Auburn Theological Seminary campus above circa 1907. For a list of image links to a larger version of this and other views of the seminary, visit Bill Hecht's excellent site of old maps, pictures, postcards, air photos, and geology info for Cayuga County and the Finger Lakes.

John N. Miskell's Offering Hope, the Connection
between Auburn Theological Seminary & Auburn State Prison

Page 4 of 8


Captain William Brittin, a veteran of the War of 1812, was a master carpenter who had been in charge of the construction of the prison since its inception in 1816. Utilizing the skills of every builder available in the area who worked under his supervision, the main administration building was fully enclosed, the outside wall raised to a height of four feet and the South Wing housing area was ready for the reception of criminals by the winter of 1817.

When the initial qroup of 58 prisoners was received from area county jails in 1817 Brittin was the first Agent and Warden of the prison. He continued to be in charge of construction as well.

Wooden work shops and the prison dam across the Owasco river were being fabricated when Brittin pulled his workmen off the job to lend a hand and show his support for the Revend Dirck Cornelius Lansing, better known as "father of the seminary." The meeting between the two men and the way it was carried out was a complete surprise to all the clergy and lay people present. Brittin had made his plans well in advance.

Over 150 persons were assembled for the ground breaking ceremony of the seminary. The Rev. William Johnson offered a prayer followed by an address by the Rev. Mr. Lansing.

The December 8, 1819 issue of the 'Cayuga Republican' contains an account of the day's events. After Dr. Lansing's address, "the ground was broken by the Rev. Mr. Johnson driving the team and Mr. Lansing holding the plough - now commenced a scene of most active and joyful industry - every heart appeared glad and every hand was willing to labor." Just as the laborers were about to break for lunch, at about 1:00 "an unexpected circumstance transpired that filled with fresh animation every heart, and flushed every countenance with joy.,'

Auburn Seminary seal.

Early attempts to teach Auburn inmates reading and writing came from clergy, including Auburn Theological Seminary (ATS) seminarians.

The Geneva Presbyterian Synod, in 1818 (the year after the prison opened to inmates), had authorized setting up a seminary in Auburn to serve the NY frontier.

In 1821, ATS opened with four professors and eleven students. In 1837, it was a center for "New School" thought as distinguished from more traditional or "Old School" belief. Its stand on this 19th century theological controversy has become known as the Auburn Declaration. A similar controversy arose in 1924. ATS' again non-traditionalist stand became known as the Auburn Affirmation.

In 1939, money and enrollment pressures nearly shut the seminary. At the invitation of Henry Sloane Coffin, president of Union Theological Seminary, ATS relocated to Union's campus in NYC, forming a cooperative partnership while retaining own identity.

In 1951, ATS erected Auburn Hall on the NYC campus it shares with Union. For more ATS history, visit its web site.

[Image selection & caption by NYCHS webmaster]

"The sound of the bugle horn, at the state prison, called their attention, and they saw sallying from the gate, Captain Brittin in a one-horse cart, preceded by the music, and followed by Captain Little in another one-horse cart, and about 40 of the laborers in the different mechanical arts, with shovels and spades shouldered with their broad sides presented towards the field of labor. This unexpected sight fixed every man in his station and all waited with enthusiasm the approach of the new recruit." After dinner, local residents and the men from the prison worked side by side until about a half hour before dark. They then formed a loose march of about 200 persons to the center of town, received refreshment, and returned home. Thus began not only the building of the seminary but also the connection between Auburn's two best-known institutions - the seminary and the prison.

Construction work continued at both locations for several years and brought prosperity to men engaged in the building trades.

On May 11, 1820, the cornerstone of the first building to be erected on the seminary campus was laid. While all work was not fully complete, the building was opened in the fall of 1821 with three faculty members and eleven students.

The work on the prison went rapidly foreward. More inmates were received each year and were immediately put to work. Administrators were convinced that hard work was productive, healthy, and taught inmates the principles of self-support against the time they should be discharged from prison. Hard work in and of itself had reformative value.

Warden Brittin, however, felt that there were men in prison who needed some form of religious experience. He felt that adequate provision should be made to include religious and moral instruction in the prison as a means of finding grace and earning eternal salvation.

The professors at the seminary also believed that there was a place for religion and education in the prison. At the invitation of warden Brittin professors and religious laymen from the community began to visit the institution and deliver sermons to prisoners on Sunday mornings. They considered their visitations to be a special opportunity for evangelization.

Keepers did not share the belief held by warden Brittin that convicts could be influenced for the better by clergy. Initially they were skeptical and feared that rebellion could result if the men were encouraged to make a change in attitude while confined.

Despite the resistance of some staff members, Brittin persevered and continued to conduct a program of nondenominational meetings on Sunday mornings immediately following breakfast.

Unfortunately William Brittin became ill in 1821 and died that same year. The affiliation between the seminary and the prison was to continue after his death, even though his successor, Elam Lynds, considered that too much faith had been put in rehabilitation. Lynds personally did not believe in the reformability of convicts, but chose not to interfere with the work of the theologians, for he thought that their visits contributed to stability and order in the institution.

Offering Hope, Connection Between Auburn Theological Seminary & Auburn State Prison ©1998 by John N. Miskell
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