knox for two years from 1992-3. He is married to Jane and together they have three boys, all of whom have studied at the University of Otago.


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