Mansfield College opened in Oxford in 1886. The college had previously been located in Birmingham, where it was known as Spring Hill College. Its original purpose was to provide further education and theological training for nonconformist ministers. The college was primarily associated with the Congregationalist denomination. The Congregationalists (also known as ‘Independents’) were a protestant dissenting denomination who called for the separation of church and state and rejected the hierarchical structures of the Anglican church in favour of the self-government of local churches. Perhaps their most famous adherent was Oliver Cromwell, whose history the church often celebrated. By the nineteenth century the Congregationalists were enjoying something of a revival, thanks to the influence of the Evangelical movement. Most Congregationalists joined with the Presbyterian Churches in England and Wales to become part of the United Reformed Church (founded in 1972).
The establishment of Mansfield College was part of a broader move to recognise dissenters’ rights to study in the University of Oxford, a number of dissenters having already been permitted to study in Oxford thanks to acts of parliament passed in 1854 and 1871. The college catered largely for Congregationalist students, but it welcomed those from other denominations too. More broadly the college formed an important function within Oxford, providing a focal point for dissenters who had long been excluded from the religious life of the University.
The college became part of the university formally in 1955 when it became a Permanent Private Hall. Before this students could matriculate through other colleges. Since 1955 students have studied for a wide range of degrees and Mansfield was granted full college status in 1995. Whilst Mansfield College is no longer a religious institution its founding principles of freedom of conscience and educational access remain central to the college’s vision.