United Lutheran Seminary, formed in 2017 (the year marking the 500th anniversary of the Reformation), joined two historic Lutheran institutions into one. These two seminaries – Gettysburg founded in 1826 and Philadelphia founded in 1864 – share a common history in a robust and religiously diverse region of the nation. Pennsylvania sits astride the pathways of the story of American freedom: the forging of the nation in Philadelphia and the new birth of freedom in Gettysburg. The seminary’s 1826 founding in Gettysburg prepared students for pioneer efforts in the field of mission, education, and parish ministry. During the civil war, tensions within the small Gettysburg faculty over the language for study – German or American English – together with disputes over the direction of study, towards assimilation into American evangelical reform, or towards a greater emphasis on Lutheran distinctives, especially the Lutheran Confessions, led to the separate founding of the Philadelphia seminary in 1864.
Throughout their histories, both seminaries continued to innovate to prepare students for ministry in the expanding country. Students in Gettysburg sponsored Daniel Alexander Payne as the first African American to be enrolled in a Lutheran seminary in 1835. A missionary zeal included a witness against slavery, and for other moral reforms, like Sabbath observance. Philadelphia’s dynamic urban setting fostered innovation in the development of Lutheran institutions to minister to the poor, particularly the female diaconate. The Philadelphia seminary’s strong tradition of scholarship in theology and liturgy led the Lutheran churches in America to forming a Common Service Book, the first step in the gradual path towards a united Lutheranism in the United States.
Leaders from both seminaries began to work together in the 20th century to prod and push other Lutherans towards wider fellowship and to strengthen the witness of Lutherans in the wake of two world wars. Abdel Ross Wentz, President of Gettysburg’s seminary, drafted the constitutions of both the Lutheran World Federation and the World Council of Churches. He brought the first woman professor at a Lutheran seminary, Bertha Paulssen, to Gettysburg (1945) where she introduced the social sciences to the curriculum. Dr. O. Fredrick Nolde, who served as professor of Christian Education and Dean of the Graduate School at the Philadelphia seminary, was influential in the language used in the United Nations Charter and especially the freedom of religion sections in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948). Franklin Clark Fry, Philadelphia’s alumnus whose master of parliamentary procedure vaulted him to the presidency of the United Lutheran Church, The Lutheran World Federation, and the World Council of Churches, was even on the cover of TIME, as Mr. Protestant. United Lutheran Seminary now can claim as its joint heritage other notable graduates, including Elizabeth Platz (1965), the first woman to be ordained by an American Lutheran body (1970).
In addition to the general to the curricular offerings, there are other learning opportunities that directly and indirectly support the pedagogical tasks of unifying, learning, and serving. The Seminary Ridge Museum in the seminary’s historic civil war building interprets the theological disputes over slavery that shaped American religion and society. The Urban Theological Institute enables engagement with African American theology, preaching, and church history throughout the curriculum. The Town and Country Church Institute offers students the possibility of honing ministry to meet the needs of rural and small-town churches in a time of profound change. The annual Asian Theological Summer Institute enables mentorship of Asian and Asian-American doctoral students.
Graduates today serve churches all across the ecumenical spectrum, locally, nationally,and internationally. They are equipped to serve in different callings as public leaders in church and society, in parish ministry, specialized chaplaincy, diaconal ministries, and social service organizations. ULS prepares faithful servants to witness to the ongoing struggle for equality and dignity for all people, and to be builders of a public theology that speaks to a global community where the quest for justice is an urgent issue of our times.