COLUMBIA THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY EXISTS TO EDUCATE AND NURTURE FAITHFUL, IMAGINATIVE, AND EFFECTIVE LEADERS FOR THE SAKE OF THE CHURCH AND THE WORLD.
COLUMBIA THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY IS AN EDUCATIONAL INSTITUTION OF THE PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH (U.S.A.) AND A COMMUNITY OF THEOLOGICAL INQUIRY, LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT, AND FORMATION FOR MINISTRY IN THE SERVICE OF THE CHURCH OF JESUS CHRIST.
Founded in 1828 in Lexington, GA by a regional group of Presbyterian pastors, Columbia Theological Seminary was created to train people for leadership in the Church of Jesus Christ. The seminary has nurtured, and has been nurtured by, the southern Presbyterians up through its present affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). In 1830, Columbia, SC became the first location of the seminary.
Columbia Seminary has been the focal point for the many important cultural shifts with which the South and the wider Church have wrestled historically. Forty years before the “Scopes Monkey Trial,” Columbia Seminary became the center of the debate over the theory of evolution in what was then the Presbyterian Church in the United States during the 1880s. James Woodrow, an uncle of President Woodrow Wilson and the first Perkins Professor of Natural Science, aligned himself with evolution touching off a controversy throughout the denomination.
Much of the South, including Columbia, SC, was decimated by the Civil War and slow to recover. In the 1920s, Atlanta, GA was becoming a commercial and industrial center, with growing cultural and educational opportunities. The school, retaining its name as Columbia Theological Seminary, accepted the support of significant benefactors and moved in 1925 to its present location, a fifty-seven acre tract in Decatur, GA. This land was donated by the Scott family, who earlier supported the founding of Agnes Scott College.
The future of the newly transitioned institution was still uncertain at this time. The leadership of a young and energetic president, Dr. J. McDowell Richards, brought substantial growth and eventual stability through almost four decades starting in 1932.
One notable alumnus from the early years of the seminary’s Decatur location was Peter Marshall, pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church in Washington, DC and twice appointed as Chaplain of the United States Senate. He is remembered popularly from the success of A Man Called Peter (1951), a biography written by his widow, Catherine Marshall, and the 1955 film adaptation by the same name, nominated for an Academy Award for its cinematography.
The lives of some alumni illustrate the challenges and triumphs of their times. In By the Rivers of Water: A Nineteenth-Century Atlantic Odyssey, author and professor emeritus Erskine Clarke details the work of alumnus Leighton Wilson. He and his wife Jane were influential missionaries in West Africa who freed slaves inherited from their family and fought the international slave trade and the imperialism of colonization. Later alumnus and former Trustee Phil Noble was involved in the civil rights movement during Gov. George Wallace’s tenure as Alabama governor. FBI files indicate he was a top target of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan.
Similar challenges were faced by women who emerged as leaders in more recent decades. Alumna Joan Gray was Moderator of the 217th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). She was one of the first students at Columbia Seminary to study under Dr. Catherine Gunsalus Gonzalez, the first woman to serve as full-time faculty.
In the 1990’s, Columbia Theological Seminary received a substantial estate gift, providing the seminary with the capacity to move from a regionally-focused school to a seminary with national and international reputation. Then-President Doug Oldenburg used the opportunity to develop long-term goals for increased diversity and world-class scholarship. In the 25 years that followed, five professors were named Henry Luce III Fellows in Theology including Dr. Walter Brueggemann (’94-’95), Dr. Kathleen O’Connor (’04-’05), Dr. William Brown (’07-’08), Dr. Christine Roy Yoder (’14-’15), and Dr. Marcia Riggs (’17-’18). The growth of the seminary has included an increase in the presence of women, persons of color, representatives of other denominations, and international scholars on the faculty. Similar changes have occurred throughout the staff and student body.
Today, Columbia Theological Seminary continues to make an impact placing pastors and Christian educators in some of the largest Presbyterian churches in the United States and in global contexts. Starting in 2020, the seminary will offer a new fully online MATS degree, which will further revolutionize its ability to train women and men for ministry in God’s changing world.
16 Countries represented by faculty and students
37 Denominations and religious traditions represented
350 Students from 27 states including communities of all sizes