New College sits upon “the mound” in Edinburgh’s Old Town, over looking New Town and less than a quarter mile from Edinburgh Castle. That the college is called ‘new’ is deceptive, with the first stone having been laid in 1846 by Thomas Chalmers. On a clear day, one can stand in the courtyard and look northward through the main arch and see Edinburgh below, across the bay, called Firth of Forth, over into the Kingdom of Fife, a view likely to inspire one to take up the bagpipes.
New College was a creation of the Free Church of Scotland, which formed in 1843 after breaking from the established church, in what is known as ‘the Disruption.’ It was the unresolved issue of patronage-a medieval property right that gave the land-owning elite the right to appoint ordained ministers in their parish-which finally lead to the break. When the British parliament rejected legislative appeals to overturn this, many ministers left the established Church of Scotland and formed the Free Church of Scotland in a desperate measure to protect Christian doctrine, and the moral and intellectual life from aristocratic patronage and state support. Hence, New College was formed in order to educate future ministers. The site on the Mound was purchased for ﾣ10,000-primarily from donations within the Free Church-in order to provide accommodation for a full-university. In 1929, the Free Church re-united with the Church of Scotland, resulting in a 1935 merger with the University of Edinburgh, which was founded in 1583.1 New College opened its doors in 1850 to 250 students. Today New College hosts over 400 students from all denominations, including 150 postgraduates, offering degrees in Christian Ethics and Practical Theology, Ecclesiastical History, Hebrew and Old Testament, New Testament, Religious Studies, Systematic Theology, and World Christianity. New College is also home to the Centres for Christianity in the Non-Western World, founded by Andrew Walls, the Study of Christian Origins, and the Centre for Theology and Public Issues. New College has been home to some distinguished scholars like H.R. Mackintosh, John Baillie, T.F. Torrance, and James Barr.
While the setting and surroundings of New College make one feel as though they’ve stepped back in time, much of what happens here is on the forefront of the genetic frontier. Edinburgh’s Roslin Institute was home to the world’s first cloned, and undoubtedly most famous sheep, Dolly. It was within the walls of New College where the Church of Scotland made the historic and controversial decision to sanction the creation and destruction of human embryos less than 14 days old for research purposes in 2001. New College affords one the opportunity to engage in issues in bioethics in what appears at first glance to be quite an unlikely setting, but in actuality where much of the research is taking place.
1 Taken from Historical Notes, “New College,” (Edinburgh: The University of Edinburgh Centre).
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