Princeton Theological Seminary was established in 1812, the first Seminary founded by the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church. The establishment of The Theological Seminary at Princeton marked a turning point in American theological education. Within the last quarter of the eighteenth century, all learning was of a piece and could be adequately taught and studied in the schools and colleges, nearly all of which were church initiated. General education was also the context for professional studies in divinity, medicine, and the law. In the first quarter of the nineteenth century, professional training became disengaged from the college curriculum, medical and law schools were established, and seventeen divinity schools and seminaries came into existence.

The plan to establish a theological seminary at Princeton was in the interests of advancing and extending the theological curriculum, to go beyond the liberal arts course by setting up a postgraduate, professional school in theology. The plan met with enthusiastic approval on the part of authorities at the College of New Jersey, later to become Princeton University, for they were coming to see that specialized training in theology required more attention than they could give.

With fewer than a dozen students, in 1812 Archibald Alexander was the first, and for one year the only, professor. He was joined the following year by a second professor, Samuel Miller, who came to Princeton from the pastorate of the Wall Street Church in New York.

To read the wording of the original “Design of the Seminary” is to perceive the early growth of the modern development in theological education in America, though the Princeton innovators were not at all thinking of breaking new ground except in the literal sense. They were prophetic enough, however, and among other things the “Design” noted that the purpose of the Seminary was to unite in those who shall sustain the ministerial office, religion and literature; that piety of the heart, which is the fruit only of the renewing and sanctifying grace of God, with solid learning; believing that religion without learning, or learning without religion, in the ministers of the gospel, must ultimately prove injurious to the church.

The Seminary has been served by a remarkable succession of presidents. Francis Landey Patton (1902–1913) came to the Seminary after serving as president of Princeton University. J. Ross Stevenson (1914–1936) guided the Seminary through some turbulent years and expanded the institution’s vision and program. John A. Mackay (1936–1959) strengthened the faculty, enlarged the campus, and created a new ecumenical era for theological education. James I. McCord (1959–1983), whose presidency saw the institution of the first center of continuing education at a theological seminary, the establishment of full endowment for twenty-six faculty chairs, and the construction or renovation of major campus residences and academic facilities, gave leadership to both the national and world church through denominational and ecumenical councils. Thomas W. Gillespie (1983–2004) increased the size of the faculty, including the establishment of nine endowed chairs, and significantly lowered the student/faculty ratio. Iain R. Torrance (2004–2012) led a curriculum review and revision of the Master of Divinity degree program, and supported the use of new technologies in administrative and academic areas. Under his leadership, the Seminary initiated an Office of Multicultural Relations and the Board of Trustees initiated a major capital campaign to build a new library in service to the church in the world, and new campus apartments for student families. 

M. Craig Barnes became the Seminary’s seventh president in January 2013. Prior to his appointment, he was on the faculty of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and pastor and head of staff of Shadyside Presbyterian Church. He is widely respected as a preacher and pastor and has written eight books on ministry. He is deeply committed to the theological formation of pastors to lead the church in changing times.

Affiliated from the beginning with the Presbyterian Church and the wider Reformed tradition, Princeton Theological Seminary is today a denominational school with an ecumenical, interdenominational, and worldwide constituency. This is reflected in the faculty, in the curriculum of studies, and in the student body.