Westminster, then the college of the Presbyterian Church in England, began lectures in Exeter Hall, London, in 1844 before moving in 1859 to Queen’s Square. The College relocated to Cambridge in 1899 (and this only after some hesitation on the part of the church), where a strategic site had been given to the church by Agnes Smith Lewis (1843-1926) and Margaret Dunlop Gibson (1843-1920).
These two women, biblical scholars, linguists and explorers of great distinction, were founding benefactors of Westminster. Without them, the College would not exist. Agnes and Margaret were brought up as Presbyterians in Irvine, Ayrshire. They inherited a fortune, taught themselves 12 languages and traveled widely across Europe and the Middle East at a time when such journeys by Victorian women were unheard of. Though they were not always given proper credit for their work, they made some astonishing discoveries in Saint Catherine’s monastery in Sinai and in the markets of Cairo, discoveries which had profound significance for biblical scholarship. They were women of considerable resolve and intellectual power, at a time when few thought academic pursuits suitable for women. They were both awarded honorary doctorates by the major Universities of Scotland, Germany, and Ireland for their work on ancient manuscripts.
Agnes and Margaret were among the chief benefactors of Westminster College, securing the site from St. John’s College, and giving generously towards the design and construction of the building. There is still a Lewis and Gibson scholarship at Westminster; their portraits enhance the college Dining Hall. Professor Janet Soskice of Cambridge’s Faculty of Divinity told their story well in her award-winning and best-selling book, Sisters of Sinai (Chatto and Windus, 2009). A book edited by Clyde Binfield and David Cornick, From Cambridge to Sinai (URC, 2006), includes selections of their writings and diary entries from some who knew them.
A series of significant decisions have shaped the more recent life of Westminster and Cheshunt colleges. As the Congregationalists and Presbyterians drew closer, Cheshunt moved to Westminster in 1967, predating and pre-figuring the union of Presbyterian and Congregational churches in England to create the United Reformed Church in 1972.
In 2006, the URC’s General Assembly accepted a report on the provision of ministerial training and wider learning across the denomination. This created Resource Centres for Learning, a designation and mission welcomed by Westminster and its sibling RCLs: Northern College (Manchester) and Scottish College (Glasgow). Thus the remit of Westminster College officially broadened to include the provision of training for everyone in the churches, lay as much as ordained.
Whilst the Arts and Crafts building included much of note, it was not suited to this new expanded role, or to twenty-first-century requirements. Consequently, an urgent development programme was planned. In 2010, the URC’s General Assembly encouraged a denominational appeal to raise the £7 million needed and committed significant URC central funding. By the summer of 2014, the appeal had reached its target and the development and refurbishment had been completed. As a new decade dawns, work continues as the College’s mission grows.