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Visiting Mansfield College, Oxford, England: with Nonconformist history and many American links

Updated on September 19, 2012
Flag of England
Flag of England | Source
The main building of Mansfield College, Oxford
The main building of Mansfield College, Oxford | Source
Jimmy Carter
Jimmy Carter | Source
Dr Albert Schweitzer
Dr Albert Schweitzer | Source
Map location of Oxford, in Oxfordshire.
Map location of Oxford, in Oxfordshire. | Source

Architecture by Basil Champeneys

Mansfield College, Oxford, looks just like a 'traditional' College of the University, with its stone buildings by Basil Champeneys (1842-1935)(1), including a prominent gatehouse and Chapel, and its share of prominent alumni and scholars.

But it is different (2), and this is for a number of reasons. The College had already begun to admit women prior to World War One. In addition, its origins in the 19th century relate to its formerly more prominent Nonconformist Christian identity. While for centuries Oxford Colleges were Anglican in nature, Mansfield, first founded in 1838 in Birmingham as Spring Hill College, was relocated to Oxford under its current name in 1886; its basic purpose was to increase study opportunities for members of Nonconformist churches. With the abolition of religious tests for entry to Oxford, this eventually became largely moot, although for many years numerous Mansfield students were prepared for the ministries of Nonconformist churches; however, in recent years the study of theology at the College has declined. The Library contains portrait commemorations of various individuals associated with Nonconformist history. These pictures include those of ministers affected by what was known as the Great Ejection of 1662: at this event, in the same 17th century which saw the Mayflower Pilgrims depart for North America, many ministers were expelled from their Anglican pulpits because of their unwillingness to conform to increasing Episcopalian tendencies enforced by the King. The College's motto, which appears in the centre of the College arms, is, in Latin, DEUS LOCUTUS NOBIS IN FILIO (God has spoken to us in His Son), in reference to Hebrews 1:2.

One of the very special distinctives of the College is that it receives a high proportion of American students. This link with institutions in the United States was originally brought about through Reformed church connections, although this church aspect has diminished in more recent decades. Today, for example, many of the American students at Mansfield College come as part of their Junior Year Abroad program; indeed, Oxford's Rothermere American Institute is situated very close to the College on South Parks Road. Nobel Prizewinning, former US President Jimmy Carter is an Honorary Fellow of the College.

Many distinguished scholars have been associated with the College: Nobel Prizewinning theologian and medical missionary Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965) taught at the College (3); Theologian C H Dodd, chairman of the New English Bible translators, was a distinguished alumnus; astrophysicist Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, joint discoverer of pulsars (1943-), has held a visiting professorship at the College; the Congregationalist Silvester Horne (1865-1914), who ministered at what became the American Church in London (the Whitefield Tabernacle), was an alumnus of the College; and many others.

Regarding the name 'Mansfield College' (referring to prominent benefactors), it may be noted also that some Oxford (and Cambridge) Colleges have been known as 'Halls', but having the status of full Colleges within these Universities. Mansfield has always been known as a College, while its status within the University was as what was known as a Permanent Private Hall. So for example, St Edmund Hall is known as a Hall, but is actually a College, while Mansfield College has always been known as a College, but was actually a Hall for many years. (Work that one out!) However, In recent years also, Mansfield College, as a Hall, became a College (if this is not too confusing). It is precisely this kind of complex, fine distinction that for many North Americans makes Oxford (and maybe England, too!) such an endearingly eccentric place.


(1) Other buildings for which Architect Champeneys is known include Newnham College, Cambridge and the John Rylands Library, Manchester.

(2) To be fair, the graduate of every Oxford College is likely to think that his or her College is unique; and to a large extent this is true, also.

(3) Dr Schweitzer had a distinguished knowledge of the works of J S Bach, and would regularly play Bach's works on the College organ; his American secretary, theologian and poet Amos Wilder (1895-1993) was an alumnus of the College.

Also worth seeing

In Oxford itself, visitor attractions are too numerous to summerize even adequately, but a few of these include: Oxford Castle, the Radcliffe Camera, the Bodleian Library, the Bridge of SIghs at Hertford College, Christ Church, Keble College Chapel, and many others.


How to get there : United Airlines flies from New York Newark to London Heathrow Airport, where car rental is available. Distance from Heathrow Airport to Oxford : 77 kilometres. Oxford links by rail with London Paddington station. Some facilities may be withdrawn, without notice. For up to date information, please check with the airline or your travel agent.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.

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