Queen's owes its existence to the Presbyterian Church, which it remained affiliated with for more than 70 years. During that time, the relationship influenced Queen's development profoundly. The university was founded in 1841 by members of the church (then officially the "Presbyterian Church in Canada in connection with the Church of Scotland"), primarily in order to train ministers for the growing colony of Upper Canada.
Queen's Royal Charter gave the church a position of considerable power at the university: it reserved 12 of the 27 places on the Board of Trustees for Presbyterian ministers, declared that the principal must be a minister, that lay trustees and professors had to make a confession of faith approved by the church, and that the church would control Queen's theological curriculum.
One clause stipulated that Queen's buildings must be located no more than three miles from Kingston's then main Presbyterian church, St. Andrew's, which stands at the corner of Princess and Clergy Streets. The university also depended on the Presbyterian Church for a considerable portion of its early funding.
This intimate connection with the church gave Queen's security and an identity, but it was also not without risk and cost for the university. In 1844, for example, a schism that divided Presbyterians into Church of Scotland loyalists and Free Church separatists, with Queen's leaders in the former camp, radically divided the university community and forced it to the brink of collapse when almost half of its members deserted.
There was another crisis in 1867 when the provincial government cut off funding for denominational universities, forcing Queen's to choose between its Presbyterian loyalties and a sorely-needed source of income. The university stayed with the Church despite the simultaneous loss of most of its endowment in the collapse of Ontario's Commercial Bank and fought a grueling fundraising campaign to narrowly avert financial disaster.
Queen's intimate connection with the Church increasingly came into question late in the century. In the 1890s, Queen's denominational status rendered professors ineligible for the lucrative pension funds offered to universities by the Carnegie Foundation.
This caused considerable unrest among the faculty and started talk of separation from the Church. The idea gained strength from the gradually diminishing importance of theological training at Queen's and the simultaneous dwindling of financial support from the Church.
Most importantly, though, Principal George Grant became convinced that Queen's had to have provincial funding to prosper and, by 1900, had decided that the time had finally come for secularization. However, the influential Grant died in 1902, allowing Church loyalists temporarily to regain the ascendance. It was not until 1912 that Principal Daniel Gordon shepherded the university to the long-awaited goal.
That year, the federal parliament amended the Royal Charter to remove the "management and discipline" of the University from sectarian restrictions, founded the affiliated Queen's Theological College, and changed the University's name from "Queen's College at Kingston" to "Queen's University at Kingston."
It was not until 1930, however, that Queen's took advantage of the new regulations to appoint the first principal who was not a Presbyterian minister, Sir William Hamilton Fyfe. In the public eye, too, Queen's remained associated with the Presbyterian Church; its students and sports teams were casually referred to as "The Presbyterians" for decades.