It seems likely that Divinity has been taught in St Andrews since before 921, when the University first has record of a Culdee monastery. It is virtually certain that there is an unbroken tradition of teaching since 1140, when the Augustinian canons arrived and Bishop Robert established the extensive Priory Library.
That said, the real history of the School does not begin until 1410, when Bishop Wardlaw established his Studium Generale; the Faculty of Divinity was incorporated at the same time as the University on 28 August 1413. Lawrence of Lindores was the first professor of theology in the new University, although he is remembered now more for his philosophical contributions; John Mair (died 1550) is the most notable of the early theologians.
In 1537 to 1538, Archbishop James Beaton received Pope Paul III’s bull founding the College of St Mary, and teaching began on the site of Wardlaw’s first teaching hall. The early history of the College was turbulent. James Beaton died within days of the papal bull arriving. He was succeeded by his nephew, David Beaton, who continued to work to establish the college but was himself killed in 1546 in the unrest following Wishart’s martyrdom. A year later, the founding Principal, Archibald Hay, died fighting the English at the Battle of Pinkie Cleugh. Despite such setbacks, the College gained an international reputation, attracting, for example, Richard Smyth, the first Regius Professor of Divinity at Oxford, when the progress of the English Reformation drove him from his former chair. In 1552, the first book printed in St Andrews was Archbishop John Hamilton’s Catechism, which was essentially written by the faculty of St Mary’s.
In 1579, when the University was reconstituted following the Reformation, St Mary’s College was made the home of the University’s Faculty of Divinity, which it remains today. Amongst the first few Principals of the reformed College were Andrew Melville and Samuel Rutherford, both major scholars and significant players in Scottish ecclesial history (some of Rutherford’s works remain in print to this day). Both were also politically controversial, Rutherford defending the legitimacy of subjects taking arms against a despotic monarch (i.e. Charles I) in his work Lex Rex. When he died in 1661, he was awaiting trial for treason against Charles II. Melville had also been charged with treason, in his case by James VI, and was imprisoned in the Tower of London 1607 to 1611 before being exiled to France.
From 1579 to about 1960 the role of St Mary’s was essentially to train ministers for the Church of Scotland. During those centuries, the College played full part in national and international ecclesial affairs (it was represented, for example, at the Synod of Dort and the Westminster Assembly, and supplied several capable leaders of the Moderate party of the Church of Scotland). The College also, of course, had difficult moments. In 1679, the Professor of Divinity, James Sharp, was ambushed and killed by Covenanters after accepting the Archepiscopacy of St Andrews from Charles II; as far as the School is aware, he remains the only professor to have been murdered whilst in post. Rightly or wrongly, the College resisted incorporation into the United College in 1747. Probably the most troubled time in recent history, however, came in 1745 to 1746, when the death of James Hadow, who had been Principal of St Mary’s since 1707, coincided with several professors and a number of students siding with Bonnie Prince Charlie in the Jacobite Rising.
More recently (under Principal Struther Arnott), the St Mary's became constituted as a School as well as a Faculty and a College. In recent decades, the School has continued to train ministers for the Kirk, but this has become a very minor strand of its work. The School's undergraduates are increasingly drawn from school leavers finding Divinity an attractive option within the general humanities; the School's postgraduates sometimes have a background in church ministry, but generally intend on going into a career in the academy.
Notable scholars in recent decades include:
- Donald Baillie, Professor of Dogmatic Theology 1934-1954
- Matthew Black, FBA, Professor of Biblical Criticism 1954-1978
- Daphne Hampson, Professor of Post-Christian Studies (who pioneered feminist theology in the UK) 1977-2002
- Richard Bauckham, FBA, Professor of New Testament Studies, 1992-2007
- John Webster, DD, FRSA, Professor of Divinity, 2013-2016
- N.T. Wright, Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity, 2010 – present.