A Brief History of
A Start in Gettysburg . . .
At the meeting of the Maryland and Virginia Synod at Hagerstown, MD in 1825, a committee was appointed “to report a plan for the immediate organization of a theological seminary.” Two weeks later the full (Lutheran) General Synod confirmed the action, noting that $10,000 had already been collected for the proposed school to prepare ministers of the Gospel. And the Synod’s convention went on to elect Samuel Simon Schmucker as the Seminary’s first professor, directing him to draft a constitution and prepare to open the fledgling “school of the prophets.” On September 5, 1826, what is now the oldest and most historic Lutheran seminary in the Americas began carrying out its mission. Located in the small central Pennsylvania “borough” of Gettysburg, the little school in a bucolic setting found itself overrun by the greatest battle ever fought on American soil when in July 1863 the Civil War armies descended upon it. Today its original building on Seminary Ridge, “Old Dorm” or Schmucker Hall, is a state of the art museum, interpreting not only the great battle story on Seminary Ridge, but also civil war medical practices (since it was used as a hospital for months after the battle), and the role of faith and freedom in the mid- to late-1800’s.
Gettysburg’s history includes a number of “firsts.” It embraced the first African American to study in a Lutheran seminary when Daniel Alexander Payne fled the south and enrolled in 1835. A century later, LTSG was the first Lutheran seminary to grant tenure to a female professor of sociology and psychology, Dr. Bertha Paulssen, a towering figure in 20th century Lutheranism who influenced generations of leaders in urban and social ministries. Graduating from LTSG in the late 1960’s was Elizabeth Platz, the first woman to be ordained by a U.S. Lutheran body. In that same era, the seminary was one of the founders of the Washington Theological Consortium, which continues offering students access to a dozen schools of other traditions in the national capital area. A few years later, LTSG joined synods of the mid-Atlantic in forming the Town and Country Church Institute (TCCI), which has ongoing impact in preparing students for ministry in small town communities. Today its 53-acre campus hosts thousands of visitors annually who come to visit the Museum, attend award-winning Music Gettysburg! concerts and enjoy an annual Brewfest that brings 2000 persons to Seminary Ridge on a summer day.
And a New Development in Philadelphia
Founded by the Ministerium of Pennsylvania in 1864, LTSP was first located in the City of Brotherly Love’s center city. It relocated to the Mount Airy neighborhood in 1889 on a historic site where the first shots of the American Revolution’s Battle of Germantown were fired a century before. That both schools were located on historic former battlegrounds may be symbolic of the battles raging in American Lutheranism, as well as the country at large in the 1860’s. While Philadelphia’s founding was motivated in part by growing regionalism, continuing disputes over language, and conflicting strong personalities, the overriding factor was a theological contest between Schmucker and those some referred to as the “old Lutherans.” The degree of authority and textual integrity of the Lutheran Confessions prompted church-dividing theological disputes, which quickly eroded and no longer pertained after a few decades. Despite mutual recognition of one another’s confessional integrity, as well as holding virtually identical constitutions and congruent mission statements, the two schools retained their separate identities for more than 150 years.
Similar to Gettysburg, for more than a century Philadelphia Seminary’s student population was largely made up of young Caucasian Lutheran men preparing for ordained ministry. Two major events of the 1970’s radically changed its ethos—the Lutheran Church in America’s 1970 decision to ordain women; and the establishment of the Urban Theological Institute (UTI) in 1979. Offering evening and Saturday classes, the UTI quickly became a magnet for students of many denominations, including historic African American churches. Its founding and flourishing over four decades has enabled the Philadelphia campus to be one of the most ecumenical and racially and culturally diverse among North American seminaries. Building strong partnerships with local parishes, and the Episcopal Diocese of Pennsylvania, LTSP is recognized as a prophetic voice in its neighborhood and citywide. The annual Preaching with Power series features prominent African American preachers from throughout the country.
Over the course of the past century, there have been numerous attempts to reconfigure Lutheran theological education in the northeastern United States. At various points along the way, national church bodies attempted to merge Gettysburg and Philadelphia, which since the early 20th century were both member schools of the same Lutheran church bodies. The most promising era for unification occurred in the 1960’s, when Donald Heiges served as president of both for a seven-year period referred to as “the joint administration.” While coming close at several junctures, however, one or both schools’ boards always drew back, with decisions to expand collaboration but continue to function independently. In the mid-1990’s, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America formed geographical clusters of its seminaries. Together with the Lutheran Theological Southern Seminary (LTSS), Gettysburg and Philadelphia formed the Eastern Cluster of Lutheran Seminaries. Eventually, LTSS affiliated with Lenoir Rhyne University, and in January 2016, the boards of Gettysburg and Philadelphia determined to explore the feasibility of full institutional consolidation.
Some may ask, “So what was different this time from all previous attempts to bring the two Pennsylvania seminaries under one umbrella?” To be sure, there were some “push-factors.” Key among them were economic realities and changing enrollment patterns. But beyond that, leaders of both schools felt a “pull” into the future, believing that by joining forces new approaches to theological education and leadership formation could be marshalled. From the outset, the goal was “more than a merger.” The “more” involves a robust scholarship effort to reduce costs to students, innovative pedagogical approaches (inter-disciplinary, competency-based, praxis-oriented), and challenging students to experience the richly diverse contexts in historic Gettysburg and urban Philadelphia. As they contemplated this bold move, the boards were fortified by statements from the ELCA’s Conference of Bishops, encouraging seminaries to capture a time of kairos (God’s time) in which dramatic moves may be required.
Beyond its intrinsic value, which the new school’s leaders are convinced will enhance the already-strong offerings on both campuses, the move to unite bears strong Christian witness at this juncture in history, when so many forces of disunity and polarization surround us. Our prayer is that both practically and prophetically, becoming the United Lutheran Seminary offers faithful and courageous witness that might ripple out broadly into the church and the world. And those who constitute its faculty, staff and student body in its early years will truly be making history!