Portrait of a Pioneer

The Seminary community honors Muriel Van Orden Jennings, ’32, its first woman graduate.

By Nicole Pride | Photography by Peter Murphy

artist studio
The studio of John Q. Daily, the artist who painted the oil-on-linen portrait of Jennings, showing his intricate process. (Photo by John Q. Daily)

A new portrait hangs in Princeton Theological Seminary Library, commissioned by the Seminary’s Women in Ministry Initiative. The gaze of this poised woman holding the Bible exudes a quiet strength that epitomizes her story of unrelenting determination. The subject of the painting, Muriel Van Orden Jennings, ’32, was the first woman to graduate from the Seminary as well as the first person to receive two degrees simultaneously. 

In spite of opposition, Jennings maintained a firm resolve to achieve a degree in theology at a time when such academic pursuits were not encouraged for women. Her profound desire to teach the Bible fueled her quest.

“The more I learned about Muriel Jennings, it became increasingly evident she should be recognized for having the perseverance for obtaining a degree at the Seminary during that era,” says Mary Lee Fitzgerald, PhD, Princeton Seminary trustee emerita, who spearheaded the commission of the portrait. Fitzgerald was herself the first woman chair of the Seminary’s Board of Trustees.

“Although she serves as a great symbol for women who attended the Seminary years later, she was very modest and would not want to be portrayed as someone who broke barriers,” Fitzgerald says. “She sincerely felt called by God to teach the Bible. She simply wanted to do her best. To do that, she had to know the Bible.”

portrait of jennings
Unveiled in November 2017, the portrait is based on a photo of Jennings at about 35 years old.

Inspired by mentors who taught history and biblical studies at women’s colleges, Jennings wanted to further her education at a seminary with the goal of following a similar vocation as her role models. By her own account, Jennings contacted every seminary from coast to coast, along with schools of Christian education. Only Princeton Seminary taught Hebrew—the deciding factor in pursuing enrollment at the institution. 

Jennings was initially encouraged to audit classes. No women were enrolled in the Seminary at the time. However, the Board of Trustees eventually conceded to her request to pursue a degree. They stipulated the following conditions: Jennings was not to disturb her male colleagues while taking classes, she was to complete the full academic program as expected of her male counterparts, and, upon finishing the program, every faculty member would have to vote upon whether she would receive a degree. She enthusiastically agreed.

By her own account, Jennings averaged about three hours of sleep per night while at the Seminary.

She was soon regarded as one of the best students in the class. And she had a reputation for hard work. She also maintained a series of part-time jobs—from teaching Bible studies to a cohort of primary school boys to traveling by train on weekends to support the ministry of a Presbyterian church in Newark, New Jersey. By her own account, Jennings averaged about three hours of sleep per night while at the Seminary. She was driven by a zeal to learn.

“Muriel Jennings was not attempting to surpass the men. She was simply committed to doing well at the Seminary,” Fitzgerald says. “She was a natural academic, fueled by a holy curiosity. She was brilliant.”

NICOLE PRIDE is the editor of GATHER and director of communication and marketing at Princeton Theological Seminary.